Paisans, it has been quite a week. On Saturday, The New York Times published a brilliant feature in its normally abhorrent  Opinion  section  titled “How Italians Became White.” In it, Brent Staples undertook a historical survey of the violent oppression Italian-Americans faced dating back to the 19th century, as well as the assimilationist policies which helped their descendants transcend a marginalized existence. Timed to coincide with Columbus Day Weekend, the piece contextualized the objectively fraught holiday for its role in the advancement of Italian-American civil rights.
“The story of how Italian immigrants went from racialized pariah status in the 19th century to white Americans in good standing in the 20th offers a window onto the alchemy through which race is constructed in the United States, and how racial hierarchies can sometimes change,” Staples wrote. He analyzed segregation and hate speech directed at Italian-Americans from public institutions and the mainstream press, and how President Benjamin Harrison’s recognition of Columbus Day in 1892 — under pressure from the Italian government following a mass lynching in New Orleans — “opened the door for Italian-Americans to write themselves into the American origin story.”
On Tuesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, son of the state’s former governor Mario, went on WABC-FM, said the phrase “n——r wops” unprompted in an apparent attempt to delegitimize the Times, and then doubled down with an imbecilic tangent about ethnic slurs he’d endured during his childhood. (New York’s Intelligencer poignantly notes that not only was Cuomo’s rant a flailing deflection from host Alan Chartock’s question about delayed Medicaid payments, but Cuomo’s assertion that the Times mischaracterized Italian-American hate speech was in fact related to an alleged episode involving The Times Union, an Albany newspaper completely unaffiliated with The New York Times.)
Readers may recall that Gov. Cuomo’s younger brother Chris, a CNN anchor, was recently filmed accosting a civilian who’d greeted him as “Fredo,” a reference to the dimwitted middle Corleone son who’s excluded from the family business in The Godfather; Chris asserted that Fredo is “like the n-word for us Italian-Americans.” (In related news: I’ve called the ACLU on the stranger who addressed me as “Joey Tribbiani” at Shoprite last weekend.)
Those Cuomo boys sure love to parade around their marginalized self-identity! Yet many outside the tri-state area seem flummoxed as to just how marginalized the Cuomos and their brethren are in 2019. In June, some idiots on Twitter debated whether Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, whose mother was born in Campobasso, Italy, qualified as a woman of color — and whether her ethnicity put her on equal ground with “The Squad” of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley. Clearly Pelosi, a bazillionaire whose father was a U.S. congressman, cannot claim persecution on the level of the four freshman congresswomen. But just how subjugated is the modern Italian-American identity, and why are people like the Brothers Cuomo so eager to call foul?
During my most recent bout of career anxiety, a well-meaning friend alerted me to the fact that, were I to apply to any of the City University of New York’s competitive graduate programs, I would be granted the admissions status of a “most protected” minority given my heritage. My response was: What the fuck! The college-focused publication Minding the Campus notes that CUNY recognizes Italian-Americans as the largest “ethnic minority” in New York State — a weird hill to die on given that, as Staples noted in the Times, Italian-Americans have been federally classified as white for nearly a century, and the Immigration and Naturalization Act lifted race-based quotas which had affected immigrants in 1965.
Privilege isn’t binary, and civil rights don’t advance in unison. To grant me affirmative action preference akin to an applicant whose great-grandparents were born into American slavery would be disingenuous. My genetic forebears weren’t driven from their North American tribal homelands, and no bakery will ever deny me service due to my sexual orientation. The flattening of hate speech — the conflation of a supporting character from a Coppola film with literally the n-word — equates the suffering of all Americans who can’t trace a direct lineage to Mayflower passengers. I can’t ask for exceptions to accommodate systemic disfavor; if someone were to identify me as an Italian-American for my name, coloring, or features, that person would be unlikely to make significant assumptions about my character, competence, or upbringing.
This was not the case for my grandparents, who grew up alongside fellow first- and second-generation Italian-Americans in tenements and were called wops (an acronym for “without papers”; one may safely assume that Andrew Cuomo, scion of New York’s greatest political dynasty since the friggin’ Rockefellers, has never been mistaken for an illegal immigrant), guineas, and God knows what else. They lived kitty-corner to blocks occupied by those with similar immigration timelines, and Italians who survived active duty in World War II leveraged the G.I. Bill to infiltrate America’s middle class.
