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Articles by: Jerry Krase

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    Are you (we) stupid or what?

    Tom Verso's recent piece exalting Italian America's street corner roots made me nostalgic about my pre-college street corner days when I hung around with my mixed ethnic group of friends. As I recall, the Italian American ones were (according to themselves) the best informed, and when I disagreed the usual admonishment was "Are you stupid or what?" Which leads me to wonder about the source of ignorance.

    For me, Will Rogers Jr (1911-1993), epitomized the well-informed American. The Cherokee-American cowboy was a well-known actor, humorist, and especially keen social commentator. Growing up with a crackly radio and a flickering, sometimes rolling, black and white television, I especially enjoyed his monologues focused on current events. He'd start by slowly drawling out "Well, what shall I talk about? I ain't got anything funny to say. All I know is what I read in the papers." Then he would intelligently vivisect one politician, issue, or incident thereby causing millions to nervously laugh at their own expense. Americans had to be well-informed then because you couldn’t get the joke unless you knew what was going on in the world. Otherwise the joke was on you. Today it seems that “All I know is what I read in the papers.” has been replaced with “All I know is what I see on television” and the joke really is on the viewer.

    To understand why Americans were so easily taken by the likes of world champion Ponzi schemers Bernie Madoff, and Citigroup, one need only watch a few hours of CNBC’s financial “news” and “information” programming. For example, CNBC’s “dough-eyed” financial analyst Maria Bartiromo had to be defended by her employer about her relationship with a former Citigroup boss. www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16830375/. Then there is the lunacy of anyone taking Jim Cramer’s investment advice on his “Mad Money” www.youtube.com/watch that can only be matched by another CNBC stalwart, Rick Santelli’s, foaming at the mouth about Obama’s plan to bail out what amounts to CNBC’s Fan Club members www.youtube.com/watch . One can’t help but believe that cable television’s vast array of financial news and information programs amounts to 24/7 infomercials.

    As to the reliability of other "competing" venerable television news sources, I note that after leaving CNN, Glen Beck was found crying about his passion to "save America" on his Fox News “The Glen Beck Show” where it is alleged viewers can find “The Fusion of entertainment and enlightenment.” www.youtube.com/watch As was true of Will Rogers Jr., millions are attracted to Glen’s homey, self-deprecation. But, his "dis"- and "mis"-information leaves the likes of fellow dissemblers Sean Hannity, and, "ditto" I assume, Rush Limbaugh -- the other studs in the Fox stable of horse’s ….s -- to wonder if they should start showing more of their mare sides. It’s still true that it's not what you say but how you say it that convinces audiences of reliability and validity of television “news and information.”

    Speaking of the news, from Left to the Right and everywhere in between, the Mass Media are scrutinizing every one of Barack Hussein Obama’s utterances (not to mention Michelle’s uncovered arms) as if they were the difference between life and death for America and the rest of the world. Obama goes to the G-20 in London and NATO in Prague where everyone (except Hillary Clinton) holds their breath waiting for the pearls of wisdom to fall from his lips. The media makes it appear as though everything depends on him alone. It may make good copy but little sense.

    For my friends on the Left, allow me to deconstruct this Obama fascination which afflicts everyone, including the Right. Post-George “W,” I think there has been too much intellectual, emotional, and other investment in the idea of "Obama-ism" which is a logical outcome of Obamania. Obamaism is a belief that Barack H. has, as an individual, some special qualities that are more powerful than even Pre-Post-Modern structures such as International Capitalism and International Socialism. A case in point is that the current version of "the” Global Financial Crisis is herded over by 20 instead of the previous 8 masters (and mistresses) of the universe. And, at least one of them (maitre de l’univers French President Nicolas Sarkozy) threatened to make it 19 if Obama has his way with the rest, which Obama did and Sarkozy didn't.

    Then there are the closely related international conclaves that are simultaneously divining solutions to “the” Global Terrorism Crisis and “the” Global Poverty Crisis. Frankly speaking, as was true of the "expert" analyses leading up to the current Great Depression that served little purpose other than postpone the today of reckoning, no one (not even Richard Holbrooke Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan) really has a clue as to how to effectively deal with the organized and disorganized violence that is the result of ignoring the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people all around the globe. For the global crises experts social “justice” is, like a “derivative” something about which you speak without knowing what it is. In my opinion it is not that there are no answers to vexing problems but that we are asking the wrong questions about them. Most of the questions asked are constrained by the desire to maintain the status quo (status quo ante perhaps) in which "we" (the wealthy, powerful, superior, etc) are comfortable in our sense of entitlement.

    To be fair, I really should offer at least one or two concrete (more or less) examples of this common sense (Krasian) approach to problem-solving-by-better-question-asking. Italy is faced with a "crisis" because thousands of Africans who are seeking work and minimal comfort are flooding their enticing shores. What makes them want to come is not what they find in Italy but what they can’t find at home. If Italy and the rest of Europe returned to Africa only a tiny portion of the wealth that they harvested from Africa thereby impoverishing Africans, migrants would have little reason, or incentive, to risk their lives in rickety boats such as the two-hundred who recently drowned off the coast of Libya. www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/africa/03/31/libya.boat.sinks/index.html

    In the United States of America, it is the swarming of Latinos across the borders that fuels the rise of American Fascism. Their for search work and economic opportunity has set off the alarms and raised the barriers to “free movement of capital and labor” as envisioned by NAFTA. In all these cases of allegedly “unwanted” but necessary migrations, it would make better sense for the invaded countries to guarantee decent wages for their global migrant workforce. This would not only help increase the remittances to home countries (indirect foreign aid) it would also eventually reduce reliance on exploitive labor importation by increasing the influence of local workers and unions whose labor would be more in demand.

    Asking and answering better questions about the plethora of Global Crises we have today might not keep baby-faced Glen Beck from prime time crying, or Karl Rove from drooling on the editorial pages of the Fox News version of The Wall Street Journal for that matter. But Will Rogers Jr. would’ve loved it, and not inconsequentially the joke would stop being on us all the time.

    Allow me here to liberally excerpt from George de Stefano's recent I-Italy Magazine report on Paul Ginsborg analysis of opposition to  Berlusconi "Denuncia: Speaking Up in Modern Italy" where Ginsborg observed that “A regime and its opposition are intimately linked.”

    "In a generally dismal political environment, there are social forces and actors who could present an effective opposition. These include those Italians who make up what Ginsborg called 'i ceti medi riflessivi,' progressive, civic-minded members of the educated, urban middle class. ...The other source of opposition, Ginsborg said, can be found in Italian civil society associations that operate “between the family and the state.” ....'Is there any hope?' Ginsborg rhetorically asked near the conclusion of his talk. 'The simple answer is that given the nature of the regime it’s very tough to organize” an effective opposition. But there are “many forces, among the middle and working classes, that are just crying out for coordination and movement.' But who will provide that coordination, that mobilization of unorganized opposition into a movement, and how? That’s a question Paul Ginsborg, modestly and wisely, did not attempt to answer. "

    In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi's state and private control of television helps to keep the opposition in the shadows, if not the dark. Ironically, it is being challenged by none other than America's own (by naturalization) Fox and Sky owner Rupert Murdoch. Come si dice in italiano "out of the frying pan and into the fire?"


