Columbus, race pride and racism
For Italian American families like the one I grew up in, recalling our past is a shared obsession. Over endless family dinners, we tell stories about our parents and grandparents and the obstacles they overcame in their early years in the U.S. — arriving here with nothing, speaking a foreign language, working long hours as farmers, garment workers and tradesmen. Like all immigrant communities, pride in our history is the cornerstone of our culture.
That’s why it isn’t surprising that the decapitation of the Christopher Columbus statue in Boston’s North End last week caused a strong reaction from old-guard Italian Americans. Among the ritual condemnations of the destruction of private property, an old argument re-emerged — the Columbus statue is a symbol, not of genocide, but of our heritage.
But for those of us who have paid attention to our history, the lionization of Columbus represents more of a forgetting than a remembering.
When we characterize Columbus as a hero, we forget the history of the Indigenous people who lived on this land long before it was “discovered.” Columbus began the systematic murder and rape of native people and the theft of native land, all justified by the logic of white supremacy. That’s a part of our legacy as people of Italian descent. We must confront it and atone for it, not celebrate it.
Also lost to Columbus-worship is much of the history of Italians in the Americas after Columbus. English protestants completed the colonial project begun by European explorers, who suspected Italians of being secret agents sent by the Pope to undermine democracy.
By the 19th and early 20th century, that suspicion had evolved into its own iteration of white nationalism. Italians (as well as Irish and Slavs) came to be seen not just as foreigners, but as an inferior race of people. They were exploited at work, forced into tenement housing, excluded from positions of political power and targeted for violence.
When President Harrison first declared Columbus Day a temporary U.S. holiday in 1892, the gesture was intended to pacify Italian Americans outraged by a recent mob lynching of 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans. For Italian Americans, attaching themselves to Columbus was a way to claim their own white American identity — how could Italians be second-class citizens when they had, in fact, discovered the whole country?
I, like the vast majority of Italian Americans born in the late 20th century, have never had to deal with discrimination on the basis of my ethnicity because my predecessors were so successful in recasting themselves as white. They assimilated, learned English and internalized the racism that had once been aimed at them. They supported segregation, opposed busing and stepped over Black and brown people in order to secure a place in the American ruling class.
As Italian Americans, we have a duty to remember that part of our history, but beyond remembering, to act in solidarity with Black and brown people struggling against white supremacy. While we were not brought to this country in chains or driven from our homelands by colonizers, we have had enough of a taste of American white nationalism in our recent historical past that we should not question the need for resistance. We should unapologetically say that Black Lives Matter and oppose racial inequity in our cities. We should be leading the fight to tear that Columbus statue down permanently and replace it with something that speaks to our roots in the multiracial working class.
As Marty Walsh meets with Italian American leaders to determine the fate of the statue, we have the opportunity to speak up, not just for people of color the statue has harmed, but for all of our ancestors who suffered harm at the hands of racists — because when we erase racism, we erase our own history as well. And it’s impossible to be proud of that.
Gillian Mason is co-executive director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice