Television

Fact-Checking Fargo: How Bad Was Anti-Italian Racism in the 1950s?

Prejudice against Italians had largely died out by the mid–20th century, but some were still discriminated against because of their Catholic faith.

Two men with mustaches and hats stare at each other, one carrying a small tin, in a still from Fargo.
Fargo. Elizabeth Morris/FX

The fourth season of Fargo follows a conflict between two groups of gangsters in 1950 Kansas City: one Italian American (headed by Jason Schwartzman) and one Black (led by Chris Rock, in an unexpected—and effective—dramatic turn).

There’s a whole lot of discrimination against Italian Americans in the show’s midcentury Missouri, and its WASPier citizens’ anti-Italian sentiment drives multiple subplots. But it seemed a little strange to see these kinds of openly anti-Italian attitudes in a show set in 1950. Wasn’t this kind of discrimination more a creature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Italian immigration was at its height? I asked Maddalena Marinari, historian and author of Unwanted: Italian and Jewish Mobilization Against Restrictive Immigration Laws, 1882–1965, to explain. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: The Black characters in this show often argue that Italian Americans are in the same situation as them in relation to American racism. At one point, Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) says to one of the Italian American characters, “I see the signs in the windows: ‘No coloreds, no Italians.’ We’re both in the gutter together, like it or not.” But was there discrimination against Italian Americans like that in 1950?

Maddalena Marinari: Interesting. The timeline seems to me to be off by a couple decades. A lot of this was happening out in the open in the 1930s, but by the 1950s, a lot of Italian Americans had moved out of the kinds of neighborhoods where they might have had conflicts or interactions like these with Black people. A lot of Italian Americans took advantage of World War II—serving in it, and benefiting from the GI Bill, which of course Black veterans were excluded from doing—to move out of these “ethnic neighborhoods.”

It was the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 that put strict quotas on Italian immigration, right? What was happening with Italian immigration after the war?

Some people in Congress pushed for legislation restricting immigration from southern and Eastern Europe—which was code for “Jewish and Italian immigrants”—starting in 1892, but they didn’t really succeed until 1924, when they passed the Johnson-Reed Act. Immigration from Italy didn’t completely come to an end. In the 1930s, it was really low, but there was a loophole in the law that allowed for family reunification; most of the immigration during the 1930s was due to family ties.

One thing that might make sense in terms of setting this story in 1950 is that after World War II, Congress passed a series of laws for displaced persons in Europe, allowing more people to come over; some of these people were Italian and Jewish. Some of the stereotypes resurfaced again in public conversations over these new laws. But there wasn’t the same level of virulence against Italian immigrants as there was in the early 20th century.

There were some exceptions in public life, like Patrick McCarran, the senator from Nevada, who absolutely hated Italians, and absolutely hated Jewish immigrants, and had a lot of power. He was the one who, in 1952, when it seemed like Congress might overturn the quota system, sponsored the McCarran-Walter Act, a bill that upheld it. In the press, when this bill was being debated, you see some resurgence of negative stereotypes of Italian Americans from earlier in the century.

But in general, Italians were absorbing into American society and had more political clout. And President Truman really didn’t want to alienate Italian Americans because they had strong ties to Italy, which in the postwar years was critical to the Cold War interests of the United States. Postwar American politicians wanted to use Italian Americans to influence Italians. For example, in 1948 there was a massive letter-writing campaign that Italian Americans organized, at the urging of the government, to persuade Italians to vote to be a republic rather than for Communist candidates.

Going back to that window sign—what about the idea that there might be employment discrimination against Italian Americans, even in the midcentury period?

In the early 20th century, it would maybe have been true that there might have been that kind of informal employment discrimination. But I don’t know if there would have been window signs like that. This is like the history of the “No Irish Need Apply” signs, which, it’s been found, there isn’t much evidence they were as common as people remember. To be clear, I don’t know that there wouldn’t have been signs like the one the show mentioned, but I haven’t seen evidence of it.

There’s a situation in the first episode where the head of the Italian American crime family is shot, and his son and lieutenants try to take him to a private hospital and they’re turned away. The hospital administrator, who seems like sort of a throwback to an earlier time, talking about “Protestant bloodlines” and such, refuses to let him in, saying he only serves one class of people—“respectable Americans.” What about this kind of discrimination in the provision of services?

This is interesting that you mention “Protestant,” because one of the tricky things with Italians is that often they were discriminated against because of their [Catholic] religion, and that was particularly intense during the 1920s and 1930s. And then that contributes to this sort of ambivalent racial status they had in the racial hierarchy.

It’s interesting that this incident takes place in a hospital, because there’s been a lot of scholarship about the fact that a lot of Italian immigrants did not arrive with much understanding of racial dynamics in the United States, and it was exactly in this type of encounter, at schools, in church, in getting health care, that they began internalizing them. That’s where newly arrived immigrants started to get the idea that being perceived as “white” really matters in the United States in terms of social mobility and political visibility. And that’s why, at first, they lived in “ethnic neighborhoods” and had their own churches and services.

But that’s through the beginning of World War II. World War II really was a turning point, where a lot of immigrants, even the older ones, figured out there could be a blurring of the lines. And that’s when they started moving out of “ethnic neighborhoods.” So that’s why this setting for this show is a bit strange; by the early 1950s the Italian American community has begun to figure out how race works in the United States.

That’s just what I was about to ask next, which is about anti-Black racism in the Italian American community. The Italian American characters on the show have a range of attitudes toward the Black characters—some are quite racist, while others identify some kind of common experience between the two groups. (When one character says some racist, anti-Black things, another replies, “You don’t think they talk about us like that behind closed doors?”) So it’s interesting to hear you say that this is a time when there’s an awareness of how the hierarchy might be shifting.

Yes, and in part that’s because of the rhetoric that comes out of the war. The United States was trying to project this image of a diverse and inclusive society. In practice, of course, that wasn’t true, even within the military. There were race riots at home and on the battlefront. I think a lot of Italian Americans were realizing, a lot of people were realizing, there’s the message and then there’s what’s happening on the ground.

There definitely were some Italian Americans who—the discriminatory immigration laws made them uncomfortable, and they looked for ways to be fully accepted by mainstream Americans. … They realized that one of the ways they could do that was to kind of separate themselves from Black Americans.

But of course, not every Italian American was like that. Vito Marcantonio, an Italian American congressman from East Harlem who served in the 1930s and 1940s, talked about how the division between races was intentional [on the part of those in power] and if they could come together they would benefit from that and be more successful overall. But he really struggled to get across that message, and he represented one of the most diverse districts in New York City.

Well, hearing you talk about this time as sort of a cultural transition zone, with the effects of the GI Bill and the postwar situation changing everything, I’m starting to think that this show’s 1950 setting situates it as sort of a “last gasp” story. This is about the conflict between a group on the edge of legitimacy and a group still completely shut out. And that’s an interesting dynamic.

OK, one last question. Would an Italian American, in 1950, really refer to Italy as “the boot”?

[Laughs] I have never heard of that! I don’t know—a lot of Italian Americans had a lot of reverence for the home country; it seems like “the boot” might sound disrespectful to them. I don’t know for sure, though!