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Why are Italian-Americans the one acceptable target?

Op-Ed, The Star Ledger, November 24, 2006

Hell hath no fury like an ethnicity scorned.

Recently, radio talk-show host Don Imus was called to task by the Asian-American Journalists Association for making an on-air reference to a "fat China man." George Allen's indiscreet "macaca" comment--a little known racial slur--played a pivotal role in his stunning loss to Jim Webb in the 2006 Virginia senatorial race.

Even rural Americans have taken umbrage at negative media stereotypes. Not long ago, former Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia rose to the defence of folks once known as "hillbillies."

Apparently, all the world's a stage for impassioned activists--unless the slanderous imagery is aimed at Italian-Americans.

And now Tony Soprano has been invited to the schoolyard.

At a time when Nancy Pelosi is poised to become speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Pace servers as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, children's book clubs and school districts are mainstreaming the Mafia goombah stereotype.

The Rotolo Middle School in Batavia, IL--home of the (Enrico) Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory--has staged "Fuggedaboutit," a children's play billed as "A Little Mobster Comedy." Students calling themselves the "Bada Bing Players" portrayed thuggish characters straight out of "The Godfather." And the Sopranos-like plot featured an unsavory Italian restaurant whose semi-literate owners and patrons are under the surveillance of the FBI.

Indeed, the "casta characters" included "Mamma Mia Caprese," a woman described as "the mudda of Joey and Gino." She "works in the kitchen and likes to whack things."

Capeesh?

The playwright (who also doubled as director and producer) is a teacher by the name of Matthew Myers. Worse yet, both Jack Barshinger, the superintendent of schools, and Donald McKinney, Rotolo's principal, contemptuously thumbed their noses at concerned parents and anti-defamation advocates.

And their is talk of making the play accessible on public access television.

Sadly, this trend began in 2004 when Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen introduced children to anti-Italian intolerance in "Shark Tale," a cartoon comedy about anthropomorphic underwater capos played by Robert DeNiro, Michael Imperioli, Martin Scorsese and Vincent Pastore.

At the same time that his DreamWorks Studios was promoting poisonous ethnic slurs as kiddy entertainment, Spielberg had the chutzpah to admonish the media: "We are in a race against time for the conscious minds of young people." Youth must learn "the dangers of stereotyping, the dangers of racial and religious hatred and vengeful rage." The box-office success of "Shark Tale" (and the launching of DreamWorks' IPO) further emboldened publishers to issue children's books with egregiously Italophobic themes. Sopranos mobster Steven Schirripa's "Nicky Deuce: Welcome to the Family" (Delacorte Press) and Gordon Korman's "Son of the Mob" (Scholastic Books) picked up where Spielberg & Co. left off.

For those who would argue that the First Amendment holds sway here, the Supreme Court has ruled that "higher standards may be established to protect minors from exposure to indecent material." Furthermore, "a child . . . is not possessed of that full capacity for individual choice which is a presupposition of First Amendment guarantees." For a public school district to promote intolerance under the guise of satire- without even a hint of the sensitivity training adopted by New Jersey's North Hunterdon High School after a similar spate of anti-Italian bigotry-- boggles the mind and saddens the heart.

In the final analysis, however, both Tinseltown and the Rotolo Middle School would be wise to heed the Anti-Defamation League: "If young people are repeatedly exposed to biased representations through words and pictures, there is a danger that such distortions will become part of their thinking, especially if reinforced by societal biases." Sanction the stereotype, suffer the children.

Rosario A. Iaconis
Vice Chairman
The Italic Institute of America
Floral Park, N.Y.

 
 
Copyright © 2007 Italic Institute of America, P.O. Box 818, Floral Park, NY 11001     Last updated February 2017