Spike Lee's Italian Obsession

January 24, 2011

African-American filmmaker Spike Lee seems to really have it in for Italians. The question is why? For starters, he grew up in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn in the 1960s and 70s, a predominantly Italian neighborhood where his was the only black family in town. Then in the 1980s, there was a string of racially motivated attacks in other New York Italian neighborhoods (though not all of the assailants were Italian) in which three black people were killed: Willie Turks, Michael Griffith and Yusef Hawkins.

Lee dealt directly with these incidents in his 1989 movie Do the Right Thing, but he took it a step farther by injecting Afrocentric pseudohistory and pseudoscience directed at Italian heritage and ancestry. Since then, he seems to have been trying to "get back" at Italians in many of his films, stereotyping them as dumb bigoted degenerates, and even showing hostility with his latest effort, Miracle at St. Anna, whose story is far removed from the racism of NYC Italian neighborhoods.

Italian-American groups are finally getting fed up and have begun calling him out on it. I don't agree with their protest against his public appearance. He has the right to deal with racism in his movies and portray whatever kinds of characters he wants, even to the point of distortion and obsession. What I take issue with is the argument he uses to defend himself and justify his actions:

During his speech, Lee read racist quotations from movies made by Italian-American directors such as The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino and Saturday Night Fever — many which used the N-word. These films, Lee said, portrayed stereotypes or used racial slurs against African Americans. [...] Lee asked why it was acceptable for these Italian-American directors to have their characters portray race and racism in America while he is criticized for doing so.

That's a false analogy. Blacks barely figure in those movies at all, and the filmmakers don't stereotype them or have any anti-black, pro-Italian agenda. They merely include a few racist Italian characters, which means their criticism, like Lee's, is directed at Italians. They're acknowledging Italian racism, beating him to the punch by almost twenty years. The only difference is that those movies are actually good because the characterizations are much more subtle, whereas he hits you over the head with it.

Lee complains about "a double-standard being used against him", but he has that backwards. The simple fact is, Italian filmmakers would never be able to get away with doing to blacks what he does to Italians, and that's the only double standard here:

Italian American advocates are also justified in pointing out a double standard when it comes to the stereotyping of Italian Americans and other groups, particularly racial minorities, who have far greater purchase on the sympathies of good liberal people than do Italians. As The New York Times' Clyde Haberman observed, had a white director portrayed black residents of Harlem as drug- and sex-crazed louts and gangsters — which is exactly how Spike Lee depicted a working-class Italian American community in his egregious Summer of Sam — the outrage would have been immediate and unequivocal.

George De Stefano. An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America. New York: Faber & Faber, Inc., 2007.

Tenney Frank's "Orientalization" Refuted

January 17, 2011

In 1916, American historian Tenney Frank published an article called "Race Mixture in the Roman Empire", which is quoted all over the web by Nordicists. Like them, he was concerned about what he called the "race suicide" of America's "native stock", and he needed a historical parallel to help sound the alarm. So he claimed that Ancient Rome fell because of mixing with freed slaves from the East (mainly Syria, Asia Minor and Egypt) that led to a process of racial and cultural "Orientalization".

Recently, old notions about the demographic impact of Roman slavery in Italy have been completely overturned, and evidence has shown that the foreign population of Rome was very small and mostly European. But even in his own time, Frank's work was criticized by other historians who argued that the Eastern origin of the slaves could not be established, and that the sample he used was not representative.

Professor Tenney Frank, of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, has approached the problem from another angle. From an elaborate statistical study of the Corpus of Latin inscriptions he concludes that Rome and the Latin West were flooded by an invasion of Greek and Oriental slaves: as these were emancipated and thus secured Roman citizenship the whole character of the citizen body was changed: on the basis of a consideration of some 13,900 sepulchral inscriptions he argues that nearly 90 per cent of the Roman-born inhabitants of the Western capital were of foreign extraction. What lay behind and constantly reacted on those economic factors which have generally been adduced to explain the decline of the Roman power was the fact that those who had built Rome had given way to a different race. "The whole of Italy as well as the Romanized portions of Gaul and Spain were during the Empire dominated in blood by the East." In this fact Tenney Frank would find an explanation of the development from the Principate to the Dominate — the triumph of absolutism, of the spread of Oriental religions, the decline in Latin literature and the growing failure in that gift for the government of men which had built up the Empire.

But the foundations on which this far-reaching theory rests are not above suspicion. The nationality of Roman slaves is but rarely expressly stated in the sepulchral inscriptions, and thus it is upon the appearance of a Greek name for slave or freedman that Tenney Frank has inferred an Oriental origin. The legitimacy of this inference has been questioned by Miss Mary Gordon in her able study of the "Nationality of Slaves under the early Roman Empire", JRS xiv, 1924. A slave was a personal chattel, and slave-dealer or slave-owner could give to the slave any name which in his unfettered choice he might select: the slave dealers with whom Romans first came in contact were Greeks and thus, as Miss Gordon says, "Greek was the original language of the slave trade and this is reflected in servile nomenclature much as the use of French on modern menus and in the names affected by dressmakers suggests the history and associations of particular trades." In fact the nomenclature of the slave in the ancient world was scarcely less arbitrary than are the modern names given to our houses, our puddings, our horses or our dogs. An attempt to determine the domicile of origin of our cats or dogs solely by the names which their owners have given them would hardly be likely to produce results of high scientific value. The outlandish names of barbarian captives reduced to slavery would naturally be changed to more familiar forms, and Latin nomenclature was singularly poor and unimaginative: the Greek names were well-known and resort to these was easy. It may be said that this reasoning is largely a priori and of little cogency. But Ettore Cicotti in a recent paper on "Motivi demografici e biologici nella rovina della civiltà antica" in Nuova Rivista Storica, Anno xiv, fasc. i-ii, has adduced an interesting historical parallel. L. Livi (La schiavitù domestica nei tempi di mezzo e nei moderni, Ricerche storiche di un antropologo, Roma, 1928) in 1928 published documents which his father copied from the State Archives of Florence. These documents record 357 sales of slaves: the transactions date from the years 1366 to 1390 — for the most part from the years 1366 to 1370. The majority of the slaves were of Tartar origin, though some were Greeks, Roumanians, etc. In these records the slave's original name is generally given and then follows the Italian name by which the slave is known. Thus the name of Lucia occurs forty-two times and represents such original names as Marchecta, Gingona, Erina, Minglacha, Saragosa, Casabai, Alterona and many others. Similarly the name of Caterina is given to slaves of Greek, Tartar, Turkish, Circassian, and Russian origin and has taken the place of such barbarous names as Coraghessan, Chrittias, Colcatalo, Tagaton, and Melich. The parallel is very instructive.

