Italian American: The Racializing of an Ethnic Identity

Italian American: The Racializing of an Ethnic Identity

Italian American: The Racializing of an Ethnic Identity

Italian American: The Racializing of an Ethnic Identity


When southern Italians began emigrating to the U.S. in large numbers in the 1870s-part of the "new immigration" from southern and eastern rather than northern Europe-they were seen as racially inferior, what David A. J. Richards terms "nonvisibly" black.

The first study of its kind, Italian American explores the acculturation process of Italian immigrants in terms of then-current patterns of European and American racism. Delving into the political and legal context of flawed liberal nationalism both in Italy (the Risorgimento) and the United States (Reconstruction Amendments), Richards examines why Italian Americans were so reluctant to influence depictions of themselves and their own collective identity. He argues that American racism could not have had the durability or political power it has had either in the popular understanding or in the corruption of constitutional ideals unless many new immigrants, themselves often regarded as racially inferior, had been drawn into accepting and supporting many of the terms of American racism.

With its unprecedented focus on Italian American identity and an interdisciplinary approach to comparative culture and law, this timely study sheds important light on the history and contemporary importance of identity and multicultural politics in American political and constitutional debate.


The nature and the role of the politics of identity have become increasingly important issues in both American political and constitutional argument, involving assertions of rights by, among others, Jews, African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos. I myself have examined many of these issues in recent works, combining interpretive history, political philosophy, and constitutional argument in order to make sense of the role of a politics of identity in expanding the inclusive legitimacy of American revolutionary constitutionalism. I have not, however, discussed nor does the rich contemporary literature of the past decade discuss these general issues of identity politics in a way that self-consciously arises from the perspective of my own Italian American ethnic identity, a silence that is itself quite remarkable. For example, Ronald Takaki has recently offered an overview of the history of multiculturalism in Amer-

See, for important recent studies along these lines, Martha Minow, Not Only for Myself: Identity, Politics and the Law (New York: New Press, 1997); Joseph Tilden Rhea, Race Pride and the American Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997).

See David A. J. Richards, Toleration and the Constitution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Foundations of American Constitutionalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Conscience and the Constitution: History, Theory, and Law of the Reconstruction Amendments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993); Women, Gays, and the Constitution: The Grounds for Feminism and Gay Rights in Culture and Law (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

There is an older literature dating from the 1970s that does deal with these issues, which I have found useful in developing the argument of this book. See, for example, Alexander DeConde, Half Bitter, Half Sweet: An Excursion into Italian American History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971); Richard Gambino, Blood of My Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian Americans (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974). For more recent studies, see Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale, La Storia: Five Centuries of Italian American Experience (New York: HarperCollins, 1992); Lydio F. Tomasi, Piero Gastaldo and Thomas Row, The Columbus People: Perspectives in Italian Immigration to the Americas and Australia (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1994).

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