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    Sharks and Mobsters: 2 Oft-told Tales

    On weekends, instead of joining my weekday early morning coffee klatsch at Dizzy’s “A Finer Diner,” I amble over to Connecticut Muffin, a coffee shop that has nothing to do with “The Nutmeg State.” My daily newspaper reading pattern also varies on weekends. On Saturdays I either read Nowy Dziennik (slownikiem) or America Oggi and La Repubblica (con il mio dizionario). On Sunday it is vice versa (viceversa). Today, I was intrigued by a front page OGGI special “La Lettera di Castellaneta al Washington Post: Plauso degli italiani d’America” that noted in conclusion “Il blog Foreign Policy Association, raccontando ieri la vicenda, sottolinea che all’ambasciata d’Italia sono giunti “numerosi” messaggi congratulazioni di italoamericani stufi di vedere sui media americani I soliti stereotipi del coinvolgimento degli italiani nelle attivita mafiose.” (the Foreign Policy Association blog related the incident yesterday and noted that the Italian Ambassador had received numerous congratulatory messages from Italo-Americans angry at seeing in the American media the usual stereotype of Italians involved in mafia activitiies.).  Naturally, I assumed that I-Italy.org would have the story on its own Front Page, which of course it did. I-Italy.org is now one of my most dependable sources for media things Italian and Italian American. There is no need to reprint here Giovanni Castellaneta. Ambassador of Italy to the United States’ Letter to the Editor of the Washington Post,  but it is extremely important to emphasize the time dishonored pattern of ethnic insult found in this otherwise honorable press. The Ambassador was responding to the Post’s one sided (and ethnically enhanced) March 1 front-page article, “As Italy’s Banks Tighten Lending, Desperate Firms Call on the Mafia.”


    Al Capone sits in the italian Market on Arthur Avenue in The Bronx and greets those looking for an authentic Italian American neighborhood.


    To demonstrate the “pattern”of which I write, Ambassador Castellaneta’s well phrased complaint must be conjoined with that of Anthony Julian Tamburri’s slightly less recent I-Italy.org offering “Just when we thought it was safe to go back into the water...” that cited another example of simple-minded stereotyping by Michael Kinsley’s opinion editorial in the Washington Post “Bailing Out Organized Crime, The Treasury Has a Gun to Its Head” that featured a photograph of James Gandolfini in a Sopranoseque pose and a bigoted ethnic parody of the federal bailout of an unfortunately (for Italian Americans) mostly non-Italian industry.

    See what is offered a few steps away from the Italian American Museum on Mulberry Street in Manhattan.


    Five years ago, as some readers may already know, I was deeply engaged with prominent Italian American leaders in The Coalition Against Racial, Religious and Ethnic Stereotyping (CARRES), in the battle over ethnic stereotyping in Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks production of Shark Tale. I did lots or research and wrote lots of words, some of which were actually read by other people all over the world, but the piece below never met the light of day until now. It was a letter to the New York Times in response to the idiotic rating of, "PG. Parental guidance Suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children. Some mild language and Crude Humor" given to Shark Tale and the equally malformed movie review by A.O. Scott who gave it his own rating of "PG (Parental guidance suggested). It has some mildly scary situations and one death." Note this was a production intended to be viewed mostly by impressionable young children with only slightly less impressionable parents, or hired care givers, in tow.


    October 1, 2004


    Letters to the Editor New York Times


    To the Editors: I was surprised to read in A.O. Scott’s review of “Shark Tale” (Fish With Stars' Voices in a Pop-Culture Sea, October 1, 2004) about “cheerful quasi-ethnic stereotypes… that are technically insulated against offensiveness because, well, they’re all fish.” The fact is that for young children they are real characters, and they are made more real by negative ethnic and racial stereotypes. For instance, and in particular, the frighteningly ignorant and violent sharks have Italian last names or first names commonly heard in Italian-American communities (Luca, Frankie) and speak in a stereotypical lower class Italian vernacular. Promoting negative ethnic and racial stereotypes can make children wary of strangers who share the surface characteristics of media stereotypes. There is also nothing cheerful about inserting into the beautiful minds of children the idea that people who have Italian names, or use colloquial speech are also organized criminals. The other ethnic, racial, and gender stereotypes in the film are equally disturbing. As a social scientist who has spent a considerable amount of my professional life dealing with the consequences of bigotry I am amazed that someone writing for The New York Times would dismiss negative ethnic stereotyping in a children’s feature as either “cheerful” or harmless.


    The pattern is clear, from ordinary reporters to media moguls, as well as Italian American ethnic entrepreneurs when there is need for ethnic content to infuse into real and imagined bullies and beasts, one need only to reach into the hat of racial and ethnic stereotypes and pull out a …….. (fill in the blank).

    In my next blog entry I will replicate the longer press release of my comments on Shark Tale in both English and Italian (Dichiarazione in merito a Shark Tale ) so readers can see the logic of my argument about the terrible damage done by negative ethnic stereotyping in general and the Italian version in particular.

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    Remembrance of Jews past, but never lost

    This special focus on i-Italy reminded me of times past, so I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on line and found this there about INTERNATIONAL HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE DAY:


    In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated January 27 as an annual international day of commemoration to honor the victims of the Nazi era. This date marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp. Every member nation of the U.N. has an obligation to honor the memory of Holocaust victims and develop educational programs as part of the resolve to help prevent future acts of genocide. The U.N. resolution rejects denial of the Holocaust, and condemns discrimination and violence based on religion or ethnicity. To commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Museum hosts a candle-lighting ceremony attended by the Washington, D.C. diplomatic community, Holocaust survivors, and the general public. It had this place to reflect and write. This is what I wrote:


    Read the online issue
    Download the print issue in pdf

    "As many other children who grew up in Brooklyn after World War II the Holocaust (Shoah) was recounted to us, unuttered, in sights and scenes such as the blue tattoos that inexplicably appeared on the arms of people, and the overcrowded apartments of friends who were sharing their everything with newly arrived relatives (I supposed) who spoke with “funny accents.” As children we didn’t know the meanings of it, but we knew enough not to ask. As an adult I know, and wish I didn’t."


    In Brooklyn we lived the Holocaust everyday as matter of course. Many parts of the borough especially Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Borough Park, Bensonhurst, and Brownsville were peopled with those who had escaped before it began or those coming to the United States after it ended from numerous D.P. (Displaced Persons) camps. Those who hardly "survived" concentration camps such as Buchenwald, Bergen/Belson, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau, or  whole cities such as Warsaw, Budapest, or Vilna, came to live, work and sometimes even start new families here. Almost all of the newcomers had families in Brooklyn and if not, they found others, or each other, to begin new lives. That is why being "Brooklyn" is also being not a little bit Jewish, and why before there was a New York State mandated Holocaust Curriculum, we learned about it in school as well as out of it.


    I could spend the rest of life writing about Jews to whom I am in one sense of another "connected," beginning with the family of one of my first best friends - Ikey (I assume Isaac) August - who lived, like me, in the Red Hook (low income) Housing Project. Ikey's father worked in a bakery and, therefore, gave my family of seven children, and two occasionally employed adults, bagels, onion rolls, and bialys to eat. Having Jews as good friends and neighbors was multigenerational. My Sicilian American mother told me she was spat upon by her Gentile Greenpoint neighbors because her father was a landlord there. There were few Sicilians around then and her best friend and Public School-mate was a Jewish girl whose dad owned a beer garden. My dad, however, was never so open minded. I think he believed that Jews wore hats to cover the horns on their heads, and he also thought they were especially "lucky." He never understood the Yiddish phrase - "Nil sine magno labore."