But this is not all: the sepulchral inscriptions studied by Tenney Frank extend over a period of three centuries: suppose that Rome had during the early Empire a population of some 800,000 with an annual mortality of 20 per cent: in those three centuries the deaths would number 4,800,000. Tenney Frank has examined 13,900 inscriptions and those are derived from imperial and aristocratic columbaria: here the slaves would be better off and the percentage of accomplished foreign slaves would be higher: what of the nameless dead whom no record preserved, whose bodies lay in the vast common burial pits of the slave proletariat? These 13,900 dead who left permanent memorials behind them cannot be regarded as really representative of the general servile population of the city: we are not justified in using the percentage obtained from these records and applying it as though it were applicable to the whole class of slaves and of freedmen.

In the light of this criticism Tenney Frank's statistics are vitiated, and it must be admitted that the nationality of the slaves of Rome under the early Empire remains a matter of conjecture. There must have been a far greater number derived from Western Europe than are allowed for on Tenney Frank's calculations.

Norman H. Baynes. "The Decline of the Roman Power in Western Europe. Some Modern Explanations". Journal of Roman Studies, 1943.

Affirmative Action Idiocy

January 2, 2011

Vincenzo Milione, a researcher at the Calandra Italian American Institute, is leading a group of professors and staff members accusing the City University of New York (CUNY) of discrimination because they feel Italian-Americans are not represented well enough among its employees, invoking everything from historical mistreatment to modern media stereotypes to bolster their case. An article in the New York Times covered the story and reveals what's really going on here:

In the presentation, Dr. Milione argued that Italian-American representation on the faculty and the staff had remained flat — between 5 percent and 6 percent — over three decades, while that of groups like blacks, Latinos and Asians had climbed.

"Did affirmative action work at CUNY?" he asked in a recent interview. "Yes. But it did not work for Italian-Americans." The New York office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that his suit had merit.

CUNY officials said that Dr. Tamburri would not comment, but they defended the university's record. As of last fall, they said, Italian-Americans represented about 7 percent of the full-time instructional staff of 11,000, up from 5.8 percent in 1981. While the increase was modest, it occurred while the proportion of white employees fell sharply, to 54 percent from 74 percent, as the university strove to hire blacks and Latinos.

"Were CUNY not proactively engaging in affirmative action for Italian-Americans, one would expect to see Italian-American representation in CUNY fall at the same rate as that of whites," Jennifer S. Rubain, university dean for recruitment and diversity, said in a statement. "That has not happened."

Like other research universities that receive federal money, CUNY must extend affirmative action hiring protections to a variety of government-designated groups, including blacks and Latinos. University officials say the Department of Labor reviews its progress periodically, but not its efforts for Italian-Americans, because those are voluntary.

Obviously, there's no anti-Italian bias. This is a standard case of mandatory affirmative action for minorities causing an overall drop in white employees. (And Italians are actually faring better than others, as their numbers have increased slightly in spite of that, thanks to voluntary efforts by CUNY.) But instead of faulting the unjust quota policy that passes European-Americans over for jobs, Milione et al. are trying to blame CUNY for the fact that Italians aren't one of the "government-designated groups" who receive affirmative action. A commenter on the NY Times website injects some sanity into the discussion:

I don't see how Italian Americans can qualify for affirmative action programs since Italians are white. Perhaps a claim of reverse discrimination would be more appropriate here.

Indeed. Yet in the article, one of the plaintiffs insists that the problem is specific to CUNY by noting the following:

Joseph V. Scelsa, who was one of the institute's first directors and led the legal fight that resulted in the settlement, said Italian-Americans seemed to be well represented on the staffs of other New York-area colleges, but had long been mistreated at CUNY.

For those unfamiliar, CUNY is New York's public university system, with 70% minority enrollment, and another commenter, himself a CUNY academic, provides a more likely explanation for the observed disparity:

I'm a first-generation Italian-American, a CUNY graduate, and a CUNY faculty member. Italian-Americans may be under-represented at CUNY because, on average, as students, they can afford to go elsewhere and, as adult professionals, they may choose jobs that pay much more and that have more prestige among their upwardly-mobile peers.

So Italian-Americans are doing fine at more prestigious universities without affirmative action, and steering clear of CUNY by choice. Conclusion: Milione and his gang should crawl back into the hole they crawled out of...or at least get a clue and take a page from the New Haven firefighters' playbook.