Friday, March 10, 2006

why aren't italian americans a disadvantaged group?

This weekend's season premiere of The Sopranos has attracted a great deal of media hype, but one group won't be enjoying it quite as much as the others. A number of Italian-American organizations have for years been waging a lonely campaign against the show for presenting a stereotypical and derogatory image of the group, which it by and large does, although that does not necessarily keep many Italians from watching it. One activist group even sued HBO, the show's producer, in Illinois for defamation although the suit was eventually dismissed.

Beyond the libel issue, The Sopranos controversy raises an interesting question: why haven't Italian-Americans ever quite succeeded (if that's the right word) in begin considered a legally or politically disadvantaged group, on the model of, say, African- , Hispanic- , or Asian-Americans and (at times) the Jewish or Islamic communities? There is a rather well-documented history of prejudice against Italians and other Catholic ethnic groups, the Irish being one obvious example, including a particularly infamous lynching in New Orleans early in the last century, and the group is pretty clearly underrepresented in the upper levels of higher education (although of course not on the Supreme Court). But Italian-Americans have never really qualified for much in the way of legal protection: I am aware of isolated instances, such as the inclusion of Italians on the list of disadvantaged groups at the City University of New York and a Yale Law Journal note suggesting the possibility of actions for group libel on their behalf, but no generic recognition of protected status on the model of comparable groups. Indeed members of the group, notably Justice Scalia, have been among the fiercest critics of affirmative action and similar programs.

Why does this situation persist, and what if anything does it tell us about the logic of protected status and its benefits and costs? Driving home from a conference on the image of Italian-Americans, held at a local university, I tried to list the possible reasons for the differential treatment. Here's what I came up with:

1. Italian-Americans are not as disadvantaged as African- , Hispanic-, or Asian-Americans, or as Jews or Muslims were (are) in Europe and in some cases here.

2. The discrimination against Italian-Americans, such as it is, is informal rather than formal in nature, and never had legal sanction in the manner of the Jim Crow laws or European antisemitic legislation; the lack of legal discrimination vitiates the need for a legal response.

3. The most common complaint by Italian-Americans has to do not with discrimination but with negative portrayal by the media, which cannot really be addressed without unacceptable free speech limitations. These stereotypes are in any event not entirely negative, as witness the popularity of Sopranos or Godfather logos among Italians themselves.

4. Italian-Americans prefer to think of themselves as members of the dominant culture and don't really want legal protection in the first place, as witness statements by Scalia and others mentioned above.

5. The divisions within the Italian-American community, including differences based upon geographic origin, date of arrival, and ethnic vs. cultural definitions of "Italian-ness," weaken the lobby for preferential treatment and sometimes make it difficult even to identify the group or its members.

6. Italian-Americans simply came along before it was fashionable to think of minority status as a positive benefit; by the time this changed, it was too late for them to benefit (see # 4 above).

Arguments 1, 2, and 3 are especially appealing because they purport to justify rather than merely explain the differences in treatment between (e.g.) Italian- and Hispanic- or Asian-Americans (African-Americans are such a unique case that it may be best to leave them aside for the moment). The problem is that none of these arguments is entirely convincing. Argument 1 (less discrimination) is I think unconvincing on the facts: although I have not conducted a systematic survey, I am willing to bet that there are proportionately fewer Italian-American than African- or Asian-American law professors, certainly if the historically Catholic universities are excluded from the count. Argument 2 (no legal discriminaton) is I think historically dubious, since there were established practices of excluding Irish, Italians, and others from various forms of occupation, and logically unpersuasive, since most discrimination against Asians and Hispanics has been social or economic rather than legal in nature and no one says that they should'nt qualify. The weakness of this argument is especially pronounced if diversity rather than compensation for past discriminaton is the policy goal. Argument 3 (negative stereotypes and free speech) is in a sense irrelevant, since the underrepresentation of the group could be addressed without free speech limitations, but I think also circular in nature, since it avoids the question of why negative images of Italians are plainly more acceptable than (say) equivalent images of Jews, Blacks, or other minorities. (I am not bothering to respond to the "Italians like Mafia movies" point since I don't think it is really a serious argument and the same could be said about Jews liking The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, or whatever; it just doesn't affect the persuasiveness of the case.)

That leaves #4, 5 and 6 which explain without really justifying the differences in treatment. #4 and # 6 (timing and politics) are pretty much self-explanatory although I think there is a variety of views among Italian-Americans that these simple syllogisms don't capture (Scalia and Alito are respected, but the major Italian-American groupings are politically neutral and have always sought good relationships with other minority organizations). #5 (the effect of divisions among Italian organizations) is particularly intriguing. At a recent conference on the image of Italian-Americans I was stunned by the number of different organizations handing out items in the entrance hall, from NIAF which is rather high-tone and Washington-based to organizations with regional or cultural bases many of them only marginally attuned to national issues. Because of the enormous crises that faced Jews, Blacks, and other groups they were forced to create at least some form of umbrella organizatons that spoke for the group on certain issues (the Holocaust experience was a vital if tragic lesson for Jews on this score). Italian-Americans, being more regionally divided and never having faced quite the level of immediate crisis (or not since 1945, anyway) have never really quite succeeded in unifying in this manner. For example the Sopranos protests, the efforts to secure affirmative action treatment, and similar issues have tended to be handled by ad hoc or local coalitions: there is no real sense that Italians generally speaking would boycott HBO or DreamWorks for producing works with anti-Italian themes, or that legislatures would sanction such organizations in the way they might for anti-Jewish or anti-Black prejudice.

I am obviously at an early stage of my thinking on this issue. A fuller analysis would involve much more research on the history of the Italian-American community and the public choice literature with respect to organizations and pressure groups. But the idea is intriguing: that protected or minority status may have as much to do with timing, marketing, and different political strategies as with any genuinely systematic evaluation of the social and historical situation of the group at issue. The diversity movement, which was part of a broader assault on indeterminate norms and "illegitimate hierachy" in education and elsewhere, may thus turn out to be both indeterminate and arguably illegitimate on its own terms. On the other hand, more people may be tempted to join it.


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