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Obamania or Obamaphobia: Italians in a Post-Bush America

Obamania or Obamaphobia: Italians in a Post-Bush America

Jerry Krase (November 12, 2008)
Jerry Krase
I was trying to figure out an appropriate image for this article from what I had handy that would adequately symbolize the relationship between iconic Italians and equally iconic Obamaniacs. I finally settled on this one. My sister-in-law had given me the Taoromina statue as a gift after her visit to Sicily and my wife wore the Obama button during the campaign after we stopped supporting John Edwards. I don't think we had any Edwards buttons even though we had sent him money. The lighting wasn't very good on my file cabinet, but as a fortuitous accident the image nicely symbolizes the hazy relationship between the President-elect Barack Obama and the future of Italian America's politics.

Italian American intellectuals and Italians in Italy might have given great support to Barack Obama's historic Presidential triumph but Italian American voters, at least those in New York, can hardly expect much in the way of thanks from the new tenants of the White House.


      Come si dice in italiano “yes we could”. Si, potremmo? In any case, we did it (lo abbiamo fatto).

I begin this post-election reflection by quoting myself from i-italy when I recalled being asked by visiting European journalists if America was ready to elect a Black President, to which I replied that “America wasn’t ready but America doesn’t elect the President -- the electorate (a much smaller group) does. For example in 2004 about 60% of eligible voters voted and George W. Bush got half of that or about 30% of eligible voters; only 62 millions votes from a population of about 300 million; about 20% of the total population. So if only a fifth of America wasn’t racist, Obama could win.” Lucky for Barack, America is only 5.5% Italian.

      On the other hand, election returns showed that New York City’s Italian American politicians had “the luck of the Irish” (McCain-wise). According to the most recent estimates by the John Calandra Italian American Institute, Italian Americans make up 5.54% of la Grande Mela’s population. As might be expected, things were especially sad (tristi) in Staten Island (almost 40% Italian). The Sunday (after the election) New York Times dissected the “Changing Electorate” finding among other things that White Protestants went 65% for McCain vs 34% for Obama. 54% of Catholics voted for Obama and 45% for McCain, but that figure included Hispanics who voted 67% to 31% in favor of Obama so I would estimate that the majority of white Catholics voted for the loser. 55 % of Whites voted for all-white McCain and (surprise, surprise) 95% of Blacks voted for half-white Obama.

      From The Times data, I created some electoral stereotypes: The perfect Obamaniac was a young (18-29) black Jewish unmarried lesbian urbanite with a Ph. D. who thought her financial situation worsened during W’s tenure and the perfect McCainiac was an old (60+) white Protestant, rural husband, with a Bachelor’s Degree who thought his financial situation improved during W’s tenure. How’s that for polarized??

      Just like “Obama,” “tsunami” ends in a vowel and they swamped New York’s Italian American politicos (politici). With what was left of the luck of the “really Irish,” Democrat Mike McMahon defeated Republican Bob Straniere by a 2 to 1 margin in the13th Congressional District and ended 28 years of GOP (and Italian American) control of the Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Dyker Heights, and Staten Island district. Losing Staten Island means that when 2009 begins no Republican will represent New York City in Congress. Similarly, Janele Hyer-Spencer (D) defeated Joe Cammarata (R) 55 - 45% in Assembly District 60 that covers Bay Ridge and Staten Island. Alec Brook-Krasny (D) 70% defeated Bob Capano (R) 70 - 30% in the 46th AD that includes Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Coney Island, and Brighton Beach. In Queens, State Senator Serphim Maltese (R) (in office for 2 decades) lost to co-ethnic Joseph Addabbo (D). It was predicted that the vote would be close but Obama’s coattails gave Addabbo a 57.5% to 42.5% semi-landslide (semi-frana).

      As I have written in my non-best selling book* Staten Island is the present and future of New York City’s Italian Americans. Therefore it is important to point out that while Obama got 88 % of Bronx votes, 85 % of Manhattan’s, 79 % of Brooklyn’s and 74 % of Queens’, only la bella isola di Staten carried for John McCain (52%) according to The Associated Press. In addition, my friend and City University colleague, John Mollenkopf was quoted in The Times as saying that: “Of the white Democrats who in the past have shown a propensity to vote for republicans in mayoral elections, in preference over black, or even white candidates who have strong black support – the Jewish neighborhoods were least likely to fall away from Obama, and the Italian neighborhoods the most.” My own analysis would suggest that the two groups in this election, especially more Orthodox Jewish voters, were actually much closer in anti-Obama voting. I also suggest that the Italian American politics of the past on Staten Island, and elsewhere, that have based on narrow cultural and ideological appeals and simple demographic dominance, has to broaden as the population and sentiments of the borough, city, state, and nation as well as the Italian American electorate itself has changed.

