Chiara Parisi and Cristina Carabetta (Authors of the paper "The Racial and Ethnic Categorization of Italian Americans")

La categorizzazione razziale ed etnica degli italoamericani

Mar 06, 2024 4655 ITA ENG

Among the really interesting topics contained in the weekend of the second annual meeting of the Italian American Future Leaders, which I attended as a mentor last January, was one that caught me a little unprepared.

Two friends, two young women who divide their lives between Italy and the United States, two lawyers who are members of the National Italian American Bar Association, presented a paper of their own entitled "The Racial and Ethnic Categorization of Italian Americans." I leave the floor to Chiara Parisi and Cristina Carabetta, thanking them for their work, and for making me think, as I hope will be the case for our readers as well.

Chiara, Cristina, welcome to We the Italians. First, please tell our readers your story and your roots as Italian in the U.S.

Chiara Parisi: My parents were both born and raised in Rome, though my dad’s parents were originally from Campania and my mom’s parents were from Molise. My parents moved to the U.S. in their late 20s, and so my siblings and I were all born and raised in the U.S. My extended family all stayed in Italy though, so I visit a couple of times a year and spent all of my summers there growing up. It’s my favorite place.

Cristina Carabetta: My maternal grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Caserta in the 1960s and my paternal great grandparents immigrated from Calabria in the early 1900s. Although most of my family is U.S. based, we continue to keep our ties to Italy by staying in contact with extended family there and traveling to Italy often.

Can you describe the context and situation in which you came up with the idea for this initiative?

In 2022, President Biden created a working group made up of the heads of 28 different federal agencies and tasked them with improving the current standards on racial and ethnic data collection. This working group put out initial proposals for changes and asked for people of all backgrounds to respond. Some in our community felt like the initial proposals overlooked the unique identity of Italian Americans. Also, we are both lawyers and on the board of the National Italian American Bar Association, so we know significant impact racial and ethnic data collection has on our civil rights. A coalition of 30 Italian American organizations joined together to think about how the racial and ethnic categories could better capture our identity. We submitted a public comment in response to the federal government’s initial proposals, and a few months later, we presented our recommendations directly to the federal working group.

The federal government has historically led the way in developing frameworks for the collection of data on race and ethnicity. Whatever proposals are ultimately adopted by the federal government will likely influence state, local, and private data collection efforts as well. So, the working group has been assigned an incredibly salient task and it was important for us, as Italian Americans, to have a voice in all of this.

Your paper says that there are differing views on the “Whiteness” of Italian Americans…

Yes, the question of whether Italian Americans are White is one that has puzzled Americans since the early days of Italian immigration to the United States. Generally, the concept of race originated with a German scientist that in the 1700s categorized humans into the five separate categories of White, Yellow, Red, Brown, and Black. But even he said that there are blurred lines between groups and that within each group there is a ton of diversity. Today, the federal government has shifted from distinctions based on “science” and defines race as a “sociopolitical construct…that is not biologically or genetically based.” But you can see how the old racial categories of the 1700s have an influence on those of today.

Categories based on sociopolitical constructs are far from straight forward. They aim to capture and organize the subjective viewpoints of millions of people - a nearly impossible task. To some, the label White is a good fit for Italian Americans and accurately describes our identity and experiences. For others, the description of Italians Americans as White is a “cruel” erasure and top down “White washing” of the Italian American community. The different perspectives on this can be impacted by one’s age, immigration status, geography, physical appearance, generation, regional ancestry, socioeconomic status, gender, politics, name, and so on.

It's easy to cherry pick facts to support whatever subjective viewpoint one might hold. For example, at the national level, Italians have typically been legally considered White. Historically, this allowed us significant privileges when it came to voting or owning land, and paved the way for us to enter the middle class. However, at the local level, Italians were sometimes considered non-White. And in some states and federal agencies there were formal attempts to remove Italians from the White category. This resulted in Italians often facing prejudice. Italians were called things like “primitive, of low IQ, criminal, white nigg**s, and guineas” in newspapers and television. Italians also worked alongside African Americans in plantations in the South which sometimes resulted in the segregation and lynching of Italians. And though negative stereotypes around our criminality and intelligence have decreased, they still linger today. 

Categorizing Italians based on physical features or culture is also difficult. Italy's history of African, Arab, Greek, Norman, French, and Spanish settlements resulted in Italians having physical features and culture that overlaps with people from a lot of different countries. With the decline in Italian immigration to the U.S., some say today’s Italian Americans have assimilated into White culture, and thus become White over time, pointing to the loss of the Italian language or marriage with Anglo-Saxons as evidence of assimilation. Others feel that Italian Americans must give up their culture and perform Whiteness to be accepted as White. The White label, they argue, is used to force Italians to assimilate into the dominant White identity.

Ultimately, we drew no conclusions as to whether Italian Americans are White or not. If you define race as a social construct, and society disagrees, then there can never be a single answer to that question. We simply wanted to illustrate that the question of whether White is the appropriate label for Italian Americans has been the subject of debate for well over a century now. Racial and ethnic categories that acknowledge that complexity are long overdue.  

