Defining Italian-Americans: The Ethnicity Industry and the Bicentennial Celebration 1974-1976

By Moss, Richard | Michigan Academician, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Defining Italian-Americans: The Ethnicity Industry and the Bicentennial Celebration 1974-1976


Moss, Richard, Michigan Academician


ABSTRACT

This article uses the Italian-American experience to examine President Gerald Ford's attempts to harness the "New Ethnicity" and use it to solidify the conservative resurgence of the 1970s. The New Ethnicity was a vocal assertion of white ethnic identity by the descendents of immigrants who arrived from Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. The exact nature of this reassertion was left up for grabs, however, and ethnic leaders, politicians, the media, and educators all worked to define white ethnicity for their own benefit. President Ford, seeing both the gains made by the Republican Party among ethnics in the 1972 election and the potential of the 1976 Bicentennial celebration to increase these gains, put his own spin on the New Ethnicity. White ethnics like Italian-Americans and Jews, Ford and other Republicans argued, were hard-working, self-sufficient, and worthy heirs to America's founding fathers. By appealing to them through the Bicentennial, he attempted to show that Republicans, traditionally seen as hostile to immigrants and ethnics, welcomed and embraced them. Ford's ethnic appeals were an important--if overlooked--factor in the forging of a conservative political culture.

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In the early summer months of 1977, a pair of Italian-Americans wrote to I-AM, a national glossy magazine that claimed to be "a true reflection of the Italian scene," and attempted to articulate just what that "scene" was. From Mt. Zion, West Virginia, Nicholas Marziani, Jr. claimed that "our true strength ... is precisely our collective refusal ... to be sucked into the whirlwind insanity of the mainstream's misplaced cultural values." On the other hand, Don Fiore of Bellwood, Illinois, took issue with these assertions, arguing that many Italian-Americans, "in their sudden 'ethnic awareness' are trying too rapidly to identify with an ambiguous background." "Until they are completely sure of what they are so loudly boasting about," Fiore concluded, "such people have no right proclaiming themselves something they know so little of." (1)

These letters, penned at the high point of the "New Ethnicity," a resurgence of ethnic expression among Americans of European descent, reveal a great deal about the movement itself and its context in American society. Within the cacophony of competing interpretations of ethnicity (and Marziani and Fiore represented only a fraction of the movement's interpretations), ethnic brokers, marketers, public relations firms, and politicians saw a burgeoning market that could be tapped through appeals contextualized in ethnicity. If these appeals were to be made, however, a concept of white ethnicity had to be clearly defined. Though ethnic Americans argued over what their identity truly was, those looking to take advantage of the upsurge in ethnic expression, Fiore noted, had to create a common reference point against which their appeals could be measured. This reference point, moreover, had to resonate across a broad series of cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic spectrums; in other words, it had to be simple and accessible to all Americans, relying on symbols and myths that struck a chord with urban ethnics, suburbanites, and small town West Virginians.

The 1976 Bicentennial Celebration provides a perfect lens through which to examine the processes of creating and defining ethnicity. A rigorously planned and staged event in and of itself, the event's ethnic component was the result of countless committee meetings, debates, public relations campaigns, and lobbying efforts, all of which were directed toward the projection of such myths and symbols. What was at stake was more than merely symbolic, however. By defining the New Ethnicity on the nation's biggest stage, ethnic leaders could gain money and influence, business owners and marketers could gain a market for their goods, and, perhaps most importantly, politicians could influence public policy. …

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