      Not to be outdone by Italian Americans in not jumping on the Obama band wagon, in Moscow (Mosca) Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, told President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia that President-elect Barack Obama “has all the qualities to get along well with you: he’s young, handsome and suntanned, so I think you can develop a good working relationship.” Italians saw this as a gaff (gaffe). La repubblica reported: Berlusconi, prima gaffe su Obama_"E' giovane, bello e abbronzato." We all, Italians and Italian Americans alike, should be grateful that il Cavaliere didn’t take the opportunity to also reflect on the religion of Obama’s Kenyan dad.


*The Staten Island Italian American Experience, Staten Island: The DaVinci Society of Wagner College, 2007.

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Interesting analysis Jerry.

Interesting analysis Jerry. But I think you overlooked the key reason Staten Island Italian Americans favored McCain. It's the "R" word. Many of the paisans in the borough that time forgot moved there to get away from the "moulies" in Brooklyn. That sentiment still is widespread among our co-ethnics there. Racial animus accounts for much of the their loyalty to the Republicans (found nowhere else in NYC), along with various other prejudices that fall under the euphemistic umbrella of "cultural conservatism." So there's no way they'd vote for a "moulie" who was against the Iraq war, is pro-choice and (sort of) pro-gay. Yet there are liberal and progressive Italian American politicians in this town, including up and coming Eric Gioia (my City Council representative), Bill De Blasio, James Gennaro, Tony Avella, and of course Addabbo. For me one of the highlights of the elections was Addabbo's victory over the reactionary dinosaur Maltese, Queens' answer to Jerry Falwell. Time is running out for Italian American pols like Maltese, and it's about time. (No, long overdue.) I think the story to watch is the emergence of IA politicians like Addabbo and Gioia who don't play conservative ethnic politics but instead have a broader agenda and seek to build coalitions across ethnic and racial lines. They're not Vito Marcantonio or Frank Barbaro, but they're far from a Maltese or Molinari.

--George De Stefano

staten island presidential vote

George: I don't think I overlooked the "R" word at all. I indicated that the Italians who lost in SI and Brooklyn had the (R) affixed to them. I have written quite a few times about the movement of Italian Americans away from the both "persons of other colors" and what they saw as a "too liberal" D party. Unfortunately progressive Italian American pols can't generally depend on massive co-ethnic support but fortunately they also have broad appeal. Di Blasio is my councilperson. I don't care for any kind of ethnic politics; my co-authored book- Ethnicity and Machine Politics, and other writings and political activism makes that clear. I look forward to the time when the last thing voters look for are ethnic, racial, gender, religious, charateristics and the first thing they look at is what the candidate will do to make their world more livable... that includes not promoting base divisions. We are reading now about quite a number of new bias incidents in SI and elsewhere and I am sure that the hateful rhetoric during the campaign has had more than electoral effect. I hope SI doesn't become a substitute for "Bensonhurst" in the annals of bias crimes. Finally, it's nice to see that we read each others posts. Auguri, Jerry

destefano's picture

Bias crimes

Jerry, Yes, I agree -- the "R" word has two basically equivalent meanings. :)

You mention bias assaults on SI since the election. I was watching NY1 this morning and there was a story about two Italian American teenagers being arrested for beating up a black teenager on election night. According to the report, the attackers didn't use racial epithets. They instead kept saying "Obama Obama" as they pummeled him. The story included interviews with neighbors of one of the attackers. One woman said she couldn't believe he'd done this because he's such a "good kid." Yeah, they're always "good kids." She added that he was going into the Marines soon. Perfect.

Have you heard one word from the Italian American leadership condemning this attack and all the others we've seen in NYC? There is a real problem of racism and bias violence among IA youth in this city. (And not only Italians but other "white ethnic" youths, e.g., the Irish punk who stabbed the Ecuadorean immigrant on Long Island last week.) Yet no one ever speaks out about it. More important to rant about The Sopranos, I guess, and engage in self-pitying victim fantasies.

-- G. De Stefano

Staten Island, USA and Bologna, Italia

George: We have to keep meeting this way. La Repubblica reported on a few more of Italy's own "Bensonhurst-Staten Island incidents" reflecting growing political as well as racial intolerance. In Bologna ( "Assolto di naziskin a Bologna botte e calci, ferito uno studente") and Rome (Immigrati di m...", e li aggrediscono Clochard contro lavoratori peruviani). 11/1/08, P. 16 Interesting that the paper also had a special report on "la italia meticcia." - half-breed doesn't sound good in italian either. Jerry Krase