"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, February 3, 2017

Italians Then, Hispanics Now: Perception Vs. Reality, Yet Again?

In my First Friday post in October of last year, I published the first of a series about ethnicity and immigration, focusing as always on my subject towns along Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River.  Much of the inspiration for this came from my friend Hank Cisco, the Ambassador of Norristown.  He is a man with an amazing memory, and among the many memories he related to me were those of the suffering and discrimination Italians faced in Norristown, Pa. in the early years of this century.  In this, Norristown was hardly unique; in fact it demonstrated yet again why the town, its people and its history, are so very evocative of American history in general.

Just recently, Hank inspired me again, with a Facebook post on his timeline.  It contains a meme with a photo of Italian immigrants waving small American flags, and the following text:

“Legal Italian immigrants didn’t wave Italian flags coming into America.  They didn’t riot and try to stop the election process.  They didn’t try to make America speak Italian.  They learned English.”

The comments on this post contained several references to immigrant ancestors, and how hard they worked to earn a place in the American Dream.  Both Hank and his commentators speak for the way things actually were.  Italian immigrants—not to mention others, including Jews from many countries—lived honest, hard-working and law-abiding lives. These people did arrive, go to work—at whatever was offered—and quietly build lives for themselves and their children.  This was the reality. 

But as I pointed out in my first post, the public perception of Italians was something quite different from the day-to-day reality.  As early as 1891, before there actually very many Italians in America, eleven of them were lynched in New Orleans, by a mob that included several local prominent citizens, because they believed these strangers had murdered the Police Chief.  The lynching took place the day after a trial had acquitted them, because the mob believed the jury had been bought.  And this was early in the story.  By the 1920s, as I quoted popular author Bill Bryson, “Wherever problems arose, Italians seemed to be at the heart of things.  The widespread perception of Italians was that if they weren’t Fascists or Bolsheviks, they were anarchists or Communists, and if they weren’t those, they were involved in organized crime.”

In other words, in the early decades of the 20th century, there was a substantial gap between the perception of Italians and the far more mundane reality.  But many years have passed, and Italians have now entered the American body politic in both reality and perception.  That perception is now more congruent with reality, recognizing that excepting the bad element that exists within every such group, the vast majority of Italian immigrants—and the others—lived just as Hank and the post’s contributors pointed out.

Why was there such a gap between the perception and the reality of Italian immigrants to the U.S.?  There is always a gap between perception and reality, on pretty much any major subject.  Still, claiming Italian immigrants were either Fascists, Communists, Anarchists or criminals clearly had no basis in reality. That is the truth that Hank and his respondents make clear in that Facebook post.  Yet, it was what people believed.

The answer to the question “why did people believe that?” is complicated, but a shorthand version isn’t:  people always have been, are now and always will be suspicious of anyone that is “different.”  Such people possess what Brett Harte referred to as “the defective moral quality of being a stranger.”  It’s always been about different languages and customs, but in America, how light their skin was has had a lot to do with it.  I wrote in an earlier post about how the predominance of darker skinned Italians from Sicily played a part in generating hatred, although they are pretty much accepted as white by now.

Norristown was the scene of such ethnic hatred and distrust, and that unpleasant scenario played out over a very long time.  Rank discrimination against Italians was the norm until after the mid-20th century, and lingering resentment of their growing influence fueled the bruising political battles among ethnicity-based Borough Councilmen that contributed so greatly to Norristown’s decline in the century’s second half. 

And it lasted longer than you might think; indeed, I’m not sure it is entirely gone today.  I remember a conversation I had about twenty years ago with a friend who was also a politician/officeholder in the Norristown area at the time (I’m not going to come any closer to identifying him).  He launched into a tirade against “the people who have always caused most of the trouble around here.”  When I asked who they were, he replied, “You know, the people whose last names end with a vowel.”  I suppressed a smile (he had clearly forgotten how my last name is spelled) and I realized he was talking about Italians.  

That’s anti-Italian feeling lasting over one hundred years in the Norristown area, because I’m not sure he was alone in his opinion.  But by that time, anti-Hispanic feeling was growing, spurred by the growth of the town’s Hispanic population, and Italian Americans were part of it.  The current anti-immigrant attitude is now bolstered by the “illegal immigrant” argument first created as a reaction to Italians.  The irony just keeps coming. 

And here we are today, amidst a considerable negative reaction to the latest group of (largely) dark, swarthy immigrants.  I have been trained to look at subjects like this; it’s a professional thing.  That’s why I ask whether the enormous gap between perception and reality that Italians and other ethnic immigrants endured in the early years of their arrival might also exist today in regard to Hispanics.  As I wrote in my first post, “could Hispanics today—and perceptions of them—be playing a role similar to that of the Italians back then?”  Fortunately, that role no longer includes being lynched, but the attacks against Hispanics (not to mention those against Middle East refugees) clearly echo what Italians had to suffer for decades.  Are today’s immigrants arriving only for the “free stuff,” with no desire to work?  Do they “riot and try to stop the election process”?  Or might the reality be quite different, as it was with Italians and so many other ethnicities?

Given the text of the meme Hank published, I feel it is safe to say that a perception/reality gap may exist today, one that may be as large as the one Italians suffered under for so long.  By now, it appears that Italians have migrated from one side of the gap to the other.  Does this help Norristown?