The Past, Present, and Future of Italian-Americans' Race and Ethnicity

Immigration has always been a significant part of America’s identity as a nation. The U.S. is seen as the “Land of Opportunity” and the “Home of the Free,” and it is therefore not surprising that so many people wish to immigrate to this country. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…” Unfortunately, for most people who find themselves in this state of abuse in their home country, abolishing their government is simply not an option. The next best thing would be to move to a country where their rights as human beings are in fact promoted and respected. One of the largest waves of immigration was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jews, Italians, and many other ethnicities flooded New York’s harbors looking for a new chance. Italians were among the largest group to come at this time.

Since their mass immigration, Italian-Americans have not been viewed as “a classic case of ‘straight-line’ assimilation,” a direct result of the construction of American society (Kivisto 24-25), due to their slower process of integration. Straight-line assimilation disregards the possibility that ethnicity can be incorporated into the middle-class. In addition, straight-line assimilation has little approval for “the role of ethnicity and ethnic culture in facilitating upward mobility” (Ibid 28). As a result, Italian-Americans have to make greater efforts to abandon their culture in order to gain prestige and increasing mobility in the workplace.

However, upon improving their position in the social structure Italian-Americans re-establish their ethnic identity and style and reconcile them with their higher social standings. At this point, they may become subscribers to the popular, yet elite, magazine entitled Attenzione. This magazine emphasizes an appreciation for Italian culture, including the arts, food, soccer and fashion. In addition, this magazine is a platform for obliterating many Italian stereotypes while simultaneously showing Italian-Americans who “made it in terms of the dominant values of society while staying ethnic in the process” (Ibid 29).

The importance placed on shared experiences, culture, and faithfulness in the Italian tradition has created a sense of skepticism of outsiders and a possessiveness of the neighborhood. Moreover, because the mafia has been associated with the New York Italian community, youth have incorporated this gang-like attitude into their daily lives. This defensive and suspicious outlook on non-Italians has been demonstrated in instances such as the “Howard Beach Case” when a group of Italian American teenagers chased an African American man to his death. On December 20, 1986 three black men, Cedric Sandiford, 36, Timothy Grimes, 20, and Michael Griffith, 23, were driving through Howard Beach when their car broke down. They were immediately met with hostility as some passerby shouted derogatory slang at them and advised them to leave. The three men however, were unable to leave and decide to eat at a local pizzeria. As they walked outside, a gang of over 10 white men holding baseball bats met them. Grimes managed to escape through a hole in a fence while Griffith and Sandiford were chased after and beaten. In trying to escape the gang, Griffith ran into the street and was struck and killed by an oncoming car.

Religion plays an integral role in daily life of an Italian American youth in Howard Beach. As Catholicism made a comeback within the Italian American community over the past several decades with support from the Catholic Church, Italian-Americans have increasingly associated themselves with the Church. More Italian clergymen have made Catholicism more attractive to the young, as the religion becomes increasingly geared towards the Italian culture. Sunday mass is the norm and Catholic holidays are widely observed. Finally, religion has been used as a device to bridge the gap between Italian-Americans and other ethnic groups who are also Catholic. Decreased hostilities between ethnic groups in New York City allows Italian-Americans to coexist peacefully with others while continuing to maintain their strong Italian identities.

In order to survive, especially in the beginning, it was necessary for the Italians to reflect on their family values and bond with their fellow Italian immigrants. By joining forces with each other, the Italian immigrants in New York City were able to protect themselves from the discrimination of others in the city. Originally, they bonded with those from their same village and the second generations often embraced the Italian community in general (Ethnic 26-27).

The result of this closeness was areas heavily populated with Italians. The Little Italy Restoration Association (LIRA) provided a haven for Italians and tried to preserve the Italian culture on Mulberry Street on the Lower East Side, creating the area known today as Little Italy, comparable to the communities of Chinatown or Little Korea (Ethnic 31). From these origins, Italian communities sprouted in other neighborhoods, such as Bensonhurst in Brooklyn and the focus of our attention, Howard Beach in Queens. In these microcosms of society, Italians were able to gradually move up the social ladder since they fulfilled different jobs of different ranks needed in their community to serve their neighbors and function as a community. Despite intermarriage over the generations, these communities remain so prevalent in our society since 60% of the Italian American population were still first or second generation Italian, as of 1985 (Ethnic 34).

Another thing that sets Howard Beach apart from other New York neighborhoods is its youth’s distinct culture that has come to represent young Italian-Americans in mainstream culture. Known popularly as “Guido” culture, it has been shaped greatly by the history of Italians in America and by the youth cultures of other ethnic groups such as Blacks and Hispanics.

In addition to their specific ethnic identity, Guido culture emphasizes racial differences as Guidos separate themselves strongly from Blacks and Hispanics despite cultural similarities. Although Guido music and clothing styles have been borrowed from Hip-Hop and Rap, Guido rap lyrics usually maintain that Guido culture is a distinct, and usually stated as a superior, cultural identity. These racial differences are stressed so much so that they have erupted in brutal acts of violence. In both Howard Beach and Bensonhurst, another predominantly Italian area in Brooklyn, acts of violence by Italian youths against Blacks made media headlines as the city feared racism to be brewing within the city neighborhoods. This perception by Italian youths within the Guido culture towards other ethnic groups may be due to the subculture’s early roots in gang violence and attitude. Groups such as The Golden Guineas and the Greasers focused on preserving turf boundaries and frequently conflicted with peoples of other ethnic groups. Eventually the groups’ gang-centered culture changed to focus primarily on appearances, but within the Guido culture, part of the previously held mentality unfortunately remains.

As for the future of Howard Beach, we speculate it will have solid foundations, be very family oriented and residents will remain close to the home. They will attempt to keep their secluded “turf” as it is and they will aspire to be comfortable working-class members. They will remain “punks” throughout their teenage years showing off their cars and tall hair, but eventually grow out of this Guido image and establish families of their own nearby until, eventually the cycle repeats itself again. Looking specifically at the demographics of Howard Beach, over 90% of the citizens are white Italian Americans. This tight-knit community has gone through a lot of the years and is here to stay.















Two teenage girls describe racist attitudes in Howard Beach















Two guys discussing tolerance in Howard Beach