Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Is Columbus Day a Racist or Anti-Racist Holiday?

It's a day or two late, but I highly recommend reading Jay Case's post on Columbus Day at his excellent blog The Circuit Reader.  

Case, who teaches American history at Malone College in Canton, Ohio, shows how Columbus Day was created by Italian-American immigrants in order to celebrate their heritage in the midst of racist attacks against them.   

As some of you know, my father's side of the family is Italian-American and I grew up in an area of northern New Jersey where there were a lot of Italian immigrants, including my own grandparents. Columbus Day was not only a day off from school or a celebration of Italian heritage, but it also had the kind of anti-racist flavor to it that Case writes about.  As I listened to the stories of my Italian-American elders, and reconsidered those stories later in life, it became clear to me that Italians were not white. (And now as I read a lot of good scholarly literature on the Italian-American experience and "whiteness" my thoughts along these lines are confirmed). 

A few years ago when I interviewed my now-deceased Italian grandfather who emigrated to the United States through Ellis Island in 1913, he told horrific stories about how he was treated by German-Americans and Irish-Americans while employed as a chauffeur and later as a truck driver for several breweries in Newark, NY.  He faced a lot of racial discrimination.

Here is Case:

Columbus, of course, was also Italian. Immigration from Italy increased noticeably from the 1880s to the 1920s and this, too, provoked a backlash from many native-born Americans. Italians were perceived as dirty, prone to crime, (Mafia stereotypes abounded), and a people who did not mix well with surrounding communities. These characteristics would undermine democracy, it was thought, so a bunch of Harvard grads formed the Immigration Restriction League in 1894 to try to keep these “criminals” and other undesirable immigrants out. If Donald Trump had been around then, he would have been a founding member.
And then there was anti-Italian racism. Yes, Italians were actually thought to come from a separate race. In the scientific thinking of the day, there were three separate races under the rubric of the white race: Teutonic (which included Anglo-Saxons), Alpine and Mediterranean. Take a big guess who the genetically superior and the genetically inferior groups were in this scheme.
The founder of the Immigration Restriction League put it this way: Americans must decide whether they wanted their country “to be peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin and Asiatic” (meaning Jewish) “races historically down-trodden, atavistic and stagnant.”
This form of racism had consequences. Organizations like the Immigration Restriction League campaigned for immigration restrictions based on race. They succeeded. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 put quotas on immigration from different countries, with the biggest limitations placed on nations with “Latin” and “Slavic” races. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe faced greater restrictions than immigrants from the more favored “Teutonic” races of Scandinavia, Germany, and Great Britain. In the late 1930s, those immigrant restrictions, the racially-based thinking behind them, and the economic anxieties of the Depression led Americans to refuse to accept any sizable number of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Austria, despite Hitler’s willingness to ship them out of his nation. Ouch.  Racially-based immigrant restrictions lasted until 1965.
So Italian-Americans had anti-racist reasons to campaign for Columbus Day.  So did Irish, German, Italian, and Polish Catholics.  After all, if Anglo-Saxons could celebrate an Italian Catholic like Christopher Columbus as a hero for the American nation, wouldn’t they be more likely to accept Italian-Americans on an equal plane? Wouldn’t this prove that one could be fully Catholic, fully Italian-American and fully American at the same time?
In 1892, on the 400-year anniversary of Columbus’ famous voyage, an Italian-American named Carlo Barsotti pushed for national recognition of Columbus. Building on existing affection for Columbus in the nation, Italian-Americans held massive rallies every year on October 12 (the date Columbus hit land in the Caribbean).  They had deeply personal reasons to convince fellow Americans to recognize Columbus as a true American and a hero.  By World War I, New Jersey, New York, California, and Colorado (all states with significant Italian-American populations) had made Columbus Day a state holiday. By 1921, thirty states had followed.  FDR proclaimed it a national holiday in 1937.
Oddly, despite the growing embrace of Columbus Day, Congress still passed racially-based restrictions on Italian and Eastern European immigration. Most Americans see what they want to see in their historical figures, and many Americans wanted to see a bold adventurer who discovered new lands, not an Italian Catholic who represented the immigrant dimensions of American society.
Nevertheless, the creation of Columbus Day was driven primarily by those who faced racism and wanted full and equal acceptance into American society.
Of course later in the twentieth century Native American groups protested the holiday because it commemorated a man who exploited and killed Indians.  Here is Case again:
Fast forward to the 1990s. While I was a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, the Native American student organization on campus organized a protest against Columbus. They were particularly disturbed by a series of massive paintings depicting the life of Columbus that lined the hallway of the Administration Building (the one with the “Golden Dome,” which we alumni hold with such affection.) The Administration Building, with its paintings of Columbus, had been built in 1879, just when anti-Italian and anti-Catholic sentiment was beginning to rise again. For the Native American students in the 1990s, however, Columbus symbolized European destruction of their people.
The anti-Columbus cause, then, was driven primarily by those who faced racism and wanted full and equal acceptance into American society.
I’ll let you savor that irony for a moment.
OK, that’s enough of that.
Because I think the Native Americans have a point. Italian-Americans faced discrimination and prejudice, but not nearly on the scale or with as profoundly difficult consequences as Native Americans have faced. (I trust you are knowledgeable enough on this point that I don’t have to list or describe the historical injustices that Native Americans have endured).
I’m perfectly fine with changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.  We Americans already celebrate progress, the discovery of new knowledge, and a liberating break from old restrictions every time we upgrade our iPhones.  Furthermore, Italian-Americans today are thriving in America. They enjoy full acceptance, and do not face any structural racism that confounds their daily lives. The same cannot be said of Native Americans.
Read the entire post here, including Case's final theological point.  
As an Italian-American, I would hate to abandon a festival that celebrates the success and achievements of Italians in the United States.  I thought about this a few years ago as I was walking with my family through the Columbus Day weekend street festival in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. It was a wonderful opportunity to tell my daughters, who have not been raised in the kind of Italian-American culture I was (we live in central Pennsylvania for goodness sake!), about the various foods and traditions of Italian-American life.  As we walked past the merchandise stands and food vendors I was able to relay some of the stories my grandparents told me about growing-up Italian in the United States.
On the other hand, perhaps Case is correct.  Maybe it is time that Italian-Americans come up with another historical figure that they can use to celebrate their rich heritage in the United States.