Anti-Italianism in the United States resulted among some Americans in reaction to the period of large-scale Italian immigration beginning in the last part of the 19th century. Prior to that time, Italians, who had lived in North America from the beginning of the 17th century, were respected craftsmen, musicians, soldiers, merchants, missionaries, educators, artists and architects.
The later immigrants, who came in large numbers during the period of mass immigration beginning in the last decade of the 19th century, often had a much different reception. They arrived with waves of numerous other immigrants, many from agrarian backgrounds. In United States, and other English-speaking countries to which they immigrated, such as Canada and Australia, the later Italian immigrants were often viewed as perpetual foreigners, restricted to manual labor. Their frequent lack of formal education, and competition with earlier immigrants for lower-paying jobs and housing often resulted in hostility toward them. Ethnocentric chauvinism exhibited by the earlier Northern European settlers toward the Italian immigrants was also a major factor, especially in the American South. In reaction to the large-scale immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Congress passed legislation (Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and Immigration Act of 1924) restricting immigration from those regions, but not from Northern European countries.
Anti-Italian prejudice was also associated with the anti-Catholic tradition that existed in the United States, inherited from Protestant/Catholic European competition and wars over centuries. When the United States was founded, it inherited the anti-Catholic, anti-papal animosity of its original Protestant settlers. Anti-Catholic sentiments in the U.S. reached a peak in the 19th century when the Protestant population became alarmed by the number of Catholics immigrating to the United States. This was due in part to the standard tensions that arise between native-born citizens and immigrants. The resulting anti-Catholic nativist movement, which achieved prominence in the 1840s, led to hostility that resulted in mob violence, including the burning of Catholic property. The Italian immigrants inherited this anti-Catholic hostility upon arrival; however, unlike some of the other Catholic immigrant groups, they generally did not bring with them priests and other religious who could help ease their transition into American life. To remedy this situation, Pope Leo XIII dispatched a contingent of priests, nuns and brothers of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo to the U.S. (among which was Sister Francesca Cabrini), who helped establish hundreds of parishes to serve the needs of the Italian communities.
Some of the early 20th-century immigrants from Italy brought with them a political disposition toward socialism and anarchism. This was a reaction to the economic and political conditions they experienced in Italy. Arturo Giovannitti, Carlo Tresca, Joe Ettor and other Italian Americans were in the forefront of organizing Italian and other immigrant laborers in demanding better working conditions and shorter working hours in the mining, textile, garment, construction and other industries. These efforts often resulted in strikes, which sometimes erupted into violence between the strikers and strike-breakers. The anarchy movement in the United States at that time was responsible for bombings in major cities, and attacks on officials and law enforcement. As a result of the association of some with the labor and anarchy movements, Italian Americans were branded as labor agitators and radicals by many of the business owners and the wealthier class of the time, which resulted in anti-Italian sentiments.
The vast majority of Italian immigrants worked hard and lived honest lives, as documented by police statistics of the early 20th century in Boston and New York City, which show that Italian immigrants had an arrest rate no greater than that of other major immigrant groups. Indeed, as late as 1963 James W. Vander Zander pointed out that the rate of criminal convictions among Italian immigrants was less than that among American-born whites. A criminal element active in some of the Italian immigrant communities of the large eastern cities used extortion, intimidation and threats to extract protection money from the wealthier immigrants and shop owners (known as the Black Hand racket), and was involved in other illegal activities as well. When the Fascists came to power in Italy, they made the destruction of the Mafia in Sicily a high priority. Hundreds fled to the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s to avoid prosecution.
When the United States enacted Prohibition in 1920, the restrictions proved to be an economic windfall for those in the Italian-American community already involved in illegal activities, and those who had fled from Sicily. They smuggled liquor into the country, wholesaled and sold it through a network of outlets and speakeasies. While other ethnic groups were also deeply involved in these illegal bootlegging activities, and the associated violence between groups, Italian Americans were among the most notorious. Because of this, Italians became associated with the prototypical gangster in the minds of many, which had a long-lasting effect on the Italian-American image.
