Italian Immigrant Stereotypes Dispelled

November 22, 2010

The following is an excerpt from an article written around the turn of the 20th century by the Director of the Immigration Publication Society in New York. It's noteworthy because of the statistics it contains that dispel stereotypes about Italian criminality and poverty compared to other European ethnic groups in the Greater New York area (mostly Irish, but also Jews, Germans and Anglos).

Lies have short legs, the Florentine tag has it, but the Italian is still accused of being a degenerate, a lazy fellow and a pauper, half a criminal, a present danger, and a serious menace to our civilization. If there is a substantial basis of truth in these charges, it must appear very clearly in Greater New York, which is now disputing Rome's place as the third largest Italian city in the world. Moreover, New York contains nearly two fifths of all the Italians in the United States, and in proportion to its size it is the least prosperous Italian colony in the country, and shelters a considerable part of our immigrant failures — those who cannot fall into step with the march of American life.

First, as to the paupers. The Italian inhabitants of New York City number nearly 450,000; the Irish, somewhat over 300,000. In males — the criminal sex — the Italians outnumber the Irish about two to one. Yet by a visit to the great almshouse on Blackwell's Island and an examination of the unpublished record for 1904, I found that during that year 1564 Irish had been admitted, and only 16 Italians. Mr. James Forbes, the chief of the Mendicancy Department of the Charity Organization Society, tells me that he has never seen or heard of an Italian tramp. As for begging, between July 1, 1904, and September 30, 1905, the Mendicancy Police took into custody 519 Irish and only 92 Italians. Pauperism has a close relation with suicide, and of such deaths during the year the record counts 89 Irish and 23 Italians. The Irish have always supplied much more than their share of our paupers; but Irish brawn has contributed its full part to the prosperity of the country; and the comparatively large proportion of Irish inmates in all our penal institutions never justified the charge that the Irish are a criminal race, or Irish immigration undesirable. That was the final answer to the Know-Nothing argument!

Nor do court records show that Italians are the professional criminals they are said to be. Take the city magistrates' reports for the year ending December 31, 1901 — the latest date for which all the necessary data are available. At that time, using Dr. Laidlaw's estimate of additions by immigration to the population of the city to May 1, 1902, there were about 282,804 Irish and 200,549 Italians in Greater New York. If the proportion of the sexes remained unchanged from the taking of the census, there were 117,599 Irish males, and 114,673 Italian. This near equality of the criminal sex in the two nationalities makes possible a rough measure of Italian criminality.

In these columns of crime the most striking fact in the Italian's favor is a remarkable showing of sobriety. During the year, 7281 Irish were hauled into court accused of "intoxication" and "intoxication and disorderly conduct," while the Italians arrested on the same charge numbered only 513. With the exception of the Russian Jews, Italians are by far the most sober of all nationalities in New York, including the native born. Next, noticing only offenses committed with particular frequency, the Italians again appear at a pronounced advantage in: Assaults (misdemeanor), 284 Irish and 139 Italians; disorderly conduct, 3278 Irish and 1454 Italians; larceny (misdemeanor), 297 Irish and 174 Italians; vagrancy, 1031 Irish and 80 Italians. Insanity is here listed with crime, and there are 146 Irish commitments to 35 Italian. Irish and Italians are nearly at an equality in: Burglaries, 63 Irish and 57 Italians; and larceny (felony), 122 Irish and 94 Italians. On the other hand, Italians show at the worst in: Violation of corporation ordinance (chiefly peddling without a license), 196 Irish and 1169 Italians; and assault (felony), 75 Irish and 155 Italians. In homicides, quite contrary to the popular impression, the Italians are only charged with the ratio exactly normal to their numbers after taking the average per 100,000 for the whole city, while the Irish are accused of nearly two and one half times their quota: Irish 50, Italians 14. The report for 1903, the last published, after important changes effected by almost two years of immigration, shows an unchanged proportional variation: Irish 59, Italians 21.

The one serious crime to which Italians are prone more than other men is an unpremeditated crime of violence. This is mostly charged, and probably with entire justice, upon the men of four provinces, and Girgenti in Sicily is particularly specified. It is generally the outcome of quarrels among themselves, prompted by jealousy and suspected treachery. The Sicilians' code of honor is an antiquated and repellent one, but even his vendetta is less ruthless than the Kentucky mountaineer's. It stops at the grave. Judged in the mass, Italians are peaceable, as they are law-abiding. The exceptions make up the national criminal record; and as there is a French or English type of criminal, so there is a Sicilian type, who has succeeded in impressing our imaginations with some fear and terror.

[...]

It is important that two or three other truths about the Italian should be known. Like all their immigrant predecessors, Italians profess no special cult of soap and water; and here, too, there are differences, for some Italians are cleaner than others. Still, cleanliness is the rule and dirt the exception. The inspectors of the New York Tenement-House Department report that the tenements in the Italian quarters are in the best condition of all, and that they are infinitely cleaner than those in the Jewish and Irish districts. And the same with overcrowding. One of New York's typical "Little Italies" is inhabited by 1075 Italian families — so poor that only twenty-six of them pay over $19 monthly rent — and yet, when a complete canvass was made by the Federation of Churches, the average allotment of space was found to be one room to 1.7 persons. Like the Germans and Irish of the fifties, our Italians are largely poor, ignorant peasants when they come to us. But by the enforcement of the recent law our present immigrants are greatly superior physically and morally to those of the Know-Nothing days. The difference in criminal records is partly the proof of a better law. The worst of the newer tenements are better than the best of the old kind, and every surrounding is more sanitary. Better schools, recreation piers, public baths, playgrounds, and new parks are helping the Italian children of the tenements to develop into healthy and useful men and women.

[...]

They are honest, saving, industrious, temperate, and so exceptionally moral that two years ago the Secretary of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco was able to boast that the police of that city had never yet found an Italian woman of evil character. Even in New York (and I have my information from Mr. Forbes, of the Charity Organization Society) Italian prostitution was entirely unknown until by our corrupt police it was colonized as scientifically as a culture of bacteria made by a biologist; and to-day it is less proportionately than that of any other nationality within the limits of the greater city. More than 750,000 Italian immigrants have come to us within the last four years, and during that entire time only a single woman of them has been ordered deported charged with prostitution.

[...]

From the very bottom, Italians are climbing up the same rungs of the same social and industrial ladder [as the Irish and the Germans]. But it is still a secret that they are being gradually turned into Americans; and, for all its evils, the city colony is a wonderful help in the process. The close contact of American surroundings eventually destroys the foreign life and spirit, and of this New York gives proof. Only two poor fragments remain of the numerous important German and Irish colonies that were flourishing in the city twenty-five or thirty years ago; while the ancient settled Pennsylvania Dutch, thanks to their isolation, are not yet fully merged in the great citizen body. And so, in the city colony, Italians are becoming Americans. Legions of them, who never intended to remain here when they landed, have cast in their lot definitely with us; and those who have already become Americanized, but no others, are beginning to intermarry with our people. The mass of them are still laborers, toiling like ants in adding to the wealth of the country; but thousands are succeeding in many branches of trade and manufacture. The names of Italians engaged in business in the United States fill a special directory of over five hundred pages. Their real estate holdings and bank deposits aggregate enormous totals. Their second generation is already crowding into all the professions, and we have Italian teachers, dentists, architects, engineers, doctors, lawyers, and judges.

John Foster Carr. "The Coming of the Italian". The Outlook, February 24, 1906. (Quoted from: Immigration and Americanization: selected readings. Compiled and edited by Philip Davis and Bertha Schwartz. New York: Ginn and Company, 1920.)

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