MY FRIEND MADHU regularly puts conservative Indian American politicians on blast for behavior he views as demeaning — “desis of shame,” he calls Nikki Haley, Seema Verma, and other past and present foot soldiers of the Trump administration. Days after the 2016 presidential election, when Rudy Giuliani’s name hovered over the attorney general nomination like a fly over the rotting corpse of democracy, I asked Madhu for a comparable term that Italian Americans like me could use to express discontent with one of our own.
“Paisano of shame?” he suggested, using a variation of the traditional Italian paesano — that is, friends and family members who too can trace their origins to the old country. “Too long?” No, I replied. Not when shortened to “POS.”
That “paesano of shame” happened to share an acronym with the old insult “piece of shit” was pleasing to my righteous agita, indignation and indigestion rolled into new world slang. In a culture where you often must yell to be heard, especially if you are a woman, it is consistent with the language of family dinner-table debates. But there’s no need for vulgarity in what I think is an important mission for Italian Americans. Whether you call them paesani, the plural in Italian, or paesans, the plural among Italian Americans, we must denounce Trump’s Italian American circle for all his emissaries represent: racism, for starters, and so much more.
Italian Americans were the second-largest white ethnic group to vote for Trump, behind German Americans and ahead of English and Irish Americans, according to a small but revealing 2016 post-election BuzzFeed News poll that told me what I already knew in my bones. Giuliani’s 2020 Republican National Convention rant against the “progressive Democrat approach to crime,” the Black Lives Matter movement, and antifa exhumed my childhood memories of paesans revering “America’s mayor” for essentially vowing to make New York City safe again. Giuliani gathered like-minded paesans decades later for the Columbus Day launch of “Italian Americans for Trump,” an unventilated pandemic campaign rally that honored two false idols: the current president and a colonizer born centuries before Italy became a nation.
Giuliani is far from my people’s only Trump acolyte. The administration reflects some of the worst Italian Americans on offer, from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo enacting “America First” foreign policy to former White House Director of Communications Anthony Scaramucci mooching off his faux resistance, to say nothing of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort (né Manaforte, Italian for the “strong hand” he squandered on his way to prison for Trump). White House Counsel Pasquale “Pat” Cipollone defended Trump in Senate Republicans’ sham impeachment trial. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy may be an Italian American: “Pretty sure it was originally ‘di Gioia.’ Just sayin’,” “resistance genealogist” Jennifer Mendelsohn tweeted after the major Trump donor jeopardized mail-in voting amid the pandemic.
The whole “nation of immigrants” trope is nothing more than a balm for white guilt, as An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz dissected in a Counterpunch article. Still, I seethe at resistance genealogy’s revelations about White House Director of Social Media Dan Scavino, who messaged the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies through racist tweets attacking family migration — the same way his great-grandfather Gildo Scavino left Italy and entered the United States. Ken Cuccinelli, who holds dual leadership roles in the US Department of Homeland Security and US Citizenship and Immigration Services, claims the Statue of Liberty’s welcome poem applies only to “people coming from Europe” and used it to justify the Trump administration’s xenophobic “public charge” rule, which forces immigrants to choose between entry into the country and the social safety nets they may need to survive in it.
“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” Cuccinelli said, though his great-grandfather who arrived here with just $8.75 might have disagreed. The “good immigrant” trope translates into racist immigration policy.
I can neither cry “not all paesans,” nor distance myself from Giuliani’s “Italian Americans for Trump.” Like them, my ancestors were Italian migrants.
I’ve touched my maternal grandfather’s immigration records preserved in one of the countless municipal buildings dotting Puglia, the region stretching down the Adriatic Sea and piercing the Ionian like a high heel through a deep blue puddle, rain boots be damned. The rest of my grandparents were born to Italian parents in the United States. But my paternal grandmother’s mamma and papà soon gathered their little American citizens and returned for several years to Calabria, the toe that nearly kicks Sicily into North Africa. Italian migrants often traveled back and forth between longing for their old life and carving out a new one far from paesani, in abhorrent working conditions that may have seemed more laborious to body and soul than walking however many kilometers to scrub clothes in crisp river waters. Migrant men in particular often sent money to wives and mothers left behind and intended to return to them with enough savings to buy property in their homeland, not unlike their much-vilified Latinx counterparts a century or so later.
What a privilege to know the who and the where of my family’s origin story. To know that despite the strife my ancestors experienced on sunbaked soil, they were free to leave on vessels that served children pastina for their roiling stomachs. They were not captured, and they were not chained.
Southern Italians arrived in the United States, ship by ship, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, often with little more than the clothes on their backs, a burning desire for justice, and deep-seated anger at injustice. They brought their appetite for radical social and economic change into the factories and tenements where Smith College professor Jennifer Guglielmo describes them squinting over buttonholes or breathing in feather fluff for pennies per hour, for as many as 18 hours per day. They led the progressive labor movements of their time and included Italian American women largely written out of the history that Guglielmo recreates in Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880–1945.