Are there also statistical differences between Italian Americans and the general White population?

Data on Italian Americans is rarely collected at the federal, state, and local level. Because of this, Italian Americans are largely in the dark about how we compare to other racial and ethnic groups. However, Italian American organizations like the Calandra Italian American Institute at the City University of New York have conducted independent studies and used the little data that is available to try and track the progress of the Italian American community. At times, these studies have shown important differences between Italian Americans and the general White population.

Government employment is one example of an area where you see distinct gaps in the representation of Italian Americans compared to other White groups. For example, while no U.S. Presidents have been of Italian American descent, 23 have been of Irish descent, despite similar population sizes and immigration histories. A 1994 study found that Italian Americans were underrepresented in approximately 70% of New York City government occupations. A more recent study shows that Italian American representation has improved, but Italian Americans are still underrepresented in 38% of New York city government occupations and 23% of New York state government occupations.

In higher education, in 1990, 37% of Italian Americans in New York City had completed “some college or above,” compared to 51% of Non-Italian Whites. For graduate studies programs, a smaller percentage of Italian Americans have completed associates, baccalaureate, masters, professional, and doctoral level degrees compared to Non-Italian Whites. The gaps become even more significant in elite academic institutions. For example, excerpts from a conference in the 1990s found that “Italian Americans make up eight percent of the total population in the United States, but only three percent of the student population in the Ivy League.” A study on Harvard’s student body found that there were only 1⁄3 as many Italian Americans represented as there should have been proportionally, while Jewish students were 10 times more represented than they should have been. Affirmative action or diversity programs then exacerbate these issues by considering Italian Americans as an overrepresented White group, instead of the underrepresented group that we can be at times.

Healthcare is another example of an area where detailed category level data could show important differences between Italian Americans and other White groups. For example, scientific studies show that Mediterranean people have genome structures that make them more susceptible to certain genetic-related diseases. A study on Italian American elder care showed that 48% of elderly Italian Americans have no plans for care should they become incapacitated. Another study analyzed data revealing Italian American underrepresentation in the medical profession, particularly in the most prestigious sectors. Books like “Benessere Psicologico: Contemporary Thought on Italian American Mental Health” explore the unaddressed mental health needs of the Italian American community and critique the exclusion of Italian Americans from multicultural counseling.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t also instances of Italian Americans having adequate representation or privilege in a certain space. We are just pointing out those cases where the opposite is true to emphasize the importance of data collection to our civil rights.

Another statement from your paper says that Italian Americans are of increasingly multiracial and multiethnic backgrounds…

Yes, Italian Americans have increasingly become of multiracial and ethnic background. Among Italian American populations born before 1920, about 60% chose spouses of wholly Italian descent. With each generation, that percentage has declined. Studies have shown that while older generations of Italian Americans may have often chosen to marry other Europeans, there has been an increase in Italian Americans mixed with non-European groups. 8% of younger Italians have mixed ancestry with Central and South American ethnicities, opposed to 4% older Italian Americans. 3% of the overall Italian American population has mixed ancestry with Asian groups, compared to 1% in older Italian Americans. And Italian Americans with African ancestry tripled for young Italian Americans from 1% to 3%. Another study has shown that 1 out of 4 foreign born Italian Americans come from Latin America.

This is also true for other racial and ethnic groups. According to the U.S. Census data, in 2020, 10% of the population reported multiple races. And for younger populations, the percentage of people with mixed backgrounds is far more drastic. According to the U.S. census, 53% of Americans under 18 are from multiracial or multiethnic backgrounds. Other studies show that Americans under 35 could be a multicultural majority as well.

You gave three recommendations, which is to me very smart, because after analyzing the problem, you try to give solutions, and that doesn’t happen always. The first recommendation is to use an alternative to the White category.

There are several reasons why we ultimately made this recommendation. Like we previously mentioned, the broad category White masks important statistical gaps between different subgroups within the White category. Also, as we discussed at length, the identification of Italian Americans as White is not broadly agreed upon and seemingly no research or outreach was conducted by the working group to gain a deeper understanding of how Italian Americans identify. Last, the color-based category White in inconsistent with the geography-based categories in the initial proposals, like Hispanic or Middle Eastern and North African. This will result in confusion and people checking multiple boxes, as several may identify with both a color-based and a geography-based term.

So, if not White, then what? This was a very difficult question to answer. Again, when it comes to social constructs, there are no simple solutions. We tried to come up with several alternatives that we think are at least an improvement. Generally, we argued that the federal government should eliminate the use of color-based categories like White from government data collection, as we have already done for categories like Red, Yellow, and Brown. Color-based terms are subjective, ambiguous, contentious, and to some, offensive. Instead, we argued that government categories should be geography-based across the board. This would obviously be a big deal. We have used the color-based categories White and Black for centuries now, and some prefer color-based terms. Anyone would still be free to continue using those terms in everyday life, where there is room for nuance, debate, and personal autonomy. That is the way we use terms like Brown, people of color, or BIPOC today.

