This article appeared originally in the anthology Pimps, Wimps, Studs, Thugs, and Gentlemen (2009), edited by Elwood Watson. I’m reprinting it here because I believe it has things to say about Italian-Americans, law enforcement, and race relations in the New York tri-state area that may shed some light on the cultural context of the killing of Eric Garner. Please keep in mind that the length of this essay requires that it be serialized. Try not to judge its contents too quickly but wait for the entire piece to be published online.
Unlike the Punisher, who kills plenty of non-Italians, but who reserves a special hatred for his own people, the Irish-American vigilantes Connor and Murphy MacManus featured in The Boondock Saints (1999) are functionally protectors of the Irish-American community in Boston. After hearing a sermon during Sunday mass about the importance of fighting evil in society, the MacManus twins defend the local Irish bar from being shaken down by Russian Mafia extortionists. They kill the gangsters in self-defense and become neighborhood heroes. Afterwards, the MacManus brothers go on a killing spree, focusing their attention on purging Boston of the Russian and Italian mobs, but claiming to be against all criminals who prey upon the innocent. Like the Punisher, the Boondock Saints are religious fanatics who think God is on their side when they kill criminals. While these “Boondock Saints” are briefly pursued by a gay FBI agent played by William Dafoe, his character ultimately comes to see the wisdom of their actions, and does not arrest them. There is some indication that he even joins them at the end of the film.
The Boondock Saints was written and directed by Troy Duffy, who reportedly felt compelled to write the screenplay as a form of therapy after he saw a murdered woman being removed from an apartment across the hall from him. As Duffy explained in an interview:
I decided right there that out of sheer frustration and not being able to afford a psychologist, I was going to write this, think about it. People watching the news sometimes get so disgusted by what they see. Susan Smith drowning her kids … guys going into McDonald’s, lighting up the whole place. You hear things that disgust you so much that even if you’re Mother Teresa, there comes a breaking point. One day you’re gonna watch the news and you’re gonna say, ‘Whoever did that despicable things should pay with their life’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Boondock_Saints).
Duffy’s rage at the sight of the murdered woman is understandable, and I admit that my own upbringing in a safe, middle-class, Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Staten Island prevents me from feeling the immediacy of crime in the same way that Duffy experienced it. He was forced to live in an apartment building in which ugly crimes were committed. I was not. Nevertheless, there is a disturbingly racist overtone to the film The Boondock Saints. In fact, one of the Italians, who ultimately joins forces with the MacManus brothers against his own people, tells a racist joke in which a genie solves all of white America’s “problems” by teleporting all Hispanics to Mexico and all blacks back to Africa. The joke is not only mean-spirited, but makes one wonder if the Boondock Saints are not performing the same function as the genie, only by killing minorities instead of deporting them. The symbolism of the MacManus brothers as guardians of American “whiteness” is particularly ironic if one considers the fact that, when the Irish first came to America, they were greeted with terrible racism from the whites who already lived here, and were the targets of NINA (“No Irish Need Apply”) laws. So the anger and hatred that the Boondock Saints level against immigrants who came to America after them seems hypocritical in the extreme.
And the Boondock Saints are not alone in this hypocritical racism.
Indeed, while Italian-Americans as a whole are reportedly left-leaning Democrats, those who live on Staten Island have, in my own personal experience, a surprising tendency towards being arch conservatives that are particularly prone to racism. They look back upon the “old neighborhood” in Brooklyn where they and their parents and grandparents lived before the family relocated to Staten Island, see that the apartment buildings that they had kept up so well have fallen into disrepair under the stewardship of Russian, Muslim, Hispanic, or black newcomers, and they feel nothing but anger and confusion about the new minorities who have taken over what used to be “little Italy.” These Italians forget that they were once poor minorities, too.
Jennifer Guglielmo explores the inexplicable, and frustrating, tensions between Italian-Americans and other minorities, especially African-Americans, in the introduction to her book Are Italians White? How Race is Made in America (2003):
Italians are niggaz with short memories. In late June, 2002, Chuck Nice, an African American deejay at WAXQ-FM in New York City casually made this remark on-air while hosting an early morning talk show. Within days, a response came back. The Order of the Sons of Italy in America, the oldest and largest organization of Italian Americans in the United States, announced that it was “puzzled by such a statement and the station’s refusal to do an on-air apology. We understand that Mr. Nice is an African American, but we don’t understand why it is wrong for a white person to call an African American that name, but okay for an African American to use it to describe white people.” What the organization’s spokesperson saw as so offensive was not the entire phrase, just the epithet, which made no sense since it was used by an African American to describe whites. What they seem to have missed, however, was how this radio host was calling Italians out on their particular whiteness: Italians were not always white, and the loss of this memory is one of the tragedies of racism in America (1).
The forgetfulness that both Nice and Guglielmo describe is particularly hard to forgive in light of the fact that, while Italians faced prejudice and obstacles in light of their status as immigrants, their suffering as marginalized Americans is miniscule in comparison to what African-Americans have gone through, from the age of slavery up through the present. As Malcolm X wrote in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965):
How is the black man going to get ‘civil rights’ before first he wins his human rights? If the American black man will start thinking about his human rights, and then start thinking of himself as part of one of the world’s great peoples, he will see he has a case for the United Nations. I can’t think of a better case! Four hundred years of black blood and sweat invested here in America, and the white man still has the black man begging for what every immigrant fresh off the ship can take for granted the minute he walks off the gangplank (806).
