Pride and Prejudice: Tony Soprano, Christopher Columbus and the Irony of Ethnic Stereotypes

Published as a ZNet Commentary, October 17, 2002

When two Italian American organizations criticized New York’s Mayor for inviting Sopranos cast members to march in the city’s Columbus Day parade — an annual occasion for demonstrations of Italian pride since Columbus was Genoese — I found myself initially sympathizing with their cause. After all, as these groups’ spokespersons pointed out, the Sopranos, despite its well-acted, well-written story lines, does indeed perpetuate a rather one-dimensional stereotype of Italians as undereducated, greasy, gold-chain wearing, badda-bing-badda-boom spouting hoodlums.

Over the years this image has been fostered by a plethora of mafia movies, and indeed a disproportionate share of Italian American characters portrayed in mass media have been gangsters. As with people of color, European “ethnics” as we sometimes call them, tend to be reduced to their least favorable denominators by screenwriters, who often seek to appeal to common and easily identifiable images, even if ultimately prejudicial.

Yet upon further reflection, the irony of the ethnic heritage groups’ concerns became apparent and choked off the feelings of solidarity to which I had initially gravitated. For while it is true that the Sopranos’ penchant for whacking their fictional enemies can serve to besmirch the good reputations of Italians as a group, the violence of this television family pales in comparison to the quite real and far more extensive slaughters of Columbus himself, whose victims don’t benefit from re-run residuals and aren’t likely to pop up on another program next season.

To argue that television mobsters give Italians a bad name while still cleaving to the legacy of a genocidal butcher like Columbus, who enslaved and murdered thousands of Taino Indians after his arrival in the Caribbean, indicates that for many in the Italian American community, life is less relevant than fiction. What’s that you say? Columbus cut off the hands of those Taino who failed to bring him sufficient amounts of gold, and then watched them bleed to death? As Tony Soprano might say, “Fuhgeddabadit.”

Truth is — and saying this is not anti-Italian in the least — Columbus was not a genius explorer (he thought he’d found India for God’s sake, and lost tons of the Spanish crown’s money with his escapades). Nor was he a believer in freedom, seeing as how he welcomed the forced conversion of Muslims in Spain and the expulsion of Jews from the country, which began shortly before he set sail on his first voyage, and which expulsions in part helped finance his adventures via the confiscation of Jewish wealth. Nor did he discover anything: no more so, at least, than I “discovered” the tree in my backyard this morning. And to say these things is not “political correctness,” but rather, historical correctness: inconvenient for those who feel a need to praise his legacy, but accurate nonetheless. As such, adding a couple of actors to the New York Columbus Day Parade could hardly do more to injure the reputation of Italians than is accomplished by the celebration itself.

Furthermore, even to the extent that shows like the Sopranos portray Italian Americans in a dim light, it does not appear that the resulting negativity has much of a social impact on the community in question; certainly nothing like the impact of negative stereotypes held towards people of color: a point worth making given the tendency of many European ethnics to respond to claims of anti-black racism with stories of their own victimization.

For example, last month, as the Sopranos was gearing up for the start of their new season, USA Today ran a very revealing headline story heralding the return of the series after a fifteen-month hiatus. Keeping in mind that this is a show about mobsters who kill people and the women who love them, I found it especially prescient that USA Today saw fit to proclaim — above pictures of stars James Gandolfini and Edie Falco — the following: “America’s family returns.” Praising “TV’s first family of mobsters,” the article quoted HBO President Chris Albrecht as saying that the show’s return was “really going to be like seeing old family members and friends that you’ve missed.” Of course we can rest assured that, in the words of reporter Gary Levin, “there will be corpses too.” Yet no amount of blood and guts or general criminal mischief should keep us from viewing these purveyors of violent mayhem as “America’s family.”

The extent to which America gravitates to and identifies with the Soprano family, despite their actions, is summed up beautifully by cast member Lorraine Bracco who plays Tony’s analyst, and who apparently credits the show for improving the mental health of the nation. According to Bracco: “When people see that Tony Soprano goes to therapy, I think a lot of people find that acceptable, instead of thinking that’s freaky or you have to be a psychopath.” Well, at least the murderous boss of this crime family isn’t a psychopath!