The first alternative to White we suggested was a Southern European or European Mediterranean category. This category would include Portugal, France, Spain, Italy, and Greece. But it could also extend to the Balkan region. Another alternative could be a Mediterranean category that would include Southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. However, Middle Eastern and North African groups were successful in advocating for their own category, and we want to respect their wishes if they prefer to be separated from all European groups. Another possible category could simply be European for people from any European country. Alternatively, some argue that Italian Americans should be considered Hispanic or Latino. The Spanish conquered Italy for a century, thus Italians could arguably fit within this category. The last alternative to the category White would be to collect data on detailed categories, like Italian, Mexican, or Nigerian, and eliminate the use of large categories, like White, Hispanic, or Black altogether. Each alternative has its pros and cons. Again, there are no perfect solutions.  

Your second recommendation is to require the collection of detailed category data, without exceptions.

So, in their initial proposals, the federal working group eliminated all distinctions between race and ethnicity, arguing that they are one in the same. They stated that the collection of data on minimum category races and ethnicities is required, without exceptions. The minimum categories include White, Hispanic or Latino, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, Middle Eastern or North African, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Beyond that, the proposals required the collection of data on detailed category races and ethnicities (e.g. Italian, Mexican, Nigerian), with two large exceptions. The first exception is if an agency determines that the potential benefit of the detailed data would not justify the additional burden to the agency. The second exception is if it raises risks to privacy or confidentiality protections. In those circumstances, agencies would just collect data on the minimum categories.

These exceptions provide broad leeway for agencies to opt-out of the collection of data at the detailed category level, doing harm to various racial and ethnic groups. As previously discussed, many groups, including Italian Americans, are left unseen in government statistics. The collection of data only at the minimum category level masks inequities and can do more harm than good for certain detailed category groups. This issue cuts across racial and ethnic categories, also impacting groups like the descendants of African slaves, Mexicans, or Filipinos. Though smaller minimum categories, like Southern European, partially alleviate this issue, they still do not go far enough in allowing groups to track their unique status in U.S. society.

Again, allowing an exception to the collection of data based on “additional burden to the agency” provides broad leeway to agencies to opt of detailed category data collection. The exception related to privacy is more understandable, genuine privacy concerns are raised when, say, small population sizes create privacy and confidentiality risks when their data is reported. However, we think it should only impact the reporting of data, not the collection of data. And even in instances where privacy concerns arise, workarounds exist, like aggregating multiple years of data to provide an average.

The third recommendation is to improve the reporting of data on people of multiracial and multiethnic backgrounds.

The federal government has always come short in reporting data on people of multiracial and multiethnic backgrounds. With increased numbers of Americans of multiracial and multiethnic background, and the emergence of new identities that form as a result, reporting data on these groups is of vital importance. Differences in opportunity and representation may be found depending on combinations of racial and ethnic background. We agree with advocates who have opposed a single “multiracial” category, as this would mask important differences among groups. However, we also understand the difficulty in reporting data on all possible combinations of multiracial and multiethnic identities. Ultimately, we lacked the expertise to make a specific recommendation on this issue, but we urged the working group to lean on the side of providing the most detailed information possible to increase visibility and equity for multiracial and multiethnic populations. Admittedly, as decades pass, and most of the country becomes multiracial and multiethnic, we will likely need to rethink our approach to racial and ethnic data collection altogether.

At the Italian American Future Leaders conference, you did a poll about these topics: what were the results?

So, we started our presentation with an anonymous poll. We asked the audience to imagine a government form where instead of the typical options they are used to seeing under the section on race and ethnicity, like White or Asian, there was a blank space for them to fill in any term they wanted. We asked everyone to answer the poll with the term they would fill in, insisting there were no wrong answers.

The audience’s answers to the poll were exactly what we expected them to be—passionate and diverse. For example, many identified with the terms Italian or Italian American. Others identified more broadly as Mediterranean. Some identified with color-based terms like White or Olive. And we also had audience members that identified with the region in Italy they are from, like Sicilian. Each had their own rationales for why they chose their term.  

Last question: What comes next?

The federal working group’s final recommendations will be released this summer. Whether they end up getting used by the federal government will likely depend on who wins the next presidential election. We hope they will give serious consideration to our recommendations, but it’s not guaranteed.

If they ignore our recommendations, there are different directions we could take. Should we do formal studies on how Italian Americans identify to shape future advocacy? This is what Middle Eastern and North African community did to get their new category. Should we form a coalition with other racial and ethnic groups on the issue of detailed category data? Are there possibilities for civil rights lawsuits on this issue? Perhaps we could work on legislation at the state and local level to improve racial and ethnic data collection standards? Asian civil rights groups have done this successfully in some places. And do we need to community organize to raise awareness of this issue so that Italian Americans understand the importance of this? These are all possible options for a path forward.

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