The National Educational Association (NEA) Sacrifices Historical Nuance to Identity Politics

As a lifelong educator, I have always felt proud to be a member of the NEA (the National Educational Association). I still am. It is a national teachers’ union, based in Washington D.C., which champions both public education as well as the rights of teachers and other education-related professionals.

Being an American of Italian heritage, perhaps there was also some muted pride in belonging to a noble profession long influenced by Italic people: Quintilian in classical Rome, Vittorio da Feltre during the Renaissance, and Maria Montessori in turn-of-the-century Italy.

In America, citizens of Italian background likewise distinguished themselves as educational leaders: Dr. Leonard Covello in the 1930s (who pioneered the concept of multi-cultural learning); Dr. Anna Anastasi in the 1950s (who exposed cultural biases in standardized testing of students); and Leo “Dr. Love” Buscaglia in the 1980s (who demystified Mediterranean habits of hugging and showing emotion).

So, as you can imagine, I was disheartened by the NEA’s recent call during their delegation meeting this past summer to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Not by the impulse itself, mind you; the sufferings of the First Nation people certainly deserve to be readdressed, and with the greatest of dignity. The fact that we as nation are doing so speaks to the humanism and open-mindedness inherent in Western culture, traits which our Founding Fathers learned from classical Roman writers and then reintroduced into the U.S. Constitution.

But, as an American educator who believes all cultures should be respected and celebrated, I felt a sense of betrayal. The misguided campaign to paint Columbus as a 15th century despot has inadvertently blotted out the history of Italians in America, an ethnic group who–unlike other white ethnics–were seen as “in-betweens” (not white, not black), and likewise subjected to the stings and arrows of nativist disdain. In a way, the vilification of Columbus Day is yet another example.

How many people know, for example, that the first Columbus Day, held in Colorado in 1907, was in response to the lynching of Italian Americans in that state?

Indeed, if you study Italian American history, or at least take it seriously (the media does not), you learn that the Colorado lynching wasn’t an aberration: In April of this year,  Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans issued a public apology for the 1891 lynching of 11 Italians in her city—one of the largest mass killings in U.S. history.

(Future president Teddy Roosevelt nodded his approval at the time: “It is rather a good thing.”)

In her 2004 documentary Linciati, filmmaker Heather Hartley goes even deeper, detailing the lynchings of Italians in other states as well (e.g., Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Illinois).

Though these lynchings in no way equal the institutionalization of slavery via African Americans or the forced evacuations of native tribes from their lands, it does show that the history of Italians in America is much more nuanced–and painful–than people realize.

One nuance in particular gets muddled: Columbus and his controversial status excluded, practically all of the early major European explorers of the North American continent were Italian: Amerigo Vespucci, John Cabot (born Giovanni Caboto), Giovanni da Verrazzano, Enrico Tonti (who, in 1681, sailed through what is now Chicago), Alessandro Malaspina, and Giacomo Beltrami. These explorers blended empathy with their brilliant navigational skills.

An “Italian Explorers Day” would certainly expand U.S. history!

Yet, in addition to the lynchings, Italian Americans suffered other historical indignities.

Italians were forced out of the country during the 1917 Palmer Raids. Italians were prevented from immigrating further via the 1924 anti-immigration laws. Italians were publicly executed via the kangaroo trial of Sacco and Vanzetti in Boston in 1927. Over 600,000 Italians were labeled “enemy aliens” during the early stages of World War II and had to carry humiliating I.D. cards identifying them as such–a shameful event named Una Storia Segreta  (“A Secret History”).

To add to the humiliation: Another 10,000 were forcibly evicted from their homes in California, and even the parents of baseball great Joe DiMaggio–a national hero, fighting overseas at the time–were prevented from working in their restaurant on San Francisco’s Wharf.

On a personal level, a brilliant man like Mario Cuomo, the late New York governor, who finished first in his class at St. John’s Law School in the 1950s, was denied jobs at prestigious Wall Street firms because of the vowel at the end of his name. Decades later, when the national press practically begged Cuomo to run for President in 1992, Marlin Fitzwater, President George H. Bush’s spokesman, held a press conference in which he openly mocked Cuomo’s ancestry: “Mario? Mario? What kind of a name is Mario?” The not-so-subtle message of Marlin’s mocking was quite clear: “Not an American one.”

Perhaps most insidiously, Americans of Italian heritage continue to be portrayed by Hollywood and the media—in 2019, an era of ‘respect for diversity’ (!)– as either murderers, morons, or, if female, bimbos. There are no goodwill attempts to counter-balance the relentless negativity as there are with other racial, religious or sexual groups.

Finally, and ironically, by jumping on the “Goodbye, Columbus” bandwagon, the NEA undercuts the very foundation of its existence as an organization dedicated to equity. The Columbus-is-Hitler rhetoric actually obscures the bridge-building between Native Americans and Italian Americans throughout our nation’s history.

Three examples among many: Catholic priest Samuel Mazzuchelli advocating for Native American rights in the Midwest in the 1830s; photographer Carlo Gentile documenting the dignity of various tribes in the American Southwest in the 1880s; and, in the modern era (1961), an Italian American judge, Robert Belloni, upholding the fishing rights of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest.

Promoting one American ethnic group’s history shouldn’t come at the expense of eradicating another’s. In this case, NEA stands for “Not Educating Anyone” via the subject of Italian American history.  -BILL DAL CERRO

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