It began with an exchange of pleasantries.
In the audio from Tuesday, Alan Chartock, of WAMC’s The Roundtable, breaks the ice by telling Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that his wife had returned from a Columbus Day parade the enthusiastic owner of a “Proud Italian Americans for Cuomo” poster. Cuomo, with a soft chuckle and a hesitant “Yes,” confirms that his people were the ones handing them out. Suddenly, Chartock pivots and notes the “contentious debate” around dedicating a day to Christopher Columbus, a genocidal racist who was engrossed in raping indigenous women and stealing gold. He asks Cuomo what the governor thinks about renaming the holiday “Indigenous Peoples Day”: “We know that the people who came over here wiped out the indigenous population, don’t we? So maybe we should make that change. What do you think?”
“We should recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. … There were people here before who we have abused terribly and we continue to abuse them today. We’ll put you on reservations and we take all the good land,” says Cuomo. “Columbus Day though—well, the Columbus statue is about more than Christopher Columbus. The Columbus statue was put up at a time, Alan, when the Italian Americans were being abused. And it was a symbol to the Italian American community of respect and acceptance and inclusion. That’s why it generated the heat it did several years ago when they talked about taking it down.”
The Italian American community, Cuomo continues, will admit to Columbus’ “flaws,” but the statue holds a broader symbolism to them. “We’re at a time in this nation where everything is about division,” he says, before noting discrimination inflicted upon black Americans, Jewish Americans, and LGBTQ people.
It’s important to lay out a bit of context. The Columbus statue Cuomo was discussing is the one on Columbus Circle in New York City, which was presented to the city by Italian Americans in 1892. In 2017, a debate began about whether it should be removed on the grounds that Columbus and his cohorts laid the foundation for the systemic racism that still exists in the Western Hemisphere. Columbus would go on to amass the bulk of his wealth from the enslavement and trading of indigenous people. His “discovery” of a “New World” connected Europe and the Americas, which opened the door for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Eventually, Africans were kidnapped and enslaved to replace the indigenous population, which was being decimated because of disease and inhumane practices. And Diego Colón, Columbus’ son, was one of the first people given license by the Spanish crown to trade enslaved Africans.
Since some Italian Americans have come to see Columbus as a champion against anti-Italian sentiment and violence, they were upset at the suggestion. Cuomo picked up on this feeling of disrespect and tied it to an even more recent episode of Italian American outrage in New York, this one involving Mother Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants and the first American citizen to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Cabrini received the highest number of nominations when New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration asked for public input as to which historical women should be memorialized as statutes across the city, but the administration went with seven other women instead. (Cuomo announced on Monday that the state will pay for a statue of Cabrini to be erected in New York.)
Anti–Italian American sentiments have loomed strangely large in the imagination of the Cuomo family this year. In a short viral clip from August, CNN host Chris Cuomo, the governor’s brother, spiraled into a rage when an unknown man called him “Fredo,” a reference to Don Corleone’s pathetic son in The Godfather. In the clip, the furious Chris Cuomo declared the name is “like the N-word for us”—a claim that was met with considerable skepticism among Italian Americans.
The governor defended his brother at the time. “At this time in American society, where you have Jewish people being shot in a synagogue, and you have Latinos being shot in El Paso, there has to be more sensitivity to these stereotypes and discrimination,” he said. “It fuels the hate. Italian Americans are not Mafia. They are not Mafia.”
The comparison between a Godfather-based personal insult and anti-black racism or anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic murder was a considerable leap. But in Tuesday’s interview, Andrew Cuomo continued to draw questionable equivalences between violence currently inflicted upon marginalized groups and stereotypes about Italians.
“Do you think honestly that there is still anti-Italian prejudice in our population?” Chartock asked.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes,” said Cuomo.
“How can you prove it?”
“I believe there’s anti-Semitism. I believe there’s still racism. I believe there’s still anti-LGBTQ. I believe it and I believe there’s still an Italian American stereotype.”