    I wrote the following for The Brooklyn Free Press in 1997, and it should now be placed here with the image it refers to.
    Shoes! by Jerry Krase
         It's Rosh Hashana and Brooklyn College is closed so I don't have to teach classes today, so I can catch up on my writing, so I'm reading Newsday and looking for little bits for my Free Press piece on the dismal New York City mayoral elections and simultaneously listening to the replacement liberal talk-show host for Brian Lehrer (who's also taking the day off) on WNYC interview a general who just published a book on the danger of nuclear weapons for the future of world peace answer a question from a caller about why the United States dropped an atomic bomb on two targets in Japan even though they knew they were in the middle of a neighborhood filled with "innocent" civilians.
         While the general is talking about the problem of "ancillary" damage the caller says there must have been some place where THE BOMB could have been dropped without slaughtering civilians and still have made the point and the general mumbled about "American" casualties.
         Good thing that the caller didn't ask the general why, in contrast, during the same World War II in Europe the Allies said they didn't bomb near the German concentration camps because of the problem of potential "ancillary" damage, which incidentally made it possible for me and two of my daughters to experience a "perfectly preserved" Auschwitiz when they came to visit me in Poland last Spring. I waited for Kristin and Karen to get to Krakow because I was afraid to go alone. We went to pay respects to the families of too many of our friends who lost a piece of themselves in the Holocaust.
         My connection to the Holocaust is Growing up Gentile in Brooklyn and I remember things like when I was very little asking my mother to explain "it" after coming across photographs of concentration camp victims in a magazine, and as a teenager delivering orders to people with blue tattoos on their wrists or forearms. In Brooklyn you can't avoid "it" and "its" repercussions; like Max and Helen, survivors of Buchenwald, who owned a coffee shop I used to frequent who always kwelled over my children when I brought them in with me to share my "Breakfast Special".
         Well the point is that when we got to Auschwitz and passed through the Arbeit Macht Frei portal I tried to find something small enough to comprehend. A one-piece-at-a-time-kind-of-thing that could be slowly added up to millions allowing me to remember without being totally overwhelmed by grief and shame for being a member of the human race.
         I found "it" in a mound of shoes behind the glass of an exhibit of the "personal effects" taken from people before they were gassed and their bodies incinerated. I took out my memo pad and quickly drew a picture of one shoe which caught my eye. It was tiny; a young girl's red and white leather open-toed shoe with a slightly elevated wedged heel. It was the kind of shoe my wife and I might have bought for our daughters to wear for their high school graduation and about which they would complain as not being "in style". I imagined that this barefoot child and her mother spent their last moments together in the same room that later I also entered- and then walked out of- with my own children. Shoes!

    PS: I don't have the time right now, or the patience ever,  to comment, without rage and profanity, on Pope Benedict XVI's reinstatement of an excommunicated Bishop (Richard Williamson) who seems to take pleasure in the notoriety he is receiving, again, for denying what we in Brooklyn have known since we were kids. I have never been a very good Catholic and such actions on the part of someone who claims infalliblity of one sort or another makes it increasingly unlikely that I ever will be. Shalom (Pace)

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    My Best Wishes to Mr. President Barack Hussein Obama

    Now that BHO has become the new tenant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW it seems that everybody wants to get into the act with offering advice and guidance (guida e consiglio) The assumption is that not only does he have a mind, it is also a more open one. One of the first of these offerings was made by Thomas Friedman in his regular The New York Times opinion column, "Radical in the White House."  


    Firstly, Tom makes it known, as though in reassuring relief, that Barack isn't really a radical (radicale) at least in the sense of the leftist kind as was feared during the nasty Presidential Election Campaign or the rightist kind he equivocates. For him, to be a radical is to be merely different. For me, and most dictionaries, it is to be a "revolutionary" (rivoluzionario). In any case I assume that Tom went to DC to attend the Inauguration and cut a rug at one or another of the post-inauguration glittering galas (galà patinati).



    I, on the other hand, spent the first of my January 20, 2009 waking hours (7-9 AM) as usual at Dizzy's "A Finer Diner"  where I had one slice of 8 to 12 grain dry toast and a bottomless cup of coffee (una tazza di caffè smisurata) scanning all the newspapers that were delivered that day. A venerable tradition at Dizzy's is the offering of a "Quote for the Day" on the other side from the "Daily Specials" on the sandwich board which sits on the sidewalk at 8th Avenue and 9th Street creating a pedestrian hazard. My favorite, newish, waitperson, Cecile, has managed to provide patrons and passersby with some respite from the depressing quotes (le citazioni deprimenti) by the famous or the anonymous borrowed from Bartlett's "Familiar Quotations."


    On Inauguration Day she was searching for an especially meaningful missive for which I offered, and she approved, "No more Misunderestimation (Non piu' sottovalutazioni)" - two little, and one big, words that need no further explanation. After making sure that everyone who came into the establishment had perused the sandwich board and offered me left-wing praise or right-wing puzzlement for my phrasing, I took the subway (la Metro) this morning to Manhattan to do some business and hoped to get back in time to watch the inauguration on television with my wife. Across from me on the usually yuppy-packed "F" train was what appeared to me to be a middle-aged African American homeless (senza tetto) woman bundled up in an odd collection of winter and summer outerwear.


    She was fast asleep and next to her sat the usual collection of black plastic garbage bags containing all that she felt worthy of trudging along with her as she travelled on her way to nowhere (in nessun posto) on a cold and Historic Inauguration Day. She gave off such a foul odor (odore ripugnante) that she had half the car to herself. A long line of persons of no-color, previously residing in the White House, have found other things too important to consider than her obvious plight. My wish is that Barack Hussein not only remembers the people his predecessors left behind in America, but also comes back to visit them (ritorni per visitarli). Now that would be really radical! (Ora questo sarebbe veramente radicale!)


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    From Luigi Barzini to Karl Rove (Oh, Vergogna America!)

    Because I own two of Luigi Barzini's books, I had considered writing a short blog about my experience with Barzini but decided against it after reading the report on the Casa Italialia at Columbia University symposium here on i-italy.org. However when I read Karl Rove's pandering presidential paean in The Wall Street Journal I felt obliged to at least mention Barzini as part of my continuing critique of journalism in America today. Most journalists today have no problem writing about things of which they know very little as they confidently assume their readers, who get most of their information from them, know even less. At the Casa Italiana symposium, Barzini's son Andrea was quoted as saying, " He has always been an outsider, in Italy and in America,”...“From this condition of outsider comes the ambition of giving explanations about the Italian and the American national characters.”


    It is hard to find writers of any sort today who are "outsiders" and those who are, struggle to get inside or otherwise to find their niche. Writers write in anticipation of audiences and not because they have an idea, something to say, or just a way of saying something. In other words the writing is "for" something as opposed to "from" something. I did not know Barzini but well understood that one might take offense at his "truths" about "them" or "us." He seemed not to pander to his readers, but did soften his blows at their vanity and self-indulgences by phrases such as this when he visited an "old American" family "Their manners were, technically speaking, no manners at all, but a gentle and benevolent disposition of the spirit." I can't imagine what Barzini would have written about about Sarah Palin.


