|Discrimination Against Italian-Americans|
A window in the jail office shattered and glass shot across the room along with the brick that someone in the mob had thrown. The noise of the crowd seemed deafening until the smash of a battering ram against the prison doors rattled all inside to stammering terror. Several of the inmates converged in the small prison yard, moving aimlessly, bumping into each other, until they were accidentally huddled in the center.
The battering ram continued and with each slamming jolt the huddled group flinched, down to their marrow. With one final blow, the doors crashed open and the mob entered. After one volley, of rifle, pistol and shotgun, all nine of the huddled prisoners were spread on the ground, dead or dying. The wounded were quickly blasted with shotguns. The top of one of their heads was reportedly blown off resulting in laughter from some of the mob. In the cells, two other prisoners were found, one acting as if he was dead, the other just sitting, looking off into space with a blank stare. They were both shot dead.
It was the largest mass lynching in American history. Who were these prisoners, some of whose lifeless bodies were strung up in the streets of New Orleans and riddled by more gunshots? No, they were not African-Americans, they were Italian-Americans. The date was March 14, 1891.
The prisoners had been acquitted in a case of assassinating a police officer. They were to be released the next morning. The mob did not like the verdict. This is my characterization, based on historians' reports, of perhaps the most dramatic case of hatred toward Italian-Americans in our history, but it was not the only one. More than fifty lynchings of Italians have been documented in this country. In the nineteenth century hatred of Italian-Americans took on the fear that they represented a large criminal organization. Ethnographers were writing that the concept of mafia was “a way of being” for Italians, and Sicilians in particular. This same “way of being” today is perpetuated in the media: entertainment and news.
My own son, James Sutherland, a music producer in Atlanta, is one of those Italian-Americans without an Italian surname, who resents the image portrayed in the media. His maternal grandfather is Carmine Figlilio, a now retired trust banker, who worked his way up, through the ranks, filled with white anglo-saxons, in the banking world. The impression left by his grandfather is a far cry from how he sees Italians depicted in the media, “His whole life has been dedicated to demonstrating the value of family and that if you truly want to do right by them, you have to work hard, follow the rules and be a strong role model.” For the vast majority of Italian-Americans, that is their “way of being,” but you would never know it from the media. The media make Italian-Americans look like criminals or buffoons and that image has an impact in all segments of our society.
A few years ago, I attended a Society for Human Resource Management meeting in Atlanta, where a speaker was pointing out that resume screening is lacking in the HR world. He read a resume someone had submitted and from which they had received a call-back, showing that the resume screener had obviously not read the details. The name on the fake resume was something like Vinny Boombahts, who had experience in accounts receivable for the “Badda Bing Badda Boom Gang.” For me, it was offensive enough that it was in the presentation, but I was more offended that the entire room laughed out loud with every line of the resume. These HR managers are the people in our society who should be the most sensitive to these slurs that perpetuate the stereotypes. They were absolutely clueless that this could be damaging and in my opinion this shows the blindness of even these managers to their own biases.
There has been a long war being fought against such bias and the discrimination that results from it. It is being waged at City University of New York (CUNY). On the front lines is attorney Max DiFabio who told me, “A young person today, male or female, with an Italian surname or of Italian lineage, is faced with the prospect of whom do I emulate, those caricatures of those people of my own lineage who are portrayed, always, in a negative sense, ranging from The Simpsons to The Sopranos? Is that how I am to behave, or to Sam Alito or maybe Scalia, as my role model?”
DiFabio is currently representing a plaintiff at CUNY, Dr. Vincenzo Milione, who ironically enough was hired by the university to monitor discrimination against Italian-Americans. That's right, since the early 1970s Italian-descent people have been a protected class in EEOC and Affirmative Action at CUNY. That is the result of legislative hearings back then that required a level playing field for Italian-American students, staff and faculty at the university.
Milione's job description required him to track data and present reports on the employment status of Italian Americans at CUNY. The dissemination of those reports included CUNY officials and the community, like the Italian-American legislative caucus at the capitol in Albany. With each successive administration at the university there have been promises to follow through on the decisions of the 1970s.
Milione, due to his research, has also been called to testify as an expert in a case where an Italian-American sued CUNY for discrimination. His testimony was supportive of the plaintiff and helped affirm Italian-American protection in hiring.
After the current administration of Chancellor Matthew Goldstein came into office at CUNY, Milione presented a report to the state political caucus proving that hiring of Italian-Americans had remained flat while other protected groups' numbers had risen. Immediately after that report, he received his first ever negative job review. Included in that review was a statement that he needed to improve his oral presentation skills. Now, I happen to have known Milione for more than ten years and can attest that he has a serious speech impediment, a stutter that you notice the minute that you meet him. It is not new. He has had it since childhood.
Difabio says that pointing out a disability, in writing, shows the university's true feelings about Milione and perhaps Italians in general, “You have a twenty-year career, you have no negative evaluations, suddenly you have a negative evaluation and he goes over the top and attacks the guy's oral delivery? What would you say if a person was missing a leg, he limps, needs to improve his gait?”
Milione's job was changed, he lost his prestigious title and his staff. He was taken off the task of monitoring hiring and admissions of Italian-Americans. He says that it was in retaliation for the results of his work. The university will not comment on the case.
Milione and DiFabio are both big supporters of affirmative action. They say that discussions of discrimination in the work place tend to focus on a few groups, women, African-Americans, latinos and persons with disabilities, for example. What we forget is that there are deep-seated biases against many groups in this country that have become accepted, even among HR managers. The more we understand the hatred and dehumanization against many groups in this country's history, the better we will understand our biases.
Milione said that his case is just about him and CUNY, but when pressed, he admitted that he hopes it will have a wider benefit, “The end result, if it is successful, with a lot of visibility, would be a sense of equality among the Italian-American youth, in the larger society.”