While I agree with Malcolm X’s point wholeheartedly, in my experience, most Italian-Americans either don’t understand what he is saying, or are too offended by his argument to consider the possibility that it might be true. Italian-Americans from Staten Island forget that they, like the blacks, have suffered from prejudice. They forget that the early Italian-Americans in America were allies with the black activists of the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds. They also forget that they, in comparison to African-Americans, have suffered little. Instead, Staten Island Italian-Americans in particular wonder why they were able to class-jump from a one-room apartment in Bay Ridge to a semi-attached home in Staten Island while other minorities seem mired in poverty, incapable of making such a class jump. This kind of thinking leads to Staten-Island Italians wishing that the old neighborhoods would somehow be “cleaned up” by the Italian equivalent of the Boondock Saints, or the Punisher. These sentiments are harsh and despicable, and shared by the vast majority of Italian- and Irish-Americans I knew growing up in Staten Island. Many of these same Staten Islanders, not coincidentally, were big fans of The Punisher comic book growing up.
Ironically, such horrible sentiments have been most effectively countered by a voice for tolerance that comes from the unlikeliest of quarters, the Irish-American, right-leaning Fox News personality who bills himself as a moderate when he is anything but … Bill O’Reilly. Using personal memories and anecdotal evidence rather than statistics, O’Reilly nevertheless gives a reasonable response to Italian-Americans like those I grew up around, who blamed the wrong people for the deterioration of the neighborhoods they used to live in. As O’Reilly writes in The O’Reilly Factor: The Good, the Bad, and the Completely Ridiculous in American Life (2000):
The attitude of my [prejudiced] friend’s parents came, I think, from the history of our lily-white town. Levittown was populated in the 1950s, mostly by whites who fled Brooklyn after World War II. This sudden exodus was caused by evil real estate agents. They began buying up small apartment houses and moving black families in. This was not an enlightened plan to promote integration and harmony among the races. They knew that many Irish, Italian, and Jewish families would succumb to prejudice-and to well-placed rumors-by selling their row houses in a panic.
That’s how “blockbusting” began. Real estate prices dropped drastically in many working-class sections of Brooklyn. The real estate people, the blockbusters themselves, snapped up the houses cheap. Then they subdivided them, squeezing two black-families into a one-family structure. One thing led to another, and the quality of some neighborhoods spiraled downward fast. The agents, now acting as landlords, made a killing on rent but provided little maintenance.
I know what I’m talking about because my family experienced it. My grandfather meticulously maintained his home on West Street in Brooklyn because he owned it. The black families coming into these areas usually could not afford to own. As renters, they reasonably expected their landlords to be responsible for maintenance and repairs. Few of these landlords bothered. Maintenance cut into profits.
Naturally, many of the blocks owned by blockbusters began to deteriorate. Some whites blamed the black renters for this decline, but they were looking only at the surface. The slums had been created by blockbusters, and they were never really held accountable. Setting one race against another, they used fear and prejudice to make money, not caring that well-kept, peaceful neighborhoods were destroyed (156-157).
While there is evidence to support O’Reilly’s claims, such a reflection on the creation of “bad neighborhoods” rarely filters into popular crime narratives, be they Punisher comic books or episodes of NYPD Blue, which are more concerned with depicting the punishment of an individual criminal for a particular crime rather than with looking at the root causes of poverty, crime, and race and class divisions. Only the comic book Green Lantern/Green Arrow, written during the activist 1970s by Dennis O’Neil, dares to show a superhero (the Robin-Hood-like Green Arrow) join a gang of minorities in attacking a fat, white businessman for being a slum lord rather than depict a super hero defending a “respectable businessman from an unreasonable mob.” It is a striking, progressive image, watching the Caucasian Green Arrow condemn the greedy white businessmen, but it is, again, the exception that proves the rule. Far more common in the world of comic books is the sight of the Punisher acting as racial purist, killing a black or Hispanic mugger/rapist in an alley after the grotesque criminal accosted a pretty white woman at the point of a switchblade. Iconic, and disturbing, scenes such as those demonstrate why, arguably, the Punisher reflects and amplifies the tendencies of conservative readers to, in a racist fashion, scapegoat entire groups for the problems of society without thinking of meaningful ways of dealing with poverty and crime. Obviously, the white-supremacist, wish-fulfillment fantasy of the Punisher is not a meaningful way of thinking about how to fix the problems of the decaying inner cities in America, but many reactionary readers seem to think it is.
Unfortunately, a lot of those writers who write stories for the Punisher do not appear to be aware of the racist dimensions of the character. Some are, and present him as a villainous or satirical figure. Other stories are written by people with ambivalent feelings for the character and the result is a work that is hard to decode as either racist or satirical, but that seems to lean towards racism, like the uncomfortable viewing experience that is Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. But a lot of Italians love the Punisher comics as much as they love the movie Taxi Driver, and I am suspicious of the motives of fans of both works of pop art. Why, exactly, do they love these stories so much? Can this love be healthy? And what is an alternative to this kind of narrative of black/Italian hostility?
Eddie Murphy has a famous comedy routine where he makes fun of Italian-Americans for investing too much in the myth of Rocky Balboa, and accuses the film series of race-baiting and escalating tensions between blacks and Italians because three of Rocky’s main opponents are formidable African Americans whom audience members are invited to root against. While I see where he is coming from, the friendship that Rocky eventually cultivates with Apollo Creed in Rocky III and IV, the training he does under Tony Burton, the affection he gives to Little Marie’s son Steps, and the respect he ultimately gives the Mason “the Line” Dixon, who defeats Rocky at the end of Rocky Balboa, is an infinitely preferable model of black/Italian relationships than those seen just about anywhere else in the popular media.
And, coming at it from another angle, unlike most Italian-American characters in film, Rocky has the advantage of being a really nice guy.
The Rocky films are not perfect, but they are the best we’ve got so far outside of the genre of the crime film, and the respective legacies of The Godfather and The Punisher.