Far too many of their Italian American descendants would not inherit the defiance of a land that rebelled against the abuses of the government and power of the Catholic Church. Of a brigand people who “resisted the draft, intimidated tax collectors, occupied land, and robbed from the rich to give to the poor,” Guglielmo writes. Of peasant women who delivered each other’s babies and performed each other’s abortions. Of Calabrese paesane, the plural for women who once sang the book’s epigraph: Si viju lu diavulu non schiantu — “If I see the devil I do not run.”
In the current US political climate, the devil is not a person. The devil is structural: racism and xenophobia, sexism and transphobia. The devil manifests through the Trump administration’s policies like family separation, the Muslim travel ban, the transgender military ban, and “religious freedom” protections that all but beg doctors to deny care to queer and trans patients, whether it’s gender affirming or for the novel coronavirus, and to abortion patients, even if they’re miscarrying or dying.
I wish I only inherited the brigandage of Southern Italy. But I’m American by birth. From my birthright citizenship into a country built on the devil’s biddings, twin legacies of stolen land and slavery, I have empowered the devil through what I’ve said and done and failed to say and do. I did not vote with the 53 percent of white women who cast ballots for Trump, but it took Trump’s election for me to glimpse, let alone confront the devil that marginalized people live with and die from every day in America. What a paesan of shame I was, and still am every time I don’t say and do something about it.
I have to believe Italian Americans can create a new cultural-political inheritance for our people and far more importantly, a country worth inheriting for people at the margins, minus the white guilt and white saviorism that would only muck it up. We need to be good ancestors, in the words of Jonas Salk, who refused to patent his polio vaccine so it could reach more people, and in the words of Layla F. Saad, who wrote Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor so she could reach more people. I’m criticizing my paesans out of love, tough love — our shared language.
Nationalism on a grand scale didn’t always come naturally to paesans: it was forced upon our good ancestors in the Risorgimento, the movement for unification that created Italy in 1861. In Living the Revolution, Jennifer Guglielmo describes how the farmers, sharecroppers, fishers, and artisans who scraped by in the demonized South, or Mezzogiorno, resisted Northern occupation for as long as they could, and rebelled against “excessive taxation, forced conscription, dispossession from land, widespread poverty, police brutality, and government repression.” Paesans were more loyal to their own slices of Italian countryside, recreating them in their new world neighborhoods.
Then came a wave of US nationalism in their new home, thanks to World War I. Italians had newfound incentive to prove their American credentials, particularly against the enactment of the xenophobic Immigration Act of 1924 in the United States and the rise of fascist leader Benito Mussolini in Italy. An overlapping Red Scare further put the fear of the US police state into Italian immigrants. In 1927, the state of Massachusetts executed Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for their politics as much for or more than the dubious murder allegations against them. The press hurled slurs like the n-word and “guineas” at Italians, the latter originally “a term of derision applied to enslaved Africans and their descendants,” The New York Times editorialist Brent Staples recounted in tracing paesans’ path to acceptance.
The 1935–’37 Second Italo-Ethiopian War divided Italian Americans. Those who challenged Mussolini’s fascist colonialism became good ancestors. Writing for The Washington Post, historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat thusly describes the 10,000 people gathered at Madison Square Garden to heed civil rights leaders W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson’s call against the imminent war: “The rally was also a demonstration of racial unity: Whites, including many anti-fascist Italian Americans, made up three-quarters of the audience that cheered the sight of a 20-foot effigy of Mussolini being destroyed.” Vito Marcantonio was elected to Congress as a radical socialist shortly before the war, and he’d go on to successfully defend Du Bois from spurious US Department of Justice charges in 1951. Other good ancestors live in the pages of Marcella Bencivenni’s Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890–1940 and the anthology The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism.
Plenty of Italian Americans supported Mussolini’s explicitly racist cause. Some even volunteered their bodies over the objections of the US Department of State. They may not have been fighting for America, but they were perpetuating America’s legacy of colonization. In The Fire Next Time, the writer James Baldwin describes his childhood in New York City’s Harlem, complete with “Italian priests and bishops blessing Italian boys who were on their way to Ethiopia” to claim it as their own. The Italian, Black, and Puerto Rican women of the East Harlem Housing Committee fought for a low-cost housing project in their shared neighborhood, but Italians ultimately resented the 1939 victory because “their relatively higher incomes” priced them out of what would become the projects, Guglielmo writes.
That Italians blamed people of color instead of acknowledging the privilege that fueled their subsequent white flight squares with the paesans who raised me in de facto racially segregated suburbs. Paesans often left what had been majority Italian American neighborhoods in Brooklyn for the myth of the American Dream in Long Island, Staten Island, or New Jersey. To this day they lament how the old neighborhoods have “changed” — code for Chinese Americans who have moved into Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge.
