It may be poor timing to pen this editorial in advance of what could be this winter’s worst snow storm yet – less than a week from the first official day of spring, no less. However not all warm and fuzzy feelings are derived from weather, and the first day of spring in New England has always been more metaphorical than literal anyways.
Some of the purest, warmest and fuzziest feelings we can create collectively as a society come from those rare moments where people of all different creeds embrace a culture different from their own. Of course, in the context of the late winter in Rhode Island, this means St. Patrick’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day festivities.
Irish and Italian Americans are far from minority populations in Rhode Island. There are more Irish Americans in Rhode Island than 48 other states (only New Hampshire and Massachusetts have more). Rhode Island, as of 2010, has more Italian Americans than any other state, and Johnston alone has nearly half its population that identifies as Italian (the highest percentage of any town in America).
However this wasn’t always the case. Huge waves of immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries brought millions of Italians and Irish individuals and families desperate for something, anything, better than what they faced at home – whether it was abject poverty, famine or a nasty combination of the two.
Neither ethnicity found success in the land of opportunity right away.
Although it isn’t as well known as the “No Irish Need Apply” stories popularized by Irish newspapers that documented their own discrimination, Italians faced their own fair share of bigotry and stereotyping – especially in the midst of WWII when over 600,000 Italians who had yet to complete their immigration status were forced to carry “illegal alien” cards and hundreds were interned in military detainment camps. Thousands more were forced to move inland from the coast, losing their jobs and property in the process.
It wasn’t until 2010 that the state of California officially apologized for the treatment of Italian Americans during wartime – and in the years between over 1.5 million Italian Americans served in the armed forces during World War II (about 10 percent of the total forces), with 14 of those earning the Medal of Honor.
The early Irish struggle with xenophobia and American bigotry is much better documented. Portrayed as drunkards and miscreants by political cartoons and largely only considered for menial labor jobs in construction, mills and other areas of servitude, the Irish – similar to the Italians – mainly congregated in large cities so that they could carve out enclaves of their “own kind,” as much for protection as for acceptance.
Modern Americans – armed with the knowledge that, as of today, 22 American presidents can claim Irish heritage, that countless Italian and Irish Americans have contributed amazing feats in arts, culture and sports from all walks of life – should be humbled and ashamed by our collective intolerance towards those coming to this country in search of exactly what its Constitution promises: the chance to be treated equally and given a chance to succeed.
Modern day xenophobia and bigotry has focused in on new targets. Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent, homosexuals and transgenders and Mexicans are now firmly on the “not welcome” list for millions of intolerant Americans – many of whom will probably rarely, if ever, interact with anybody from those categories. Some of whom, ironically enough, are undoubtedly Irish or Italian themselves.
It is a shameful testament to history’s unstoppable ability to repeat itself, despite how obviously foolhardy the notion of a “pure” America – a country that predicates itself on a blending of cultures – is.
People don’t line up for parades and buy zeppoles by the dozen because we’re inherently intolerant of other cultures – they do it for the exact opposite reason. Because America is greatest when we can celebrate the good in every culture, and embrace the people themselves that bring these cultural charms to us.
Every Irish beer consumed by someone who isn’t Irish this weekend, every zeppole eaten by a non-Italian, is a reaffirmation of the American Dream – and we should celebrate our differences with one another, not allow them to cause harmful division based on ignorance or irrational fears.