President Trump’s tweets last week, telling four congresswomen to “go back” to the countries from they came while suggesting they had no right to criticize how the government is being run, awakened in me long buried memories from my youth.
My parents were first generation Italian-Americans. My grandparents, on both sides, had migrated from Sicily in the early part of the 20th century. All but one passed away when my parents were quite young.
My parents raised my sister and me in a small Connecticut city, Ansonia. The diminutive city was a popular settling place for immigrants due to its robust array of factories. As a result, Ansonia was the home of sizable Irish, Polish and Italian populations, spread throughout the city’s geography and church parishes.
At a very young age, my dad told me distressing stories of how he was told to “go home.” This was usually accompanied by derogatory shouts of “wop” or “guinea.” Naturally, he felt hurt by these slurs and resented being stereotyped. Like the targets of President Trump’s tweets, his home was America, specifically our small city in Connecticut. In response to the anti-Italian prejudice, my father decided to “Americanize” his family. He prohibited the use of garlic in our food (though my mom snuck it in without his knowledge) or the teaching of the Italian language in our home. Despite his efforts to downplay his Italian heritage, he was laughed at when he applied for membership in a local country club. Italian-Americans had never been admitted. That experience, coupled with other degradations, taught him the lesson, which he shared with my sister and me, that prejudice of any kind is unacceptable and un-American.
The anti-Italian bigotry my father experienced had actually been going on for decades, the more dramatic manifestations of which had made national news. One example was the lynching of five Italian immigrants in Louisiana in 1899. Similarly, in downtown New Orleans, in 1891, 11 Italian immigrants were lynched or shot to death. The prejudice that precipitated that, and other incidents, was supported by a New York Times editorial which read: “these sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigation.”
When my grandparents migrated here, documents were not needed, just a desire for a better life and a willingness to work hard to achieve it. Yet, the immigrant population, of which they were a part, was portrayed by the majority population as ignorant, insular, superstitious, lazy, and violent. Modern research has revealed that there was no basis of fact to support any of these prejudices.
Despite the truth, Italian immigrants in general faced a host of obstacles as they sought to assimilate into American society, including police brutality, and discrimination in housing and employment. Today, Italian Americans are for the most part firmly entrenched into American society on all levels. Yet, the lessons taught by decades of discrimination should never be forgotten. It is also important to keep in mind that as bad as my descendants had it, it pales in comparison to the suffering of Native Americans and African Americans.
In fact, looking back at our nation’s history, it’s been a real struggle for America to rid itself of the twin evils of prejudice and racial discrimination. On our journey towards a society of inclusion and mutual respect, it seems like we take two steps forward, then one step back. Why is it so difficult?
The truth is that prejudice and hate are easy emotions to cultivate and mine. On a political level, any half-skilled demagogue can, with the right words or slogans, tap into the darker side of our psyche. The real question is why would anyone want to? We live in a multicultural, ethnically diverse democracy. Our strength is in our diversity. Calling on a portion of our population to hate, rather than accept people who are different, inevitably signals a sad retreat from the progress we’ve made over the last 250 years.
When one part of society hates another, two things happen. Members in the non-marginalized group feel a sense of worth and superiority over the target group as well as a bonding cemented by a shared emotion, albeit a dark one. One example of this occurs during combat. It behooves the military to dehumanize the enemy by reducing them to subhuman status, often using racial slurs. This tactic brings the combatants a feeling of solidarity as well as insulating them against any feeling of empathy toward the enemy. Similarly, in politics, there are benefits bestowed on a leader who can harness the hate unearthed by racist rhetoric; namely, that leader gains unconditional and permanent devotees by convincing them that they are going up against a common, subversive, threatening and subhuman enemy.
A second recollection that these recent tweets conjured up was a discussion I had during my late teens with a close family friend. Our conversation revolved around our country’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which I strongly opposed. The family friend suggested, like President Trump, that any criticism of government policy was tantamount to treason. “My country, right or wrong,” he exhorted. I asked him if he believed in the values of free speech and the right of citizens to address their grievances, principles on which this country was founded. He said he liked those ideas in theory but added a rather heated “if you don’t like what’s going on, you can leave.” I assured him, I wasn’t going anywhere. Had I been wiser, I would have quoted James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Today, I am more convinced more than ever that we are at our best when we celebrate our vast diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. All Americans should appreciate the fact that it is in our interest to somehow, someway, make this democratic and demographic patchwork succeed. But that can only happen if we trust our better instincts.
My mother taught me a long time ago to respect everyone, without exception. There was no room for hate or vilification in her world. There is no room for it in today’s either.
I believe that the vast majority of Americans, like my mom, agree that everyone deserves respect, and for that, I’m truly grateful.