Italians ultimately paid the “price of the ticket” for entry into the United States: “to become ‘white,’” Baldwin writes in “On Being White … And Other Lies.” The cost was the life of Black teenager Yusuf Hawkins at the hands of predominantly Italian Americans, some barely legal, in Bensonhurst in 1989. The ticket was only available because US immigration laws have always coded Italians as white, even when we were viewed as racially suspect “dark” whites on immigration forms into the 1940s, as the late Italian American scholar Louise DeSalvo writes about her step-grandmother.
I believe today’s paesans of shame voted for Trump because they enjoy the spoils of whiteness. Catholicism is a convenient excuse; Italian immigrants were far less doctrinaire than the largely Irish American Catholic Church that awaited them in late 19th- and early 20th-century, and many left the institution, for a while at least. Dolly Sinatra — Frank’s mother — provided safe abortions as part of her neighborhood midwifery work in Hoboken, New Jersey, and became a prominent local Democratic Party leader. The paesans who raised me in Central New Jersey nearly a century later officially agreed with the church’s teachings on birth control, which 99 percent of Catholic cisgender women have used at some point in their lives, according to the Guttmacher Institute’s most recent data. Unofficially, no paesans objected when I vacationed with my boyfriend in my 20s, as long as I didn’t turn up pregnant at Christmas.
That sprinkling of American-as-apple-pie patriarchy only goes so far. Enter value judgments into the equation that equals praise for Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett having seven children and derision for Black mothers having any number of children. In that vein, Italian Americans who turned their backs on progressive labor unions sure love regressive police unions that shield white officers when they take Black lives.
The real deal is racism. How many paesans of shame care or care to know the true origins of Columbus Day? President Benjamin Harrison declared the first nationally recognized Columbus Day after 11 Italian Americans were lynched in New Orleans in 1891. Columbus was no hero to honor the fallen. Writing in the Times, Staples contrasts this response with the US government’s nonresponse to far more widespread violence against Black people — then and now.
Italian Americans aren’t the only group of people enabling Trump and the devil alike. As Madhu agrees, that shame transcends ethnicity and race.
Talia Lavin, author of Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, has called Trump’s Jewish circle a shanda fur di goyim, a “scandal in the eyes of Gentiles.” Elon Green has written that people like “dead-eyed Stephen Miller” should at least “have the decency to feel shame” in the “Shonda Years” of the Trump administration. The ticket to whiteness has been available to most Jewish immigrants, too, as James Baldwin illustrates in his 1967 essay, “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.”
Journalist Kirsten West Savali has criticized Black former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson under the headline “All Skinfolk Ain’t Kinfolk,” a quote widely attributed to lauded African American author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. Carson failed to redeem himself as Trump’s housing secretary, a platform he’s used to compare enslaved people to immigrants entering “a land of dreams and opportunity” and deny shelter to trans people, who disproportionately experience homelessness.
“Latinos for Trump” hasn’t lost its small but substantial hold over US-born Latino men, according to The New York Times. That data may seem like an October surprise, given how Trump has demonized, deported, and incarcerated migrants from Central and South America. Perhaps they’ve rationalized that their “good” ancestors came here the “right way.” Allow me to spell out another poor excuse they share with paesans of shame: machismo versus maschilismo, linguistic variations on the same appreciation for Trump’s male chauvinism, filtered through the authority of his whiteness. White women have been known to vote for that toxic combination, too.
The last time we spoke, Madhu recalled how his parents’ generation often pressured his generation of Indian Americans into performing whiteness, the only construct under which success seemed attainable. They couldn’t imagine South Carolina gubernatorial voters choosing Nimrata Randhawa, but as Nikki Haley she would be electable under her childhood nickname coupled with her married last name, and after a conversion to Methodism. Whether or not the older generation agreed with her politics and former Louisiana Republican Governor Bobby Jindal’s, too, such conservative platforms appealed to whiteness and conquest. Democrat Pramila Jayapal’s 2016 unabashedly progressive congressional victory on her own terms in Washington state heartened Madhu, as does Kamala Harris sharing the 2020 Democratic presidential ticket with Joe Biden. The childhood lessons still stung him.
I’m unfamiliar with this particular pain. I was never told to act white, because I’ve always been “white.” On a pre-coronavirus foray into my parents’ suburbia, the front desk attendant at the local gym greeted three children under the age of seven or eight: “Hi Carmine! Hi Gianna! Hi Vito!” Whereas Italians once hid our vowels behind Anglicized or Americanized consonants — the actor Anna Maria Louisa Italiano behind Anne Bancroft — many of us embrace how they roll off the tongue, without worrying about the hiring managers that disproportionately bar entry to Black, East Asian, and South Asian job candidates because of the names on their resumes. Yet Italian Americans have been known to pull a fast one; in September, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student admitted they were “Southern Italian/Sicilian,” not Black.