    As anyone who has taken a look at some of my posts here or on ww.brooklynsoc.org knows all too well, I believe that one of the keys to an effective democracy is a vigilant, intelligent, and multi-partisan free press. Until a few decades ago I think America had something approaching that ideal. Unfortunately, since then, we have lost many intelligent competing voices as newspapers folded or were consolidated with radio and television stations. Those that are left seem to have become almost pure vehicles for conveying advertising. Even the promise of the Internet as a great Electronic Highway for freedom of expression has been lost as the big guys and gals have moved in on the rest of us humble "bloggers." An especially big disappointment for me has been the newspaper scene in The Big Apple. It is not just those broad sheets on my Left which has lost so much luster but also those on the Right. Below is my response to the most recent of Karl Rove's political pablum being dished out in The Wall Street Journal. It doesn't instill confidence in the future of the American (and therefore the World's) economy when the sacred paper of investors has Karl as a "regular." Then again, they also couldn't tell the difference between a derivative and a Madoff.


    If one wishes to understand how we in the US have been dumbed down, one need only take an occasional peek at the Wall Street Journal which at one time (B.M. as in "Before Murdoch") was at least a literate bastion of the allegedly Free (and mythical) Market System. It is a daily newspaper that I peruse among many others in order to fathom how the Other,"Other Half" thinks. Today on its most esteemed pages you can be treated by another hopelessly non-tongue in cheek "Ode" to the ungracefully exiting ex-non-elected President George W. Bush by none other than Karl Rove (the man who single-handedly gave agitprop a better name). One will also find smack in the middle of WSJ's editorial page "Review and Outlook" which has been regularly bashing anything and anybody left of Attila, a note about "The Journal Editorial Report on FOX News Channel." In comparison with FOX, CNN seems almost centrist.


    From The Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2008 page A11

    "Bush Is a Book Lover" A glimpse of what the president has been reading. By Karl Rove


    With only five days left, my lead is insurmountable. The competition can't catch up. And for the third year in a row, I'll triumph. In second place will be the president of the United States. Our contest is not about sports or politics. It's about books. It all started on New Year's Eve in 2005. President Bush asked what my New Year's resolutions were. I told him that as a regular reader who'd gotten out of the habit, my goal was to read a book a week in 2006. Three days later, we were in the Oval Office when he fixed me in his sights and said, "I'm on my second. Where are you?" Mr. Bush had turned my resolution into a contest.


    To find the whole thing go to: http://sec.online.wsj.com/article/SB123025595706634689.html where I posted this comment: K's piece should have been titled "Look! Look! Look at "W" Read." With all that reading going on, I guess he didn't have enough time to find the WMD's or noti ce the economic meltdown. Syntax has hardly been the forte of either the mouth or the piece thereof.


    I also added this disclaimer below:

    for ID purposes only: Jerome Krase, Ph.D.

    Emeritus and Murray Koppelman Professor


    Brooklyn College

    The City University of New York

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    Italicity: Who, What, Where, When and How's Italian

    In "Italici” Piero Bassetti" asks, and answers rhetorically: "Who are the Italici? Yes, they are also Italians, of course. Better still; post-Italians. of Italian extraction, but also Italian-speaking nations and regions: Italian Switzerland, Dalmatia, Istria, San Marino, Malta. And then there are those men and women who, though they do not have a single drop of Italian blood in them, share the same values and style of life, the unmistakable models of that Italian way of life that the expansion of the Italian economy has, over the past few years spread around the world. The young and not so young who have chosen that particular style amongst the many put on offer by the wares of international industry. And let us not forget the managers and entrepreneurs who base their professional activities on the products and initiatives linked to Italy of to products of an Italian flavor. So the figures and numbers change. Or rather explode. One can count on about two hundred million people spread over five continents." Bassetti is a very intelligent man. I know because some of his most brilliant ideas about Italians parallel my own musings, and complaints, about Italian-Americans.


    As to Who's Italian/American? the number of Italian Americans depends on how they are identified. A century ago they were simply Americans born in Italy. At that time, nationality and race were virtually synonymous. Later they were Americans born in Italy or who had at least one parent born in Italy. Then in 1990 they became Americans who identified themselves as such. Using self definitions in both the 1990 and 2000 Census over 16,000,000 people in the United States identified themselves as Italian American. In combination with other demographic indicators some estimate the population at closer to twenty million souls. Other than by self-identification, how do we ascertain membership in an ethnic group? As other American-ethnic groups, Italian Americans are collections of people who share a varying number of socially relevant demographic attributes such as: national origins, cultural values, practices, language uses, and religion. In many cases they have more in common with non-Italian Americans than with each other. "Culturally Italian" people have migrated to the US from places other than Italy. As the number of Italian immigrants and the foreign born Italians have been decreasing the definition of Italian American has been expanding. Another way of defining a group is by a shared common culture.


    Decades ago, a Giovanni Agnelli Foundation study identified Italian cultural values as: “the importance attached to intermediate groups: the family, the neighborhood, and the community.” Germane to the quality of domestic life was “the importance of the home, the dinner table, and holidays.” Relating to interpersonal supportiveness Italians exhibit “religious faith understood as love of neighbor, and as for actions in this world they show “a feeling for group and village ties, hospitality, and the importance of personal relationships.” Italians also have “a realistic view of life as indicated by anti-dogmatic skepticism, political realism and higher education choices made pragmatically.” Most of these qualities are shared by Is and IAs but unfortunately also share the absence of another important quality; inclusiveness (inclusivita).


    Some personal examples of being included and not included in the fold might be helpful in this regard. I have noticed over the decades that many, if not most, Italians don't hold Italian Americans of any generation too highly in their esteem. For example, Italian scholars often seemed disappointed when I tell them “I'm Italian-American” instead of the co-ethnic embrace I expect. Strange, because I don't get the same response from my Slavic counterparts. Maybe that’s because there are fewer Slavic wannabees. Most people, not only Italians and Italo-Americans, find it hard to believe that I'm even part-Italian. I occasionally paint, and like “real” Italians, I don't like criticism of my work so I don’t tell people that some of the artwork hanging on my walls was created by me. That is until they make a positive comment about it. Some years ago a colleague (collega) from the Brooklyn College Sociology Department was admiring one of my paintings so I said took credit for it. At first he seemed puzzled. Then he smiled and said: “Aha ... now I remember, your mother was Italian.” He didn't realize they were studies of French Impressionists (see below) After that, he wanted to know everything I knew about the mafia. Sometimes, being included is not all it’s cracked up to be.



















    On the other hand, I recently and gratefully received an invitation (in inglese) from the Italian Consulate General in New York to attend a free public concert billed as “an introduction to the U.S. of the music of Fabrizio De Andrè as interpreted by Mauro Pagani.” I thought it was a good opportunity to bring my non-Italian-speaking but all-Italian American wife to an Italian event that she could understand. I should have known better. By the time we got to the Italian Cultural Institute on Park Avenue from one of the “Outer Boroughs,” where most Italians and Italo-Americans live, it was packed (as usual/come solito). Luckily, an Italian-speaking all Italo-American friend who is a “regular” at the Institute, and his all-Italian American non-Italian speaking wife were holding seats for us. We uncomfortably settled in and when the program started late (also come solito) the first speaker welcomed the (mostly all-Italian, Italian-speaking) crowd in English making us feel “at home.” However, not long after those English words of welcome, he unabashedly (imperturbatamente) asked, if the crowd preferred Italian. The not quite unanimous response was a chorus of "Italiano!" Hardly an invitation to inclusiveness.