The experiences of Italian immigrants in North American countries were notably different from that in the South American countries to which they also immigrated in large numbers. Italians were key to developing countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, and quickly rose into the middle and upper classes there. In the U.S., Italian Americans initially encountered an established Protestant-majority Northern European culture. For a time, they were viewed mainly as construction and industrial workers, chefs, plumbers, or other blue collar workers. Like the Irish before them, many entered police and fire departments of major cities. Increasingly, their children went to college and, by 1990, more than 65% of Italian Americans were managerial, professional, or white collar workers.
After the American Civil War, during the labor shortage as the South converted to free labor, planters in southern states recruited Italians to come to the United States to work mainly in agriculture and as laborers. Many soon found themselves the victims of prejudice, economic exploitation, and sometimes violence. Italian stereotypes abounded during this period as a means of justifying this maltreatment of the immigrants. The plight of the Italian immigrant agricultural workers in Mississippi was so serious that the Italian embassy became involved in investigating their mistreatment. Later waves of Italian immigrants inherited these same virulent forms of discrimination and stereotyping which, by then, had become ingrained in the American consciousness.
One of the largest mass lynchings in American history was of eleven Italians in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1891. The city had been the destination for numerous Italian immigrants. Nineteen Italians who were thought to have assassinated police chief David Hennessy were arrested and held in the Parish Prison. Nine were tried, resulting in six acquittals and three mistrials. The next day, a mob stormed the prison and killed eleven men, none of whom had been convicted, and some of whom had not been tried. Afterward, the police arrested hundreds of Italian immigrants, on the false pretext that they were all criminals. Teddy Roosevelt, not yet president, famously said the lynching was indeed "a rather good thing". John M. Parker, who helped organize the lynch mob, and in 1911 went on to become governor of Louisiana, said of Italians that they were "just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in their habits, lawless, and treacherous".
In 1899, in Tallulah, Louisiana, three Italian-American shopkeepers were lynched because they had given equal status in their shops to blacks. A vigilante mob hanged five Italian Americans: the three shopkeepers and two bystanders.
In 1920 two Italian immigrants, Sacco and Vanzetti, were tried for robbery and murder in Boston, Massachusetts. Many historians agree that Sacco and Vanzetti were subjected to a mishandled trial, and the judge, jury, and prosecution were biased against them because of their anarchist political views and Italian immigrant status. Despite worldwide protests, Sacco and Vanzetti were eventually executed. Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis declared August 23, 1977, the 50th anniversary of their execution, as Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day. His proclamation, issued in English and Italian, stated that Sacco and Vanzetti had been unfairly tried and convicted and that "any disgrace should be forever removed from their names." He did not pardon them, because that would imply they were guilty.
Anti-Italianism was part of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic ideology of the revived Ku Klux Klan (KKK) after 1915; the white supremacist and nativist group targeted Italians and other foreign Roman Catholics, seeking to preserve the supposed dominance of Anglo-Saxon Protestants. During the early 20th century, the KKK became active in northern and midwestern cities, where social change had been rapid due to immigration and industrialization, and was not limited to the South. It reached a peak of membership and influence in 1925. A hotbed of anti-Italian KKK activity developed in Southern New Jersey in the mid-1920s. In 1933, there was a mass protest against Italian immigrants in Vineland, New Jersey, where Italians made up 20% of the city population. The KKK eventually lost all of its power in Vineland, and left the city.
Italian Americans in contemporary U.S. society have actively objected to pervasive negative stereotyping in the mass media. The stereotype of Italian-Americans is the standardized mental image which has been fostered by the entertainment media and movies, especially movies such as The Godfather, GoodFellas and Casino, and TV programs such as The Sopranos which have perpetuated the idea of Italian gangsters. This follows a known pattern of the mass media creating universally recognized, and sometimes accepted, stereotypes. Such stereotypes of Italian Americans are reinforced by the frequent replay of these movies and series on cable and network TV. Even video and board games with Mafia themes, and TV and radio commercials using these same themes, reinforce the idea.
