The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Columbus Day had value for Italian Americans — but it’s time to rethink it

It helped erode discrimination but also upheld racial prejudice

A statue of Christopher Columbus was vandalized at Bayfront Park in Miami in June. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

It hasn’t been a good year for Christopher Columbus. Across the country, Columbus statues have been vandalized, taken down or come under review as Americans grapple with serious racial-justice questions, including the role of monuments in creating and preserving public memory. Municipalities named for Columbus are under pressure to be renamed. The decades-long movement to abolish Columbus Day and replace it with an Indigenous Peoples’ Day has never had more support — even among Italian Americans. All this raises the question, yet again: Why are we still celebrating Columbus Day?

Part of the answer lies in the way New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), an Italian American, reacted earlier this year when asked if he thought it was time for Columbus monuments to go. In the midst of nationwide protests focusing on Confederate and other problematic monuments, Cuomo responded “no,” reasoning that Columbus “has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian American contribution to New York.”

Cuomo’s remarks hit upon what has become a foundational understanding of Columbus Day. Throughout the 20th century, Columbus became associated with a sort of cultural pluralism in the United States whereby immigrant contributions were understood to enrich and ultimately remake the nation. The problem? Pluralist campaigns have historically recognized the impact and role White ethnics have had in the development of the United States, while excluding others from that triumphant narrative of the American melting pot. Perhaps no symbol illustrates pluralism’s limitations better than Columbus.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, millions of immigrants, including 4 million Italians, poured through Ellis Island and other U.S. entry points. Those newcomers were racially, ethnically and religiously diverse. Migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America fundamentally remade the demographic and cultural composition of the nation. Then, like today, many “older stock” Americans — those White Americans whose forebears had come in earlier waves of European immigration — responded with anxiety, violence and exclusionary laws, all directed at these newcomers.

Americans also grappled with that increasing diversity by pushing a program of assimilation on newcomers, beginning in the years after World War I. In schools, workplaces, civic spaces and other sites, Southern and Eastern European immigrants and their children were told that conforming to a notion of Americanism based on Anglo-Saxon Protestant behavioral norms and values was their ticket to integration and upward mobility. Such mobility, of course, remained largely out of the reach of African Americans and other minority groups (immigrant or native-born).

Assimilation as mere Anglo-American conformity did not go uncontested, though. Progressive voices, including many ethnic Americans themselves, pushed back and articulated a more pluralistic view of what it meant to be an American. To cultural pluralists throughout the 20th century, from Randolph Bourne to Louis Adamic, Leonard Covello, John F. Kennedy and others, the United States was a “nation of immigrants.” In their worldview, each immigrant group brought certain contributions to the country that not only remade what it meant to be an American but enriched the nation — economically, politically and culturally. Therefore, Americans ought to acknowledge and even celebrate those gifts as adding to the mosaic of the United States.

For White ethnics like Italian Americans, cultural pluralism was a powerful ideological tool that allowed them to claim membership in a reconstructed American mainstream. At the height of Italian immigration around the turn of the 20th century, Italian Americans were framed as a highly undesirable group associated with criminality, political radicalism, and Catholic beliefs and practices that nativists saw as a threat to U.S. democracy. They faced prejudice, violence and, after a 1924 law that aimed to limit immigration to desirable “old stock” Northern and Western Europeans, legal exclusion. But Columbus Day offered ethnic power brokers the opportunity to “rebrand” their group’s public image.

What Italian Americans did with Columbus Day illustrates the power of constructed symbols and community memories to shape identities.

Annual celebrations of Columbus allowed 20th-century Italian American elites to transform a litany of “Italian” explorers into the first American “pioneers” and Columbus into the nation’s “first immigrant” (even though there was no United States in the late 15th century and Columbus never resettled in the Americas, let alone North America).

Italian Americans also asserted that Columbus and a succession of later Italian immigrants were instrumental in crafting Americanism as we know it. Common talking points in Columbus Day speeches and celebrations run by prominent Italian Americans in the post-World War II era argued that Columbus and, later, Italian migrants brought the republican traditions of ancient Rome, the roots of Christianity and the cultural spirit of the Renaissance to transform the United States. In short, they were “good” immigrants because they helped transplant “Western civilization” to the Americas.

Columbus also emerged from that era as an entrepreneurial individual who persevered against adversity to make a success of himself. His story became the ultimate Italian American pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps myth — particularly during the height of White ethnic revivals and working-class political shifts to the right in the 1970s and ’80s.

In crafting these representations, Italian Americans used Columbus Day and other cultural markers to successfully fight back against any lingering ideas that they were somehow inferior or undesirable immigrants and citizens. Rather, they argued that their own cultural values enriched the nation and played a formative role in shaping definitions of Americanism.

But this was a narrow vision of history that eschewed other contributions of Italian immigrants. Columbus Day celebrations were not used to remind the nation of working-class immigrants’ struggles or their radical traditions. The day hardly celebrated the Italian American artisanal craftsmen who were often commissioned to build Columbus monuments. Such celebrations also ignored folk Catholicism, which was a central element of many Italian Americans’ identities.

In presenting Columbus in this way, Italian Americans didn’t challenge the notion that discrimination against immigrants or other groups in the United States was inherently flawed. They merely used evidence of their group’s meritorious contributions to the nation to make the case that it was time to move Italian Americans to the other side of the ledger. Combined with the structural privileges they already enjoyed, the result was that by the decades after World War II, Italian Americans increasingly married who they wanted, worked where they wanted, lived where they wanted, went to school where they wanted and even got legal restrictions against Italian immigration removed.

Italian Americans used pluralist tactics to write themselves into a narrative of White citizenship and laid claims to its benefits in the process.

The idea of celebrating immigrant contributions to the nation rarely worked out the same way for non-White groups (when it did, it was often when “model minorities” were able to craft a decidedly non-Black identity). Pluralist campaigns were at their height during World War II and the decades that followed. Yet in the same years that Italian Americans and other White ethnics were celebrated for their contributions to the nation, Japanese Americans were interned en masse as “enemy aliens,” African Americans had to remind the nation that World War II was a multi-front battle against racism at home as well as abroad, many Mexican immigrants found themselves stuck in perpetual nonimmigrant guest-worker programs, and Native Americans were written out of migration stories entirely.

It seems that Cuomo and some of Columbus’s most ardent supporters fail to recognize, or don’t want to admit, that successful articulations of pluralism have historically been bound together with processes of racialization in the United States. W.E.B. Du Bois famously, and tragically, argued for a pluralist vision of America when he lamented in 1903 that he “simply wishe[d] to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American.” In the racial reckonings of 2020, it’s past time to take that history into account.