Columbian Lawyers Association’s ‘Italians in America, Victims of Discrimination’ makes vital point
Chuck Otey's Pro Bono Barrister
Each Immigrant Wave Confronted with Complex, Often Dangerous, Hurdles
When the Columbian Lawyers Association of Brooklyn, led this year by President Joseph Rosato, held its most recent CLE-accredited session, the focus was discrimination.
However, it did not deal with the kind of discrimination that dominates the headlines these days, spurred by the widespread angst concerning Middle Eastern immigrants that has hardened since the terror attacks of 9/11. It wasn’t about another headlining phenomenon involving the mass exodus of frightened and impoverished asylum seekers from Honduras, Guatemala and other Central American countries that are bursting at the seams with rampant chaos and criminality. Nor did the session deal with the insidious and monumental issue of slavery and deserved compensation of millions of Africans whose forced labor, valued in the trillions of dollars, played a key part in building our modern, prosperous economy.
Nope. None of the above. Instead, the topic was “Italians in America, Victims of Discrimination and Advocates for Inclusion and Diversity.”
Some may have been surprised at the Columbians’ innovative agenda, but we are reminded of a poignant comment by philosopher George Santayana in his book “Reason in Common Sense.”
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” he wrote.
As a nation of immigrants, gifted with a vast expanse of land and sea perfectly poised to lure the best and brightest to its shores, we here can’t forget the fact that our beloved Constitution was drawn up by a group of property-owning white males, most of whom owned slaves and saw no reason whatsoever to consider women worthy of voting, let alone seeking public office.
Acceptance of Italian-Americans Often Too Slow, Notes Justice Saitta
As was noted by Justice Wayne Saitta — one of the evening’s speakers — Italian immigrants here were treated with disdain and mistrust as recently as World War II.
Brooklyn Eagle Legal Editor Rob Abruzzese quoted Saitta as saying, “It didn’t matter how long you have been in the country, whether you were a permanent resident or an alien — you were considered an ‘enemy’ alien. All Italian immigrants who hadn’t naturalized had to register, they were fingerprinted, they had to carry around their registrations with them.”
In addition, Saitta explained, “They were barred from going more than five miles from their homes without permission … They were also barred from having flashlights, cameras or shortwave radios.”
Of definite social and historical interest — and certainly relevant now — was a point made by attorney Michael Scotto.
“The Columbus statue in Columbus Circle was erected after the worst mass lynching in America that occurred in New Orleans, where hundreds of Italian-Americans were killed,” he said. “The 1891 lynching was not an isolated incident. In 1899, in Tallulah, Louisiana, three Italian-American shopkeepers were lynched because they had treated blacks in their shops the same as whites.”
Italian-Americans Seek Equality, Not to Adulate Columbus
Michael Grimaldi noted that the current movement to remove Confederate statutes should not be employed to inveigh against the Columbus monument.
“There are Confederate statues that were erected that were clearly a double message,” he said, emphasizing the recognition of Columbus was essentially to compensate — perhaps atone for — the slaughter in New Orleans.
Older Americans of all ethnicities can certainly recall the stereotyped characters like Luigi the Little Immigrant (the title of a popular radio show), or songs that featured lyrics like, “Please no squeeza the tomatoes, cause whenna you squeeza them, they jumpa right outta their skin!”
Programs like the one presented by the Columbians are vital to keeping the spotlight on the difficulties still being faced here by minorities and immigrants.
Women, Black Americans Still Face Insidious Bias
As we’re learning more and more each day, women here are still working harder for pay and other kinds of equality.
There is also apparently no way, at this time, to “repay” black Americans for the immense amount of free (slave) labor their ancestors provided to make the South the cotton-producing capital of the world back in the 19th century.
Brilliant and, of course, controversial writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has been active in working out the value accorded American industry by this enforced labor, which involved millions of workers who were captured in Africa and shipped here in chains on filthy slave ships to provide generations of free services to their “masters.”
Coates’ call for reparations was eloquently outlined in an article he wrote for The Atlantic Magazine several years back.
As one reviewer noted, “Coates’ essay, ‘The Case for Reparations,’ is so powerful that it’s best to let it speak for itself.”
However, one salient point made notes that by 1840 cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of America’s exports: “The prosperity of the nation was literally built on labor stolen from black slaves.”
Presented in the context of innate bias with discrimination against “the other” and waves of immigrants from Europe, the Columbian Lawyers Association has taken a significant step toward wider inclusion because it shows that we are all vulnerable to — and often impacted by — discrimination, gender and race, even though our Constitution and our laws strive to take us in a more humane and democratic direction.
Now that the Columbians have opened the door on this constantly simmering situation, maybe we can look forward to other programs by our law groups focusing on anti-Catholic, anti-Irish and other “anti” issues that need some thoughtful revisiting.
Coates’ excellent, groundbreaking essay boldly states, “America was built on the preferential treatment of white people — 395 years of it. Vaguely endorsing a cuddly, feel-good diversity does very little to redress this.”
Are we ready to address head-on the concept of reparations, which would in some way compensate for the immense value of enforced labor? Some would say “affirmative action” has been adequate to meet the historic challenge. We would respectfully request that all of us might benefit — no matter how much many will disagree — by considering what Coates wrote in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic Magazine.
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