Cuomo criticized a New York Post cover that had depicted him, his brother, and their father, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, as the cast of The Godfather following Chris’ outburst. Then he turned his ire to Albany Times Union senior editor Casey Seiler, who had written what he called an “ugly piece” that maintained the Cuomo kids don’t have a real understanding of anti-Italian slurs. Cuomo took particular issue with Seiler’s claim that the term wop doesn’t mean “without papers” as the governor interprets but instead translates to dandy.
“There is the stereotype of the Italian American as the thug, as the gangster, as organized crime and it comes right back up to the surface as soon as it’s touched and it has to be fought and countered all the time,” Cuomo said. “I will not allow my voice to be silent if someone attacks people because of their Jewish faith, or their race, or their creed, and I will not stand silent on anti–Italian American stereotyping.”
About two minutes later, Cuomo demanded an apology from the New York Post and declared that Jewish Americans, black Americans, and Italian Americans must all stand up for one another—at least in New York.
“Would you put the Italians at a higher point in prejudice, those who are prejudiced against Italians, than, for example, Jews?” asked Chartock.
“No, if you look at the numbers, anti-Semitism is a much worse problem … but pain is pain. And discrimination is discrimination. And it doesn’t work, Alan, to say, ‘Well, your pain is greater than my pain so I shouldn’t feel pain.’ No. All pain is bad. All discrimination is bad. And you may feel it worse and it may be quantifiably worse for you, but pain is pain.”
The interview moved on to other topics, but around the 18-minute mark, the precipitating moment to a sitting governor saying nigger on the radio arrived. Chartock asked Cuomo if a New York Times article claiming the governor had delayed Medicaid payments in order to push them into the next budget year was legitimate, and if the practice would be repeated.
“Well, if the Times says it’s so, it must be so, right?” Chartock said.
At that prompt, Cuomo veered away from Medicaid funding, back to his earlier topic: “Oh, well, the Times also said in an article the other day apropos of nothing—going back to the Italian Americans. … They used an expression, that Southern Italians were called, I believe they were saying Southern Italians, Sicilians, I’m half-Sicilian, were called quote-unquote, and pardon my language, but I’m just quoting the Times, ‘nigger wops.’ ‘N-word wops,’ as a derogatory comment. When I said that ‘wop’ was a derogatory comment, that’s when the Times Union told me: ‘No, you should look at Wikipedia. Wop really meant a dandy.’
“I’m sure that’s what they were saying to me back in Queens,” Cuomo said with a laugh. “ ‘You’re a dandy!’ When they looked at me with scorn and gave me a hand gesture and called me a ‘wop.’ So that’s the New York Times.”
A spokesperson told Slate that Cuomo “prefaced his comments with ‘Pardon my language, but I’m just quoting the Times,’ which, in a piece about slurs directed at Italian immigrants, printed the exact slur. The governor then, in his own words, referred to the slur as the ‘n word.’ ”
But let’s lay plain what happened here. Cuomo, steering the conversation away from a question about delaying Medicaid payments, pivoted back to his earlier disagreement with the Times Union over the meaning of the term wop. Caught up in his grievance, and perhaps mistaking the 19th-century rhetorical climate he’d read about in the Times for 21st-century broadcast standards and practices, he decided to speak the word nigger in the process.
Cuomo’s gaffe didn’t garner much media attention. There is no valid excuse for anyone who is not black to say the N-word—despite what those defending Cuomo may say. Throughout the interview, Cuomo equated current violence inflicted upon marginalized groups and stereotypes lobbed at Italian Americans. And while it’s true that stereotypes fuel violence—and, historically, even did culminate in lynchings of Italian Americans—current biases, as unpleasant as they may be, are not causing them to be systemically oppressed, disproportionately killed by police, pushed from their homes, locked in cages at the border, attacked or murdered for simply existing, or gunned down in synagogues.
And that history of abuse is what led Italians, who were given access to assimilate into American whiteness in part through the existence of Columbus Day, to write a mythology in denial of their experience of being nonwhite. So Cuomo’s vision of the Columbus statue as an entity that transcends division in our society—and his misconception that being taunted with stereotypes, in this scenario, is in any way equitable to literal violence—depends wholly on him being on the safe side of the divide.