    A major point of Bassetti’s transnational glocal theory is how one can be included among the Italici with even the slightest connection to Italy and Italianita. However, trying to make a point about being “only” half-Italian-American is not easy when whole ones surround you. Either “they” don’t get it, or they don’t care to. At the panel presentation of Bassetti’s book at The Zerilli Marimo Italian House at NYU (La Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimo NYU) I stood up in the audience and tried to make a point about the paradoxical nature of identities; that having one identity doesn't exclude, even what appears to be contradictory and mutually exclusive others. I tried, come solito, to make the point by self-reference. People who know that my mother's family came from Sicily say that I am “half-Italian.” My response is to point at my waist and say: "Sono meta-siciliano, qua e giu" (I am half Sicilian, from here down). The lack of response to my comment made me think that everyone thought I made a crude remark. What I meant was that a person can't be half anything. Even with complex combinations we are whole things, just like Italians and Italy. The What?, Where?, When? and How? of Italianita has always been in question. I had suggested more than a decade ago that its meaning was contested by the “dark-skinned” beauty of Denny Mendez (Miss Italy 1996). She was a naturalized Italian citizen from the Dominican Republic where her mother had married an Italian. Two contest judges had been suspended for (incorrectly) saying, that a black woman could not represent Italian beauty. Despite some forms of cultural myopia, Italians do have an eye for beauty and one-third of the million Italians who voted in the pageant gave their nod to Mendez. At the time, Prime Minister Romano Prodi commented on the results by saying “Italy is changing.” If he was an historian rather than an economist he would have noted that half a millennium ago a quasi-Italian Cristobal Colon (Cristoforo Colombo) discovered Santo Domingo (on the island of Hispaniola) and may have left some of his DNA behind. His brother Bartolomé Colón (Bartolomeo Colombo) founded the settlement and Santo Domingo was also the hometown of Don Diego Colón, Chistopopher’s son who was the viceroy of the colony. Maybe Ms Mendez’ Italy roots come from her mother’s and not her father’s side.


    If we think about how the rest of the world contributed to making Italy Italian and not just how Italy contributed to the rest of the world, we might realize that a lot of “Italian” things aren’t really all that Italian. For example, the most iconic of Italian foods pasta (pasta) , tomatoes (pomodori), and for northerners - polenta (polenta) have foreign origins. If Italians are what they eat, then most are indigenous Americans and Asians. If we add the cultural and genetic exchanges from Imperially German and culturally Greek Romans to the lavishly “Oriental” Venetians, as well as the light and dark contributions of the Normans and the Saracens, not to mention the unanticipated 20th century consequences of 19th century Italian adventures in Africa, one could suggest that maybe Italy never was (really isn’t) Italian at all. In that case Italicita isn’t local, global or glocal, it’s cosmic (cosmico). With this understanding Silvio Berlusconi and even Umberto Bossi might solve the foreigner problem in Italy by re-defining the immigrant invaders and the “G2s” (Seconde Generazioni) as the return of long lost tribes of italici.


    As Piero Bassetti well understands, Italians may want (or perhaps “need”) to stretch the limits of Italicity but closer to home, they have real problems with dealing with their neighbors. Italy is divided, north south, dark, light, rich, poor, g1, g2, g3, etcetera, etcetera... Maybe first they (we) should learn to get along at home before spreading out into the global village. As I have argued, even though Italian Americans are well integrated in America, they are still distinct. And despite their disunity, they are united by positive and negative stereotypes about who they are. The fact that representations of Italian Americans are contradictory is expected because Italian America, is extremely diverse and increasingly so. Italy is also changing rapidly and struggling to reach consensus on who is, and is not, Italian. Italy has always been diverse, even if unrecognized as multicultural with its newest mixture. Italians and Italian Americans must reach out to everyone who can be tied to Italy while simultaneously opening themselves to others who share their basic values. As both become more diverse, old outmoded and narrowly circumscribed notions of Italianita must also change. If not Italian Americans, Italians and even the mighty Italici, like the dinosaurs, will become extinct.




  • Op-Eds

    Obamania or Obamaphobia: Italians in a Post-Bush America

          Come si dice in italiano “yes we could”. Si, potremmo? In any case, we did it (lo abbiamo fatto). I begin this post-election reflection by quoting myself from i-italy when I recalled being asked by visiting European journalists if America was ready to elect a Black President, to which I replied that “America wasn’t ready but America doesn’t elect the President -- the electorate (a much smaller group) does. For example in 2004 about 60% of eligible voters voted and George W. Bush got half of that or about 30% of eligible voters; only 62 millions votes from a population of about 300 million; about 20% of the total population. So if only a fifth of America wasn’t racist, Obama could win.” Lucky for Barack, America is only 5.5% Italian.

          On the other hand, election returns showed that New York City’s Italian American politicians had “the luck of the Irish” (McCain-wise). According to the most recent estimates by the John Calandra Italian American Institute, Italian Americans make up 5.54% of la Grande Mela’s population. As might be expected, things were especially sad (tristi) in Staten Island (almost 40% Italian). The Sunday (after the election) New York Times dissected the “Changing Electorate” finding among other things that White Protestants went 65% for McCain vs 34% for Obama. 54% of Catholics voted for Obama and 45% for McCain, but that figure included Hispanics who voted 67% to 31% in favor of Obama so I would estimate that the majority of white Catholics voted for the loser. 55 % of Whites voted for all-white McCain and (surprise, surprise) 95% of Blacks voted for half-white Obama.

          From The Times data, I created some electoral stereotypes: The perfect Obamaniac was a young (18-29) black Jewish unmarried lesbian urbanite with a Ph. D. who thought her financial situation worsened during W’s tenure and the perfect McCainiac was an old (60+) white Protestant, rural husband, with a Bachelor’s Degree who thought his financial situation improved during W’s tenure. How’s that for polarized??

          Just like “Obama,” “tsunami” ends in a vowel and they swamped New York’s Italian American politicos (politici). With what was left of the luck of the “really Irish,” Democrat Mike McMahon defeated Republican Bob Straniere by a 2 to 1 margin in the13th Congressional District and ended 28 years of GOP (and Italian American) control of the Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Dyker Heights, and Staten Island district. Losing Staten Island means that when 2009 begins no Republican will represent New York City in Congress. Similarly, Janele Hyer-Spencer (D) defeated Joe Cammarata (R) 55 - 45% in Assembly District 60 that covers Bay Ridge and Staten Island. Alec Brook-Krasny (D) 70% defeated Bob Capano (R) 70 - 30% in the 46th AD that includes Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Coney Island, and Brighton Beach. In Queens, State Senator Serphim Maltese (R) (in office for 2 decades) lost to co-ethnic Joseph Addabbo (D). It was predicted that the vote would be close but Obama’s coattails gave Addabbo a 57.5% to 42.5% semi-landslide (semi-frana).