Marginalized people who buy into the allure of whiteness, or benefit from its protections based on appearance, aren’t safe from the consequences of white supremacy. Jewish people, Black people, and Latinx people live in heightened danger under a presidency enmeshed in antisemitism, anti-Blackness, and state-sanctioned chants to “build the wall.” Italian Americans don’t, no matter how much some of us love to complain about mafia stereotypes on premium cable. Those of us who challenge whiteness through activism and essays still benefit from it, too. We will never experience the racist COVID-19 backlash against Asian American people and their businesses, though the virus overtook Italy and traveled from Europe to New York. If certain paesans don’t like how they’re portrayed, they should stop pledging omertà to Don Trump.
Rudy Giuliani is the consigliere in the Trump Crime Family. He’s no longer the former federal prosecutor who targeted the mob in the 1980s and incarcerated paesans when necessary. Instead he’s the profoundly anti-Black mayor who implemented “broken windows” policing in the 1990s and presaged the unconstitutional “stop and frisk” policing of the 2000s. Under his administration, an Italian American New York City Police Department officer sexually assaulted Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. Though Louima recanted his allegation that the officers who attacked him yelled it was “Giuliani Time,” there’s no doubt Giuliani made conditions in which the devil could flourish.
Now Giuliani’s son, a Trump White House aide, is considering a New York City mayoral run that would perpetuate the next generation of paesans of shame. If Italian Americans don’t eject the devil from their souls, I fear that the presidential election, no matter the outcome, will condemn us to that fate.
Our good ancestors prescribe a different future. Southern Italians opposed the corrupt infant state in the 1892–’94 uprisings. Brigands fought from the mountains. Their only protectors would have been ancient olive trees as knobby as a nonna’s hand clutching precious full cheeks or swatting naughty words out of childish lips. They saw the devil, and they did not run. Others did only when the silver-tinged leaves couldn’t protect them or their families, birthing the World War I–era phrase “either brigand or emigrant.”
New generations of brigands opposed Mussolini’s rise to power in the largely Northern Italian force known as Arditi del Popolo, and the Italian resistance fighters known as partisans waged World War II on two fronts: Nazism and fascism. Many of the emigrants remained brigands at heart. Carlo Tresca; sisters Maria and Angela Bambace, and Angela’s partner, Luigi Quintiliano; Maria Roda and her partner, Catalan anarchist Pedro Esteve; Ninfa Baronio, her compagno, Firmino Gallo, and their children; Girolamo Valenti; Fortunato Velona; Maria Barbieri; and Antonio Fierro are some of the Italian American radicals who would have proudly identified with today’s version of antifa.
Today’s paesans can be and do better. Jennifer Guglielmo is collaborating with the domestic workers movement on leveraging history for activism. Queens College folklorist Joseph Sciorra and photo editor Steph Romeo marched for Yusuf Hawkins in 1989 under the banner “Italians Against Racism,” as their own people spat at them from Bensonhurst’s sidewalks. Sciorra documented the experience in an essay in Guglielmo’s anthology, Are Italians White?: How Race is Made in America.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi — the daughter of former Baltimore mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. — ripped up Trump’s 2020 State of the Union propaganda on live television, earning her back a cannoli point from her deficit in my book for supporting anti-abortion Democrats. The ongoing pandemic has given us other imperfect role models. Brooklyn landlord Mario Salerno canceled a month’s rent for his hundreds of tenants but lost his sheen after he accepted Trump’s invitation to the White House. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the dedicated infectious disease civil servant treading carefully in political appointee-infested waters, has come so far since his time in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, when it took ACT UP to make him act on the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gets no cannoli points for his self-aggrandizing pandemic response until he finds the guts to rescind his support for Christopher Columbus iconography. I prefer comedian Maria DeCotis’s Cuomo impersonations, which she tweets with mandatory actions for Black lives within the gubernatorial power Cuomo’s using to coddle the NYPD rather than address its systemic racism. And the ex-mayor’s daughter Caroline Giuliani gives me hope for the next generation of paesans. “I may not be able to change my father’s mind, but together, we can vote this toxic administration out of office,” she wrote in an essay for Vanity Fair.
Confronting the devil requires us to fight the ugliest parts of ourselves and sometimes, the ugly parts will win. That’s no excuse for stagnation. To remain anchored is to commit to a lifetime of hard work — long after Trump and his Italian American advocates are, God willing, expelled from power and held accountable for how they abused it. Italian Americans have a moral imperative to reclaim our authentic roots that once grew in revolutionary soil. Paesans must stop bringing shame to our culture, our character, and our country.