Italians in America: From Discrimination to Adoration (or almost)

The Early Struggles of Italians in America
Anti-Italian Cartoon of the 1880's


In today’s world, to be an Italian can be a very good thing: you dress well, live well and speak with a sexy accent (just ask Paolo). The world looks to Italy and Italians for their opinions on food, fashion, cars and whatever else is cool. Sadly however, there was a time, at least here in the United States, when newly-arrived Italians were treated worse than animals.

This is a glimpse into some of the struggles that Italians had to endure in their attempts to make a better life for themselves in America.


Sacco and Vanzetti (with Moustache) in handcuffs


Racial Discrimination


Today Italians, like all European peoples, are considered racially Caucasian or ‘white’, but that was not always the case. When Italian immigrants began arriving in the United States in the late 19th Century, they were met with racial prejudice. These people, mainly from Southern Italy, were physically darker than most of the arriving immigrants from Europe at the time and were treated harshly. News clippings from the late 19th century describe these Italian immigrants as a sub-human race and it was not uncommon for Italians to be hanged by mobs in the southern states and especially around the city of New Orleans.

The first waves of arriving Italians were seen as ‘clannish’ by the larger population, preferring to stick to their own kind rather than assimilate. But language and culture are hard stumbling blocks to overcome, especially in America’s quickly growing cities, where competition for jobs and living space was fierce. Their Catholic faith also put them at odds with Protestant America, and grouped them with the other marginalized groups like the Mexicans of the south and the Irish of the north. It was also easy for local law enforcement to pin crimes on men who did not know English, or their legal rights.


Italian anarchists Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were tried and executed in 1927 in what is a prime example of anti-Italianism. Due to the radical political views of these two Italian immigrants, they were put to death for a crime neither committed, despite alibis, evidence and even international public support. The trial is still studied today as a case study in civil liberties, as it is fairly obvious anti-Italian feelings were rampant among both the jury and judge.


This must see video plays the beautiful touching song from Joan Baez about Sacco and Vanzetti (Nicola and Bart), it also shows very interesting images from the era


The Struggle For Survival


Part of the reason the Italians were treated so badly was that they were seen as unintelligent, menial laborers. They were willing to work in deplorable conditions, especially on first arrival. Many of the first Italian fishermen of Gloucester, Massachusetts, settled there after years of doing nearly anything from working in rail yards and stables, to mining for gold in California. The determination of these first immigrants to support their families was apparently misunderstood as a slave or servant mentality. It is a theme that is still current today in America: the native residents accuse the immigrants of taking their jobs, underselling them by working longer hours for much lower wages. And apparently Italians have forgotten their history because this is also their attitude towards foreigner workers in Italy.

What observers at the time did not realize was that these industrious men and women were just starting out on the ground floor. This backbreaking and often degrading labor was just a stepping stone to acceptance and legitimacy within American society. The first generation suffered to make life easier for the generations to come.



Acceptance Into Society


While stereotypes about Italians and Italian-Americans still exist, the struggles eventually got easier for these first arrivals. The hard work paid off and eventually Italians started making themselves known in society, as well as contributing to America’s greatness. They became business owners and politicians, and eventually started moving out of the old “Little Italy” neighborhoods.


Rudolph Valentino - The Latin Lover


At the same time that Sacco and Vanzetti were undergoing a travesty of American justice, a young star of the silver screen was helping to reshape the image of Italians. The short-lived career of Rudolph Valentino helped introduce a new, more positive stereotype associated with Italians. Valentino introduced the ‘Latin lover’ persona to Hollywood: this image of the charismatic Italian male that is irresistible to women was certainly a step in the right direction. However, even Valentino faced discrimination and was once typecast as a gangster in his early career.

Discrimination against Italians was to see another wave during World War II, when thousands were sent to internment camps or were watched by the US Government. Many others had to carry special identification if they happened to work near sensitive areas, such as near naval bases or along waterfronts.

Once Italians gained a bit of legitimacy among the larger American population, the old derogatory and racial stereotypes disappeared. Italians were no longer dirty Neanderthals living in tenements. By the mid 20th century, Italians were firmly established in American pop culture: from music, to fashion, to cars. Even the sport of baseball, America’s pastime, had Joe DiMaggio as one of the best of all time.