After the early decades of the 20th century, poignant melodramas of destitution and misfortune gave way to a combination of muted "otherness" and grossly stereotypical characterizations. Italian Americans have increasingly objected to such negative stereotyping, as was the case in the TV series The Sopranos. Other Italian Americans feel that such shows are problematic only if they feature the Mafia as a common or accepted part of Italian American life. The entertainment media have stereotyped the Italian American community as tolerant of violent, sociopathic gangsters. Other stereotypes portray Italian Americans as overly aggressive and prone to violence. MTV's series, Jersey Shore, which is considered by many to be very offensive, portrays Italian American men as ultra-macho types of low intelligence, and Italian American women as promiscuous.
A comprehensive study of Italian-American culture on film, conducted from 1996 to 2001, by the Italic Institute of America, revealed the extent of stereotyping in media. More than two thirds of the 2,000 films assessed in the study portray Italian Americans in a negative light. Nearly 300 films featuring Italian Americans as criminals have been produced since The Godfather (1972), an average of nine per year. According to the Italic Institute of America:The mass media has consistently ignored five centuries of Italian American history, and has elevated what was never more than a minute subculture to the dominant Italian American culture.
In actuality, according to recent FBI statistics, Italian American organized crime members and associates number approximately 3,000; and, given an Italian American population estimated to be approximately 18 million, the study concludes that only one in 6,000 has any involvement with organized crime.
After Benito Mussolini's alliance with Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, there was a growing hostility toward everything Italian in the United Kingdom.
The British media ridiculed the Italian capacity to fight in a war. A comic strip, which began running in 1938 in the British comic The Beano, was entitled "Musso the Wop". The strip featured Mussolini as an arrogant buffoon.
Wigs on the Green was a novel by Nancy Mitford, first published in 1935. It was a merciless satire of British Fascism and the Italians living in the United Kingdom who supported it. The book is notable for lampooning the political enthusiasms of Mitford's sister Diana Mosley, and her links with some Italians in Great Britain who promoted the British Union of Fascists of Oswald Mosley.
Furthermore, the announcement of Benito Mussolini’s decision to side with Adolf Hitler’s Germany in spring 1940 had a devastating effect. By order of UK Parliament all "aliens" were to be interned, although there were few active fascists. The majority of the Italians in Great Britain had lived in this country peacefully for many years, and had even fought side by side with British soldiers in the First World War. Some had married British women and even taken British citizenship.
This anti-Italian feeling led to a night of nationwide riots against the Italian communities on June 1940. The Italians were now seen as a national security threat linked to the feared British fascism movement, and Winston Churchill instructed “collar the lot!”. All Italian men between the ages of 17 and 60 were arrested after his speech. They were transported to camps across the country.
During World War II, the United States and Great Britain treated Italian alien nationals in their countries as potential enemies. Hundreds of Italian citizens who were believed to be loyal to Italy were put in internment camps in the U.S. and Canada. Thousands more Italian citizens in the U.S., suspected of loyalty to Italy, were placed under surveillance. Joe DiMaggio's father, who lived in San Francisco, had his boat and house confiscated. Unlike Japanese Americans, Italian Americans and Italian Canadians never received reparations from their respective governments, but President Bill Clinton made a public declaration admitting the U.S. government's misjudgement in the internment.
Because of Benito Mussolini's conquest of Ethiopia and Italy's alliance with Nazi Germany, in the United Kingdom popular feeling developed against all the Italians in the country. A tragic consequence of this is the sinking of the steamship SS Arandora Star on 2 July 1940, that resulted in the death of 446 British-Italians being deported as enemy aliens.