Now let’s be honest: can anyone envision HBO or any other television network deciding to produce a show about a black or Latino gang family, from South Central Los Angeles or West Philly? And if they did, would anyone perceive the family in question as “America’s family?” Perhaps a show based on Freeway Ricky Ross and his relatives or Monster Kody and his crew? Or maybe a Crips extravaganza, with the stories of three different gang families and their hilarious hijinks? Perhaps even have one of their “baby’s mamas” go to therapy, or reflexology, or call Miss Clio-hell, anything to show the lighter side of murder.

In the end, Italian criminals get to remain exciting, lovable and quintessentially American while criminals of color are viewed through a lens of pathology and contempt. This is why John Gotti was looked at like a sex symbol and treated as a hero by millions every time he beat a rap; it’s why Americans liked Don Corleone in ways they never would have a black or Latino criminal figure, even on film.

When it comes to black thugs, we don’t want to know about their family lives, we don’t glamorize their actions, and we sure as hell don’t create a line of food products inspired by their ethnic heritage: to wit the spin-off of several consumable items from the Sopranos, discussed by USA Today, such as Soprano’s marinara sauce, frozen pizza, ziti and balsamic vinegar. As David Chase, the show’s producer explains: “I hear all the time how people invite their friends over and make Italian food and watch the show.”

None of this is to deny the very real and painful prejudices and even mistreatment suffered by Italian Americans. As with the Irish and Jews from Russia, Italians were horribly discriminated against in the years following their arrival on these shores. They were subjected to bogus IQ tests intended to prove their lack of mental fitness; they were discriminated against in jobs and housing, and they have been burdened with the mobster stereotype for generations. But though all of that is true, it is also true that Italians, and not just the Sopranos, have been accepted into the American family much more dramatically and completely than blacks, or indigenous peoples, for example. Being of European descent, Italian Americans (as with the Irish and Jews) were able to “become white” via assimilation, and were aided in the process by the Naturalization Act of 1790, which granted citizenship in the U.S. to all “free white persons.” Indeed it was that ability to become instant citizens that prompted large-scale immigration of European ethnics in the 19th and 20th centuries in the first place: an early form of whites-only affirmative action if you will.

It’s also worth pointing out that the harshest mistreatment of Italians in the U.S. came when they forgot that they were supposed to be “white,” and instead made the mistake of being too close to African Americans. Though it is rarely mentioned, much of the anti-Italian bigotry stemmed from the sense among white elites that Italians, especially Sicilians, were too friendly with blacks, and too willing to associate with them in the workplace or socially. In New Orleans, for example, the Italian community was under siege in the late 1800s and early 1900s because they accepted work as farm laborers and in other occupations considered “black” by local elites, and because they worked around and lived with blacks. Italian Americans supported Republican and Populist candidates and were occasionally lynched for their political activities and fraternization with blacks. In 1891, the New York Times editorialized in support of the most famous lynching of Italians, for their alleged role in killing the New Orleans police chief, and warned other Italian Americans to fall in line or risk persecution.

The sad thing, of course, is that many Italians, like many Irish and Jews did just that: they fell in line, realized what side of the bread the butter was on, and chose whiteness over the solidarity they had previously felt with their black brothers and sisters. In so doing they got a provisional guest pass at the white club and were able to take advantage of the middle class opportunities that for the better part of the twentieth century remained off limits to people of color.

But in the process of obtaining their relative privilege as whites many Italians gave up something more precious: integrity. For something is surely wrong when the Irish-Italian parades in and around New Orleans invite someone like David Duke to march alongside them, as they did repeatedly throughout the 1990s. Here, after all, was a neo-Nazi who has said that Sicilians (who comprise the bulk of Italians in the Big Easy) were biologically inferior to Northern Italians. Yet there he was–a guest of honor, applauded because he promised to get tough with the moulan yan, as Tony Soprano might also say.

So while the folks protesting mob stereotypes of Italians most certainly have a point, so long as they continue to revere Columbus and let Nazis march with them, the Sopranos will remain one of their lesser problems. Italian Americans have plenty to be proud of: both in terms of individual accomplishments and cultural solidarity. But their identification with whiteness and conquest and European supremacy is not among those things for which anyone should be grateful.

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