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Jewish World Review June 12, 2001 / 22 Sivan, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Amos, Andy and Tony Soprano -- SOME Italian-American organizations and politicians are outraged over the award-hitting HBO hoodlum hit, "The Sopranos." I understand how they feel, even though I am a big fan of the show. I enjoyed "Amos 'n' Andy," too.

"Amos 'n' Andy" was a popular TV sitcom in the 1950s with an all-black cast. It was taken off the air under protests from civil rights organizations. Blacks families like mine thought the show was often buffoonish, sexist and in bad taste. We also watched it every week.

Sure, the show didn't offer the most dignified images of black life. Still, it was not lacking in charm and talent. The writing, acting and directing were excellent. Many African-Americans of my generation remember it fondly, even if they won't always say it in racially mixed company. Some fans even maintain special Web pages.

Sure, why not? Compared to some of the buffoonish comedies that feature all-black casts on TV today, including some of the stand-up comedy and sit-com reruns on BET, the black-oriented cable network, "Amos 'n' Andy" looks downright sophisticated.

But we watched "Amos 'n' Andy" in my childhood not because it was the best show that featured black people but because it was the only show that did. In my house, we were so starved for black images on the tube that we would have watched somebody read from a telephone book, as long as they were black.

Which brings me to my real objection to "Amos 'n' Andy" and also to "The Sopranos." It has nothing to do with the quality of writing, acting or directing. My objection is to the lack of diversity on television and other entertainment media about ethnic community life.

Hollywood loves other stereotypes, but none, it seems, more than the Italian mobster. Every major ethnic and racial group has had a criminal class of bad apples at one time or another in their history in America, but you would hardly know it from watching the movies or TV.

Such "profiling" of Italian-Americans outrages Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J. The granddaughter of Italian immigrants is asking her fellow House members to sign onto a resolution that denounces "The Sopranos" for "unfair stereotyping."

Earlier, the American Italian Defense Association, a Chicago-based organization, filed suit against Time Warner under a unique section of the Illinois Constitution, claiming the show negatively stereotypes Italian-Americans.

"The Sopranos" also received a vigorous thumbs-down from the National Italian American Foundation, which recently held a panel in Washington titled, "The Sopranos and Other Stereotypes: How Harmful are They?"

How harmful? Very harmful in the view of panelists like Elizabeth Messina, a Fordham University psychologist. She cited surveys that indicate an Italian surname can still penalize a political candidate by a substantial margin of votes, even in this seemingly enlightened aged.

Even so, some leading Italian-American politicians like Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani call themselves fans of "The Sopranos." It's only a show, these two men seem to be saying; we should never confuse it with reality.

Even so, we all have to be reminded sometimes of how durable and pervasive ethnic stereotypes can be, even in an era that has seen notable success by many Italian Americans in the public and private sectors. Since the 1970s, we have seen Italian-surnamed leaders like Ella Grasso become governor of Connecticut, Pete Domenici become a senator from New Mexico, Antonin Scalia become a Supreme Court justice and New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Rep. Geraldine Ferraro become national figures to be reckoned with.

In the private sector, there have been so many corporate chiefs of Italian ancestry like Lee Iacocca of Ford and Chrysler and Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti, who later became commissioner of baseball, "that no one bothered to count," writes political author and JWR commentator Michael Barone in his new book, , "The New Americans."

In the 1990 census, those who identified themselves as having Italian ancestry had household incomes and mean family incomes 17 percent above the national average and were nearly 50 percent more likely to have college degrees.

"After eight decades in America, Italian Americans became thoroughly interwoven into the fabric of American life by the 1970s," Barone, the grandson of Italian immigrants on his father's side, told me. "The melting pot still works, even if it has a lot of lumps in the mix sometimes."

Yes, it does. It is quite an epic tale. Unfortunately, you're not likely to see much of it on "The Sopranos." It's entertainment. It's a fantasy. Don't confuse it with reality.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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