I say all of this to also say that while I’m deeply proud and in awe of their experience, I can barely relate to it. Although I grew up surrounded by Italian-Americans in an outer suburb of New York City, our heritage wasn’t an appreciable obstacle to college education or homeownership for my folks or their peers, many of whom worked in law, medicine, and finance. Italian-Americans underwent one of the swiftest assimilations of any twentieth-century immigrant group, owing to policies dating back to President Harrison’s Columbus Day decree and also to the fact that they more or less looked the part. I’ve never been called a slur except in the most absurdist jest, because by any applicable twenty-first century standard, I’m as white as they come. It’s not that I “pass,” it’s that I don’t even need to.
“President Harrison would have ignored the New Orleans carnage had the victims been black,” Staples wrote. In his 1891 State of the Union address, President Harrison implored Congress to protect foreign nationals from lynch mobs, but didn’t extend the plea to insulate African-Americans — an early instance of protections granted Italian-Americans outpacing those for African-Americans and Latin Americans. Italian-Americans have never even suffered the “model minority” dilemma of Asian-Americans, who face the steepest competition in race-based college admissions. Needless to say, African-Americans, Latin Americans, and Asian-Americans are rarely if ever classified as legally white.
As Vincent J. Cannato, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, noted in a 2015 Washington Post piece, the Immigration Act of 1924 reduced the year-over-year Italian immigration quota by more than 90 percent, resulting in the turnover of ethnic neighborhoods in major cities and accelerating Italian-Americans’ flight to the suburbs. At least 500,000 Italian-Americans served in the U.S. military during World War II after President Franklin D. Roosevelt reversed the designation of immigrants as “enemy aliens” on Columbus Day 1942. Integration into the armed forces facilitated subsidized college education, promoting upward mobility from insular communities into more affluent neighborhoods.
Gov. Cuomo, a mediocre politician and mediocre man, is the governor of New York because his father was the governor of New York. He and his brother Chris attended fancy schools and were lavished with eminent positions because of their family name — or, more charitably, because of the civil rights advancements Italian-Americans made long before they were born. They will never be pulled over because of their skin color, or choked to death for hawking loosie cigarettes, or executed for selling mixtapes to their neighbors. When Andrew goes before the press to belittle sexual assault survivors and Chris makes fun of non-binary gender pronouns during a nationally televised town hall, they do it with the impunity of rich, straight, white, male assholes. When the heckler called Chris “Fredo,” he wasn’t being derogatory toward Italian-Americans — he was, accurately, calling him a failson.
What practically defies belief is that the sons of Mario Fucking Cuomo would stoop to such cheap masquerading and cynical pandering. Mario Cuomo was a bona fide progressive who served three terms as New York’s governor, delivered the historic keynote speech at 1984’s Democratic National Convention, and was briefly considered a sure shot for the presidential nomination which ultimately went to Michael Dukakis. He was a civil rights champion who denounced the stereotyping of Italian-Americans as gangsters and thugs, yet remained dogged by specious mob ties throughout his public career and never sought higher office. Mainlining Italian-American respectability was among his lifelong projects. Andrew uses the same office to belittle the suffering of more marginalized groups and make claims of white-on-white bigotry against the wrong newspapers while espousing retrograde gender politics, and whose legacy will be defined by New York City’s crumbling subway.
Italian-American pride is hard-earned. I love the romantic Italian-American ideal of hardscrabble exceptionalism just as I love the romantic Italian ideals of artistic achievement and scientific discovery. I also live in a country in which identifiable minorities are detained at lethal internment camps and systematically executed by police, in which their rights to marry, adopt, and use the restrooms that suit them are perpetually under fire. The reason you can laugh at The Sopranos and Jersey Boys and Jersey Shore is because those stereotypes are effectively inconsequential; even Trump’s MAGA-ism is at worst agnostic regarding the civil rights of Italian-Americans. Whatever you want to call me or the stupid Cuomos, there’s no n-word for us.