NEW YORK—On a Friday afternoon in late September, a 125-year-old monument to Christopher Columbus stood enclosed by fences in a roundabout in Manhattan. The statue, which gives its name to Columbus Circle, needed extra protection; a few days earlier, a smaller statue of the Genoese sailor had been vandalized in the adjacent Central Park.
The monument at Columbus Circle has been a source of controversy since early August, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new campaign to clear the city of “hate symbols.” De Blasio didn’t specify whether this statue would be targeted, but many Italian Americans, for whom Columbus symbolizes their integration in American society, took the mayor’s ambiguity as a sign that it might be taken down.
The figure of Columbus is currently under review in several cities across the US, with critics arguing that the Genoese was a facilitator of genocide, rather than an honorable explorer. City councils in Seattle, Los Angeles and Denver have already pushed to adopt Indigenous People Day in place of Columbus Day. Moreover, de Blasio’s initiative came in a moment of heated national debate over the removal of monuments to Confederate generals. Only a week earlier, the removal of a General Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulted in violent clashes between white supremacists and people who protested their presence.
In New York, the potential removal of the Columbus monument has become a tug of war between De Blasio, who is Italian-American, and Italian-American businessmen. For decades, Columbus Day has been a source of pride for the latter, who conduct parades and public speeches every year.
John Mancini, the director of the Italic Institute of America, vigorously defends Columbus’s historical legacy. His non-profit organization, founded in 1987, distributed leaflets that emphasize the sailor’s audacity, as well as his “Italic ethnicity” and his contribution to the expansion of Christianity.
Echoing complaints expressed by fellow Italian Americans, Mancini considered that removing the statue would be an insult to the whole community. He criticized City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who declared that “there should be no monument or statue of Christopher Columbus based on what he signifies to the native population.”
“They use revisionist history to dump everything on Columbus,” Mancini said over the phone. “But he was just a victim of circumstances and his historical context.”
The symbolic importance of Columbus for Italian Americans has its roots in the late 19th century, when more than four million Italians arrived in the US. As Mancini said, these first migrants were subjected to discrimination, racial profiling and even mob violence. In March 1891, a mob lynched 11 Italians in New Orleans in retaliation for the murder of a police chief.
Mancini said that New York’s Columbus monument was erected only a year after that lynching, coinciding with the 400th anniversary of his landing in the Americas. A local Italian newspaper, Il Progresso, collected the funds for the 70-foot marble statue. For many Italians, this meant an important recognition of their integration to American society.
But with the 20th century came new forms of marginalization. In 1927, the trial and execution of anarchist activists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti helped spread the notion that Italians were political agitators.
“The Anglo-Saxon elite used the Sacco and Vanzetti trial to typecast Italian southern men as radical anarchists,” said Maria Laurino, a journalist who has published three books about Italian-American history.
This stereotype shifted during the following decade, Laurino said. After the rise of Mussolini in Italy in the 20s, Italians were stereotyped as fascist, an assumption that intensified after the US entered World War II.
“When Donald Trump said he wanted to get the next Boston bombers … Well, a hundred years ago ‘the next Boston bombers’ would have been considered Italians,” Laurino said.
Part of the Italian American community was indeed fascist. The first Columbus parades involved skirmishes between advocates of nationalistic, Mussolini-style processions, and the progressive and leftist Italian-Americans who “were appalled by this,” as Laurino put it.
However, the struggle was usually kept indoors. Italians tried as hard as they could to assimilate and become accepted. “In America, being an Italian in the 40s was like being a Muslim today,” said Fred Gardaphé, a historian who teaches Italian American Studies at the Calabria Institute in New York.
Gadaphré blamed Italian Americans’ lack of knowledge about their own history on secretiveness within the community, a cultural inclination to “leave out the bad things and pretend that everything is all right.”
“Italians nowadays still carry the unprocessed traumas that were never resolved in previous generations,” Gadaphré said. “They don’t even know why they’re defending Columbus. They just do it because it’s so tied up to their identity.”
Joseph Viscomi, a historian of Italian diaspora who teaches Mediterranean studies at New York University, said that this lack of historical knowledge has led to a narrative of integration that ignores the Italians’ role in the larger dynamics of racial politics in the US.
“There has been a steady whitewashing of the history of how Italians became white,” Viscomi said.
Viscomi argued that, in the 1920s, Anglo-Saxon elites positioned Italian immigrants higher than African Americans in a racial hierarchy, granting the former access to public office and police departments.
The debate about the Columbus monument, according to Viscomi, is “an important moment to break down the mainstream Italian narrative about how they assimilated in the US.”
“It was not only a story of poor peasants who worked hard and earned what they have,” Viscomi said. “There were state policies that favored them, because they were seen as more assimilable than others.”
As for today, stereotypes of Italian Americans have not disappeared. From The Godfather to The Sopranos, entertainment media have contributed steadily to typify Italians as mafiosi.
“It’s not interesting for the media to represent educated, middle-class Italian Americans, because we talk and think like everybody else,” Laurino said. “The media needs to portray us through over-the-top qualities that only exist among a minority.”
Laurino drew a parallel between Trump’s travel bans and those of the past. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed an Immigration Act that limited the entry of Southern and Eastern European migrants to the US. Its quotas relied on ethnic profiling, which at the time was endorsed by scholars such as Edward Alsworth Ross, a sociologist and professor at Stanford University. Laurino read a passage from one of Ross’s reports, written in 1914:
“Steerage passengers from a Naples boat show a distressing frequency of low foreheads, open mouths, weak chins, poor features, skewed faces, small or knobby crania, and backless heads. Such people lack the power to take rational care of themselves,” Ross wrote.
“I have no great fondness for Columbus Day. To me it’s just a political holiday,” Laurino said. “But I do sympathize with Italian Americans who want some form of recognition.”