          As I have written in my non-best selling book* Staten Island is the present and future of New York City’s Italian Americans. Therefore it is important to point out that while Obama got 88 % of Bronx votes, 85 % of Manhattan’s, 79 % of Brooklyn’s and 74 % of Queens’, only la bella isola di Staten carried for John McCain (52%) according to The Associated Press. In addition, my friend and City University colleague, John Mollenkopf was quoted in The Times as saying that: “Of the white Democrats who in the past have shown a propensity to vote for republicans in mayoral elections, in preference over black, or even white candidates who have strong black support – the Jewish neighborhoods were least likely to fall away from Obama, and the Italian neighborhoods the most.” My own analysis would suggest that the two groups in this election, especially more Orthodox Jewish voters, were actually much closer in anti-Obama voting. I also suggest that the Italian American politics of the past on Staten Island, and elsewhere, that have based on narrow cultural and ideological appeals and simple demographic dominance, has to broaden as the population and sentiments of the borough, city, state, and nation as well as the Italian American electorate itself has changed.

          Not to be outdone by Italian Americans in not jumping on the Obama band wagon, in Moscow (Mosca) Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, told President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia that President-elect Barack Obama “has all the qualities to get along well with you: he’s young, handsome and suntanned, so I think you can develop a good working relationship.” Italians saw this as a gaff (gaffe). La repubblica reported: Berlusconi, prima gaffe su Obama_"E' giovane, bello e abbronzato." We all, Italians and Italian Americans alike, should be grateful that il Cavaliere didn’t take the opportunity to also reflect on the religion of Obama’s Kenyan dad.


    *The Staten Island Italian American Experience, Staten Island: The DaVinci Society of Wagner College, 2007.

  • Op-Eds

    "Obama" Ends in a Vowel

    With the United States Presidential Election Campaign about to end, I am sure that we will be barraged in the mass and not so mass media by last minute appeals to ethnic, religious, and racial prejudices. This is my own personal appeal to the ethnic consciousness of Italian Americans to vote for their closest co-ethnic in the Presidential race. Barack Obama is the only candidate whose last name ends in a vowel.


    As is obvious to anyone who knows me, I will be voting for Barack H. Obama next Tuesday, November 4, 2008. There are many good reasons for casting my vote for him, the least of which is the fact that (like many Italian-Americans) his name ends in a vowel. Ethnic codes have long played an important role in American political campaigns. A few evenings ago I confronted the coding in the form of my ninety-five year old mother-in-law who, along with my wife, her brother and his wife were having dinner at my home. My wife’s mother’s family had been involved in Brooklyn Democratic Party politics since the turn of the 20th Century, so getting a read on Nana’s take on the election seemed appropriate. Forget about party affiliation, the best indicators of political leanings are the talk show radio hosts one listens to. Nana likes Mike Savage, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannerty, (and Bob Grant), so her children tried to convince her that Obama wasn’t a Moslem (not that he shouldn’t be a Moslem), and wasn’t a socialist (ditto). I emphasized the vowel-ending name. Nothing worked. Luckily, she is no longer registered to vote and we live in New York State where if Obama loses, I will move to Europe. Speaking of which, I was in Berlin for an international meeting on “Migration and Museums” last week.


    There I was told by informed sources that Europeans, if they lived in the US would vote for Obama, but if Obama was running for office in Europe, they wouldn’t. I have been reasonably active in American electoral politics for a long, long time. In fact, when I was running for a Community School Board that oversaw public education in a racially, ethnically, and religiously contested area in the 1970s, my mother-in-law was working for the NYC Board of Elections at a voting station in the district. She related to me that when people asked her about my “background” (because my name was not an announcement of such) she told the Jewish voters that I was Jewish and the Italians that my mother was Italian. The Irish didn't vote because they sent their kids to Catholic school to avoid the Italians and Jews, I suppose. Nana was way ahead of her time. Yesterday I picked this off Irish National News (RTE) from the internet: “Obama's Heritage Traced to Ireland”, (15 March 2007) “US Presidential hopeful Barack Obama can now count himself as one of the millions of Americans with Irish heritage. Research by the genealogy website ancestry.co.uk reveals that Mr Obama's great great great grandfather was born in Ireland, although it is not yet known where. Falmouth Kearney sailed from Ireland to New York in 1850 at the age of 19 on the S.S. Marmion arriving on the 20th of March. He initially settled in Ohio, got married, had eight children, and later moved to Indiana, right next door to the state Obama currently represents in the US Senate. Mr Keaney was part of the great American migration to escape the 1840s potato famine in Ireland.”


    Someone told me in Berlin that there is now a Dublin watering hole called “O’Bama’s.” Not to be outdone by the Irish in stretching the boundaries of ethnic inclusiveness, in addition to my emphasis on Obama’s Italian name-ending-vowel roots, Bob Blancato, the national Chair of the Italian American Democratic Leadership Council (IADLC) proclaimed in grand ethnic harmony that “The son of an immigrant himself, Barack Obama shares the values of Italian Americans -- family, work, education.” It seems that without my knowledge, or consultation, the week before Columbus Day, the national organization of ItalianAmerican Democrats had enthusiastically endorsed Obama and Biden and pledged to work hard to elect them. Their press release claims that the “15-year old IADLC ([email protected]) is a membership organization of community leaders from across the country who work to promote Italian Americans to high elected and appointed office and promote the interests of Italian Americans in the Democratic Party. Its advisory committee includes all the Italian American Democratic members of Congress and the three Italian American Democratic governors.” Is a Little Italy "Ristorante Obama" far behind? The outcome of the racially-tinted 2008 US Presidential contest is important to me because in the sixties I was a community organizer who tried to work with black and white ethnics in the deteriorating cores of American cities.


    They both were facing similar problems but couldn’t get beyond issues that were only skin deep. Barack Obama's election will prove to me that decades of difficult, professionally unrewarding, and occasionally dangerous work have been worth the effort. In my “Italian American” work, I have attempted to show similarities between the historical experiences of Italian- and African-Americans. As I wrote in “do the Correct Thing” here on I-italy, I don't expect Obama to get a majority of Italian American votes but I hope that, if they vote for "the other non-Italian guy," they do it for the correct reasons. And, by the way, "McCain" doesn’t end in a vowel.



  • Op-Eds

    Racism/Razzismo Part III: Lest We Forget: Racism Will Make Victims of Us All

    It was the second article I wrote for The Brooklyn Free Press after it became increasingly obvious to me that The Media had decided to make the “Italian” aspect of the murder of Yusuf Hawkins, and the neighborhood's reaction to provocative marches through the community, a continuing story. The Italian versus Black “angle” tied in nicely to the fact that Italian-American Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican, was preparing to face African-American David Dinkins, a Democrat, in the upcoming New York City general election for Mayor that November. I felt it was necessary to express in my own writing and in my subsequent interviews with the media not only the non-ethnic aspects of the homicide but also the common experiences of all of America’s minorities as exemplified in the infamous lynching of eleven Italian Americans in New Orleans almost a century earlier. As indicated by George De Stefano's recent op-ed here in i-italy "Italians are Better Than This," Italians could also benefit by reviewing their own history as victims as well as victimizers. Tomorrow I leave for Berlin to participate in a conference on "Migration in Museums - Narratives of Diversity in Europe," in order to learn more about what's going on "there" and perhaps get a chance to share what is going on "here."

    * * *

    On August 23, 1989 an African-American man by the name of Yusuf Hawkins was murdered in a predominately Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. He was killed by a person, or persons, who were part of a mob of young men who some excuse because they acted in defense of their “turf.” Since this racist murder by a monstrous few has taken place, the wider racism and bigotry of the society at large has been prominently, and at times proudly, displayed. It was not unlike a lynching-murder by a hateful mob. It was not the first. Let’s try to make it the last.