Today even the bad stereotypes associated with Italians and Italian-Americans, such as the criminal element, reflect a touch of class. A century ago, Italian mobsters were portrayed as filthy monsters lurking in the shadows. Today, with movies like Goodfellas and popular TV shows like the Sopranos, it is sometimes hard not to like the bad guys. Now, the filthy monsters drive the nicest cars, wear the most expensive suits and live in marble palaces!

Times and attitudes in the United States have changed, but it still seems that every group that arrives has to ‘run the gauntlet’ at first and prove itself, even today. Italians have not come to the United States in large numbers since the 1950’s, but those that do certainly have a much easier cultural transition. Stereotypes and bad jokes aside, Italians today are fully appreciated for all their contributions to American society, both past and present.



By Justin Demetri




Sources For More Information



Anti-Italianism at Wikipedia 

Italian American Internment

Mangione, Jerre, Ben Morreale:  La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian-American Experience, Harper-Collins, New York, 1993

Sacco and Vanzetti at Wikipedia



Saturday, October 01TH, 2011 by Guest

"Stereotypes and bad jokes aside, Italians today are fully appreciated for all their contributions to American society, both past and present." Yeah, but there's still a whole lot of racism against Italians, just look at how American TV usually portrays them ("Jersey Shore" is only one out of a tons of examples). The funny thing is that not many people seem to care. I suspect that if that happened to other peoples, it would be seen as scandalously unfair and terribly racist but since it's about Italians, it seems to be just fine.

Thursday, March 08TH, 2012 by Guest

I'm not 100% Italian but my mother's father is Italian and the mother of my mother had some Italian ancestry. I have noticed there is some sort of racism against Italians, but most people don't really see it because most consider Italians white too. 

Sunday, June 03TH, 2012 by Guest

It's a huge shame about how the italians were treated.The whites ought to be ashame of themselves discriminating others because they're different.No one can help what they are. No one. Period.And it's got to stop.Italians are very nice people.

Friday, June 08TH, 2012 by Guest

I think it is a shame in discussing Italians and race this article makes little reference to the modes of dissociating Italians and other European groups used to gain their "whiteness," specifically in fueling racial discrimination against Black Americans. This shameful practice led to a cultural acception of discrimination and hatred that still persists even today, well ingrained into the hypocritical notions of our elders. They encouraged greater discrimination of Black Americans to distance themselves and to eliminate competition for sparse rural and urban jobs (depending on the period). They took the same empty reasonings of prejudice long used against them in Italy (southerners were treated even more poorly by Northern Italians than they were by these referenced Protestant Americans. In any event, I find it annoying and lazy when people speak of my heritage and do not express the full story. The "woe is me" stuff that my grandfather and father experienced is nothing compared to what their ilk were willing to dish out to "earn" their whiteness, and I think we should always own up to that. We're hardly victims anymore; maybe it's time our Italian-American brethren stop victimizing. Luckily, in many cases I've personally been exposed to, it seems this current generation that is in their 20s and 30s is bucking the notions of their parents and grandparents, even if it means famial banishment. But this page reeks of shameful silence. 

Tuesday, December 18TH, 2012 by Guest

Italians today are not fully appreciated in the US. I am 100% Italian and listening to people imitating my accent is painful, beside irritating.

Sunday, January 13TH, 2013 by Guest

Being of southern european descent in america today is irritating. I don't feel discriminated against, but I moved to the south where there are barely any southern euros and when people see my name they immediately ask me about jersey shore blah blah etc. It's more of a "boxing in" sort of thing. At least my last name isn't Portuguese or Spanish, some of my buddies get asked if they're mexican all the time. It's nothing to complain about really, i just did a google search on this and it was obviously much worth back in the day.

Wednesday, March 20TH, 2013 by Guest

The people in Jersey Shore act like that by choice-nobody forced them to be wild and immoral.

Thursday, May 09TH, 2013 by Guest

Says who? Italians are among the least respected people (especially in Europe)