During and after World War II, much British propaganda was directed against Italian military performance, usually expressing a stereotype of the "incompetent Italian soldier". Historians have documented that the Italian Army suffered defeats due to its being poorly prepared for major combat as a result of Mussolini's refusal to heed warnings by Italian Army commanders. Objective World War II accounts show that, despite having to rely in many cases on outdated weapons, Italian troops frequently fought with great valor and distinction, especially well trained and equipped units such as the Bersaglieri, Folgore and Alpini.
The German soldier has impressed the world, however the Italian Bersagliere soldier has impressed the German soldier.
Bias includes both implicit assumptions, evident in Knox's title The Sources of Italy's Defeat in 1940: Bluff or Institutionalized Incompetence?, and the selective use of sources. Also see Sullivan's The Italian Armed Forces. Sims, in The Fighter Pilot, ignored the Italians, while D'Este in World War II in the Mediterranean shaped his reader's image of Italians by citing a German comment that Italy's surrender was "the basest treachery" and by discussing Allied and German commanders but ignoring Messe, who commanded the Italian First Army, which held off both the U.S. Second Corps and the British Eighth Army in Tunisia.
In his article, Anglo-American Bias and the Italo-Greek War (1994), Sadkovich writes: "Knox and other Anglo-American historians have not only selectively used Italian sources, they have gleaned negative observations and racist slurs and comments from British, American, and German sources and then presented them as objective depictions of Italian political and military leaders, a game that if played in reverse would yield some interesting results regarding German, American, and British competence".
Sadkovich also states that "such a fixation on Germany and such denigrations of Italians not only distort analysis, they also reinforce the misunderstandings and myths that have grown up around the Greek theater and allow historians to lament and debate the impact of the Italo-Greek conflict on the British and German war efforts, yet dismiss as unimportant its impact on the Italian war effort. Because Anglo-American authors start from the assumption that Italy's war effort was secondary in importance to that of Germany, they implicitly, if unconsciously, deny even the possibility of a 'parallel war' long before Italian setbacks in late 1940, because they define Italian policy as subordinate to German from the very beginning of the war. Alan Levine even goes most authors one better by dismissing the whole Mediterranean theater as irrelevant, but only after duly scolding Mussolini for 'his imbecilic attack on Greece'."
Former Italian communities once thrived in Italy's African colonies of Eritrea, Somalia and Libya, and in the areas at the borders of the Kingdom of Italy. In the aftermath of the end of imperial colonies and other political changes, many ethnic Italians were violently expelled from these areas, or left under threat of violence.
Libya and Yugoslavia have shown high levels of anti-Italianism since WWII, as illustrated by the following manifestations:Libya. During the years of administering Libya as an Italian colony, some 150,000 Italians settled there, constituting about 18% of the total population. During the rise of independence movements, hostility increased against colonists. All of Libya's remaining ethnic Italians were expelled from Libya in 1970, a year after Muammar al-Gaddafi seized power (a "day of vengeance" on 7 October 1970).
Yugoslavia. At the end of World War II, former Italian territories in Istria and Dalmatia became part of Yugoslavia by the Treaty of Peace with Italy, 1947. Economic insecurity, ethnic hatred and the international political context that eventually led to the Iron Curtain resulted in up to 350,000 people, nearly all ethnic Italians, choosing to leave the region. Scholars such as R. J. Rummel note that the number of Dalmatian Italians has dropped from 45,000 in 1848, when they comprised nearly 20% of the total Dalmatian population under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to 300 in modern times, related to democide and ethnic cleansing.
National organizations which have been active in combatting media stereotyping and defamation of Italian Americans are: Order Sons of Italy in America, Unico National, National Italian American Foundation and the Italic Institute of America. Four Internet-based organizations are: Annotico Report, the Italian-American Discussion Network, ItalianAware and the Italian American One Voice Coalition.