    Not unexpectedly many of those who are most responsible for the problems in our social and physical environment—our political leaders—have absolved themselves of guilt for the generally hostile in­tergroup climate in our city. Our politicians now claim they have been “unifiers”; their opponents have been the “dividers.” Editorialists and academics have done their part by blaming a particular neigh­borhood (Bensonhurst) or a particular ethnic group (Italian-Americans). In effect scapegoating working-class ethnics for the continued discrimination and episodic violence against nonwhite Americans.

    As a sociologist and “expert” on urban affairs I was quoted in the papers and appeared on television explaining how the centuries-old Southern Italian culture of family and village defense makes Italian-American neighborhoods especially suspicious and fearful of out­siders. In every case however I emphasized that such communities are by no means more racist or discriminatory than any other “American” community. In working-class, white ethnic enclaves battles to keep “them” out of the neighborhood are just, more likely to be fought in the street by residents. Other, more advantaged, people for example use co-op boards or “color-blind” economic criteria and rely on private security and closed circuit television for protection against those they don’t like. Pitting people who should be working together, against each other is a long-standing American tradition. Putting the blame on Italian Americans for American racism is not unlike blaming Irish Americans for anti-Catholicism or Jews for anti-Semitism.

    Not too long ago—and to many, still today—Italians (especially Southern Italians) were (are) considered members of an inferior race. The idiots who held up watermelons while black protestors marched near the site of Hawkins death haven’t the faintest idea that watermelons, racism and Southern Italians have a lot in common.

    First of all my grandfather, from Palermo, Sicily, Gerolimo Cangelosi worked his way up from selling watermelon by the slice on New York City street corners and had to endure the anti-Italian bias of America society. Being a victim, however, gives no one a right to victimize others.Recently, Assemblyman Frank Barbaro led a contingent of Italian-American community leaders and members of FIERI, an Italian Ameri­can student group, who met with a group of African-American protest marchers at the site of Yusuf Hawkins murder as part of what should be a continuing dialogue. Barbaro and others have courageously spo­ken out against the violence committed by a small minority in the community and stand in marked contrast to the silent embarrassment and sympathy of a much larger group of local residents.

    The differ­ence between those who speak out and those who are silent is that, like the members of FIERI, those Italian-Americans who confront and try to correct the problems in their own community rather than ignore or deny them are proudly aware of their own group’s suffering as well as their accomplishments and heritage. They know that Italians are not simply racist guidos and mafia dons and they know that Italians, as many other “Euro-American” immigrants were the victims of poverty and the focus of racist attention in past decades.

    Parallels between the African-American and Italian-American experiences are numerous and should be the source of cooperation rather than conflict. All of the historical events that follow should seem familiar to the reader, as they are the plagues visited upon wave after wave of poor American migrants and immigrants. In 1906, speaking on “The Immigration Problem” Robert DeCourcy Ward warned that Slavs, Italians and Jews because of their high birth rates would “degrade” the “American race.” Other contemporary crit­ics of Southern Italian immigration warned that Italians were a threat to America because they were not “white.” In fact it has been argued by some experts that the epithet “guinea” was “derived from a name attached to slaves from part of the western African coast.” The poverty of Southern Italy was so great during the latter part of the 19th Century that a transoceanic traffic was created for “Italian Slave Children.” The New York Herald reported on one of many “raids” on Italian padrones who either through contractual arrangements with parents or kidnapping sent hordes of juvenile minstrels out to beg in the streets of New York and Philadelphia. In one cellar “home” for the children the police and reporters found “an abom­inable place, the breeding ground of disease and the abode of roaches and vermin.” In 1870 there was a “Riot in Mamaroneck.” Irish and Italian laborers clashed over jobs. The end result of the battle as re­ported in the New York Sun was: “The Italian population of Grand Park was Driven Out—The Women and Children Sheltered in the Town Hall of Morrisania—Our Home War of Races.”

    In many cases Italian laborers were paid lower wages than “native whites” or “negroes,” making them more desirable employees. This fact of life was the justification for many riots against Italian workers who also were eager to work as “scabs” during strikes. Poor Southern Italian peasants were viewed by Dixie plantation owners as potential replacements for freed black slaves. The Italian government even cooperated in several “experiments” at population transfers that were unsuccessful.

    The major problem for the plantation owners was that Italian peasants were too difficult to control. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American press ac­counts and descriptions of Italians conveyed the message that “dagoes” were “dangerous,” “lazy,” “filthy,” “cruel,” “ferocious,” and bloodthirsty.” One Irish-American critic in the 1880s noted that “The Italian was all too ready to ask for public assistance.” And that the absence of “manly qualities” separated the Italian immigrants from others in America. As with African Americans, the best indicator of racial hatred is the American custom of “lynching.”

    Although there are many incidents of Italians being lynched by racist mobs, the most (in)famous took place in New Orleans on March 14, 1891 when, related by histo­rian Patrick Gallo: “a mob of 6,000–8,000 people, led by prominent cit­izens, descended on the parish jail to get the “Dagoes.” State and lo­cal law officers, and the governor who was in the city at the time, stood by and did nothing, the mob hanged two of the suspects from lampposts, and lined nine of them up in front of the prison wall and blasted their bodies with rifles, pistols, and shotguns, taking less than twenty minutes for their grim work.” The victims of the mob had been accused of killing the New Orleans superintendent of Police whose dying words were “The Dagoes shot me . . . the Dagoes did it.” He did not recognize his killers. Neither did any other witnesses. The Mayor of New Orleans therefore ordered the police “to arrest ev­ery Italian you come across.” About 150 were arrested. When the courts began to find them innocent, the New Orleans Times-Democrat called for “All good citizens . . . to attend a mass meeting . . . to take steps to remedy the failure of justice,” resulting in the largest mass lynching in American history.

    Reactions to the lynchings were as good as could be expected considering the general stereotype of Italians. Theodore Roosevelt considered the lynching of eleven “rather a good thing” and the New York Times agreed that “the Lynch Law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans.” To preserve American honor President Benjamin Harrison apologized to the Italian govern­ment for the slaughter of these and other Italians in America and gave a $25,000 indemnity to the families of 18 victims. I imagine that some poor Italian back in the 1890s, maybe even my grandfather, when he read about the lynchings, shivered and prayed that racial violence would someday end.



    Works Cited:

    Freeman, Robert C. “The Development and Maintenance of New York City’s Italian American Neighborhoods.” The Melting Pot and Beyond: Italian Americans in the Year 2000. Ed. Jerome Krase and William Egelman. Staten Island: American Italian Historical Association, 1987. 223–35.

    Gallo, Patrick J. Old Bread, New Wine. Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1981.

    Krase, Jerome “The Italian American Community: An Essay on Multi­ple Social Realities.” The Family and Community Life of Italian Americans. Ed. Richard N. Giuliani. Staten Island: American Ital­ian Historical Association, 1983. 95–108.

    La Gumina, Salvatore J. WOP: A Documentary History of Anti-Ital­ian Discrimination in the United States. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1973.

    By Jerry Krase, The Brooklyn Free Press, September 22, 1989.

