Italian-American stereotypes rank at top of U.S. bias list

March 24, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

DONA de Sanctis and I sat down in a quiet restaurant in northeast Washington and had a Catholic-on-Catholic discussion that started with a reference to that movie.

Well, it was almost Catholic-on-Catholic. De Sanctis said her family converted to the Episcopal faith when she was a teen-ager. I'm a Catholic who has promised to find his way to Mass before the next time Halley's comet appears. But both of us know what the Stations of the Cross are, and their relevance to Mel Gibson's disputed but profitable The Passion of the Christ.

"The Stations of the Cross as a movie," I said to de Sanctis. "Who woulda thunk, Dona?"

Gibson's movie, according to its critics, is nothing more than an updated Passion play, which in the past has inspired anti-Jewish pogroms in Europe. But there has never been an anti-Jewish pogrom in the United States. There have been several major anti-black ones, the most terrifying and deadly being the New York draft riot of 1863.

Jews can, however, point to Leo Frank, the Atlanta Jew who was lynched in Georgia in the 1910s after he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Italian-Americans - de Sanctis, as deputy director of the Order Sons of Italy of America, is among their number - can point to the 11 Italian-Americans lynched in New Orleans in 1891. That has been called the greatest mass lynching in the country's history. There is no larger one on record, though there is no official count of how many blacks were left hanging from New York lampposts in that nasty business back in 1863. De Sanctis said the 11 lynched in New Orleans were among 64 Italian immigrants lynched in the South.

De Sanctis wonders how folks can see anti-Semitism in The Passion of the Christ and miss the ruthless stereotyping of Italian-Americans that Hollywood does on a regular basis.

"This movie comes out, and all of sudden it can make people anti-Semitic," de Sanctis asked. "Is there a double standard?"

There's a classic "Is the pope Catholic?" question if ever there was one. The answer is "but of course," and most of us are guilty of it by feeding into the stereotype in one way or another. And I'll be more than happy to put you watchers of The Sopranos at the head of this list.

Our zeal for stereotyping Italian-Americans is like an addiction. We won't call it that, not even in this age when folks are running around saying you can get addicted to anything: chocolate, video games, sex, even Big Macs and fries. Everything, it seems, but the thing we're truly addicted to - the stereotype of the Italian-American as mobster.

"It's a relentless stereotype," said de Sanctis, who drives every weekday from her Bowie home to OSIA offices in northeast D.C. "I don't think the stereotype will ever end entirely because America is in love with the Mafia myth - the myth that the Mafia is entertaining. [Hollywood producers] have turned [Mafia gangsters] into heroes."

De Sanctis noted recent examples that show just how relentless the stereotyping is and how deeply the double standard runs. PBS did a documentary called The Medicis: Godfathers of the Renaissance. OSIA has taken director Steven Spielberg to task for producing Shark Tales, an animated film to be released this year that features "the Five Families" and shark and whale gangsters with Italian last names. Then there's HBO, with its fifth season of that Sopranos thing.

Spielberg and the folks at PBS and HBO can't help themselves, of course. We're talking about an addiction here, one these afflicted souls don't even know they have. Fortunately for them, neither de Sanctis nor OSIA is talking about censoring any of this stuff. Heaven forfend that Americans should abandon our most cherished stereotype.

"We've never said `Don't show them,'" de Sanctis said of the stereotypical movies and television shows. "What we are advocating is balance. The only time you see Italian-Americans on NYPD Blue and Law and Order is as the criminal."

De Sanctis would have us know that Italian-Americans are very prominent in law enforcement, thank you very much, including 40 percent, according to OSIA figures, of the New York Police Department. But de Sanctis said she has talked to Italian-American actors who have run up against a roadblock if they want to play one of the good guys.

"The actors say directors tell them they wouldn't be believable if they played honest roles because of their looks," de Sanctis lamented.

Imagine the outrage if that happened to a member of any other ethnic or racial group in America. But it happens to Italian-Americans.

That, de Sanctis said, "is the power of the stereotype."

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