  • Op-Eds

    Racism/Razzismo Part II: Yusuf Hawkins and the Closing of the American Mind

     Just a few days ago I saw an Italian Sociologist interviewed on RAI about "racism" in Italy. I thought he said that "it" wasn't really racism and then he gave an academic definition of the term which I won't repeat because it really doesn't matter to victims of "it." Racism is like a duck -- if it looks like one and sounds like one... In my opinion, and experience, the "racist" label is a matter of honor for many Italians and Italian Americans. They know that racists are bad people and since they are sure that they themselves are good people, they can't be racists. There are other reasons why they do things which might appear to others as "racist." This was the same response I heard in and around Bensonhurst almost twenty years ago. Italians and Italian Americans are not more racist then other people, but they are more concerned about being labeled as such.


        To hear some people talk, it appears that 16 year-old Yusuf Hawkins made a couple of ultimately fatal mistakes. One mistake was in biology and the other in geography. According to the rules of the game in the US, he committed a serious violation by being born black. At least this error was not his fault. His second and most grievous fault was geographical. He assumed that a ride on the “N” subway train to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, USA would not stop in Soweto, South Afrika. For this misreading he had to be punished. And punished he was! It was like a Moslem or a Christian in Beirut crossing the Green Line. In Lebanon they hurl artillery shells at one another. In American Cities we throw teenagers instead. Those who laid down the law to Mr. Hawkins feel they should be absolved of any guilt in his execution because of his (the victim’s) and their own unfortunate, but understandable, miscalculations.


          Some witnesses claim it took about thirty punks wielding baseball bats and at least one loaded pistol to put Mr. Hawkins to rest. Remnants of this rabid mob of miscreants claim absolution for their conduct based on the doctrine of mistaken identity. Undoubtedly some one will also claim that they “didn’t know the gun was loaded.” Besides, they swear, they mistook Mr. Hawkins for another dark-skinned African American with whom they had also never met. According to a lot of people young Yusuf was just unlucky and the assassinators had made an honest error in staunchly defending the crumbling walls of their sacred neighborhood against the barbarian hordes. This honorable “duty” is even fun to do when the barbarians are unarmed and vastly outnumbered.


          Academically speaking, these young hoodlums are Allan Bloom’s kind of people. They obviously have been saved from the horror of the liberal American educational system that produces the “democratic personality.” Professor Bloom’s widely acclaimed best selling book, The Closing of the American Mind, is a stirring indictment of America’s schools which practice “education of openness” and other subversive anti-absolutist doctrines. Bloom laments that this system has created citizens who are unfortunately open to “all kinds of men, all kinds of life styles, all ideologies.” According to this Pro­fessor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College and Co-director of the John M. Ohlin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy at the prestigious University of Chicago, America is in danger because too many educated people think that “everything is relative.”


          To Bloom and his colleagues on 20th Av­enue, absolutism is a virtue and certainly not everyone is a relative. Bloom et al claim that the founders of their version of American society considered minorities to be a bad thing—“selfish groups who have no concern as such for the common good.” According to this University of Chicago-20th Avenue view, as a result of misinterpretation of the founding fathers (or perhaps evil design?) Americans have been educated not only to accept differences but to exalt them. The Professor has traveled all over the world and most notably has translated Plato’s Republic as well as Rousseau’s Emile. He also wrote an excellent book on Shakespeare’s politics. I didn’t know that Shakespeare even had any politics and I wonder what he thought of minorities.


          One can conclude from all this that the ivory tower and the me­dieval neighborhood fashion similar kinds of bigotry. Intellectual bigots however are much more fashionable than those who yell “nigger go home” and hold up watermelons during civil rights marches. Both groups frequently rail about Affirmative Action. In fact, one local source interviewed about the murder of Yusuf Hawkins last week in Bensonhurst cited anger about affirmative action policies which residents believe have taken away job opportunities for neigh­borhood youths as a major reason for the hostility that led up to the killing. Blacks and other minorities are seen by unsuccessful people as the cause of their failures. This claim of victimization is a worrisome echo of times past. I remember once reading the headline of a German Newspaper in the Ann Frank House in Amsterdam about fifteen years ago—“Die Juden Sind Unser Unglueck”—The Jews are our Misfortune. Millions of Jews were murdered en masse. In New York City we murder our misfortunes one at a time. There are lots of excuses, which have or will be offered for the murder of Yusuf Hawkins. I don’t think his death can be excused but it can be easily explained.


          Like other young men who have killed, maimed, raped, and simply terrorized people because they are “different” and therefore “less then” themselves, the mob on 20th Avenue is reflecting the behavior and attitudes of the most powerful of people in our society. They emulate their leaders—the people they look up to and fear. Neighborhood gangs also have an unfortunately accurate sense that no one is looking out for their interests and that they have to defend themselves against any and everyone. They want to be feared by others. Blacks are easy targets for those on 20th Avenue because blacks are easier to spot on their own, reasonably white, turf. The other enemies are hidden from view or protected by powerful institutions. 20th Avenue in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn differs from other neighborhoods only by on-the-surface characteristics. This community of struggling people is simply another place that is off limits to “outsiders.”


          When I was a teenager in the 1950s I was living in a neighborhood under siege in Prospect Heights. My family had an apartment on the third floor over Love’s Meat Market, which catered to the rapidly diminishing population of wealthy WASP’s on the once elegant Eastern Parkway across the street from the Brooklyn Museum. We were the janitor-family (“supers”) of the building. The mafia, the 80th Precinct, and the Grand Avenue “Boys” were the neighborhood’s first lines of defense against the imperial growth of black Bedford/ Stuyvesant and their teenage gangs—the “Bishops” and the “Chaplains.” It was a war mentality and the children played war games. One warm summer evening my friends (a mix of working class Irish and Italian Catholics, one Jew and one WASP) decided to have a race around the block—Sterling Street to Underhill Avenue to Park Place to Washington Avenue and the Sterling Street finish line by Lewne’s Ice Cream Parlor. The winner would get a few bucks in prize money from those who ran and those who bet on the race. I needed the money badly so I ran like a deer.


          I was way ahead on Park Place when two guys jumped in front of me and forced me into the space between the high Brownstone stoops. The space was dark but some light penetrated from the street lamp down the block. Three black kids, about my size and age were preparing to rob me of all my worldly goods. They didn’t know I had nothing to my name. One held what felt like a knife to my side. I am certain that the dim light from the lamppost saved me as one of the crew said to his friends, “Let him go. I know him from school.” Indeed, he was a friend of mine from P.S. 9 that billed itself as the “Brotherhood School.” I came in last in the race. Yusuf Hawkins didn’t find a friendly face in the crowd.


          Some powerful people in New York City have fostered an atmosphere of intense paranoia and we have all become its victim. Our paranoia benefits them. It keeps us from looking for and finding the things we have in common and things we all need. Each group in the city has a unique history before they got here, but once here they fall into the same pattern of intergroup hostility, the volume and violence level of which rises and falls like the tide. The hostility is seldom addressed except as lip service at the anniversaries of the deaths of fallen heroes. For many politicians the violence is measured first as to who benefits most by it -- themselves or their opponent. The greatest sadness which I can contemplate after Mr. Hawkins death, and the greatest insult to his family, is that some people will soon be receiv­ing campaign literature with the subliminal message “Vote for Me, I’m Not Black” or “Vote for Me, I’m Not White.” Yusuf Hawkins will eventually become a “Statistical Bump” in an election year public opinion poll.



    Originally published as: "Yusuf Hawkins and the Closing of the American Mind" by Jerry Krase, The Brooklyn Free Press September 1, 1989.