Italian American Racism
During the WWII Era
& Italian Slur and Slang Definitions

Complete seventeen page paper is available through email.
This report is the result of a "Topics Course" which completed my History Education classes at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania from the Spring 2006 semester.
The course of History 401 - "World War II Home Front" was conducted by Professor Elizabeth Ricketts-Marcus.


Italian American Racism During the WWII Era. 

During the World War II era, Italian immigrants in America encountered harsh treatment from both citizens and the government.  Prejudice paired with war time hysteria was directed at the Italian population and resulted in the internment of several thousand immigrants, executions of prominent businessmen, and the constant harassment of hardworking laborers. Many of these same people had sons discriminated against while fighting overseas in the United States military saving the world from fascism.  Some victims cried “racism,” but for the most part Italian Americans pulled themselves up by their boot straps to make something out of their lives, despite the barriers.  Nevertheless, injustices did occur, and at a critical time in world history the United States government treated Italians as second class citizens.

            Prior to World War II ordinary Italian immigrants were referred to as Wops o
r Dagos.  Stereotypically, Italians were believed to be only capable of organized crime, as they could not possibly amass a fortune legitimately.  Italy was considered to be a land of lawlessness and anarchy ruled only by gang lords of the Black Hand.  From this perception the wealthy were labeled, too, but were known as Mafioso, or Cosa Nostras.  [M.A.F.I.A. - Mothers And Fathers Italian Association]

Most Americans considered the influx of these immigrants at the turn of the century as undesirable, and felt that they were eroding this country’s identity.  At the time, the globe was sinking deeply into economic depression, and Italy was no exception.  Similar to modern times, many emigrants chose to seek a better life elsewhere, rather than fix the problems in their own homelands.  Italy was being dictatorially governed, primarily by ruthless and brutal gang lords whose government was characterized by violent feuds.[1]  As instability met with financial downturn, American democracy began to look appealing.  Men initially left home seeking work.  Economically the conditions in Italy were so poor, that around nineteen hundred, one out of fifty citizens emigrated for the United States.[2]  North America had yet to experience negative economic effects as harshly as Europe.  These men hoped to secure employment and a stable home in the “land of opportunity.”  Upon arrival, the immigrants found no welcome mat.  No one befriended the cheaply working laborers who arrived seeking a better life than the ones they left behind in Italia.

Society’s View of the Italian

These new and darker faces found themselves at the bottom of the social totem pole.  Italian newcomers were described as “low-class, ignorant, unassimilable, and prone to criminality.”[3]  To make matters worse, the new immigrants practiced Catholicism.  America was predominantly Protestant in the early nineteen hundreds, and earlier prejudices had developed toward the Irish who were also devout Catholics.  Catholicism reinforced ethnic segregation, as each ethnicity practiced their faith in different parishes.  The contradictions between the universal Roman church and the reality of ethnic division brought about tension in the United States among varying nationalities.  Many Americans viewed this religion as a mixture of superstition, faith, and ritual.  Tension developed as self-imposed ethnic segregation was viewed by Americans as an unwillingness to assimilate into “Americanism Ideals,[4] or the idea of American cultural values.

Loading ships became the employment norm along the docks of New York’s harbors for many immigrants.  This work was considered unappealing, difficult outdoor labor full of heavy lifting.  Prior to legalized labor unions, ethnic groups banded together in employment.  Undesirable dock work was usually reserved for Irish, Scotts, Poles, Slovaks, Italians, and other marginalized ethnic groups.[5]  One source claims this experience is where the term “dago” originated.  These various ethnic groups would negotiate agreements to load or unload cargo for ship captains; however, captains took advantage of the laborers by promising to pay the men on a given day.  Often the ship would sail during the night prior to payday, leaving those laborers with nothing after a week of hard work.  Quickly each of these various ethnic groups learned to demand “we get paid by the day or we go.”[6]

Society’s new aversion to Italians led President Wilson to enact discriminatory immigration laws during the nineteen-twenties.  Italian immigrants were troubled by this legislation and still felt betrayed from results of the First World War, when President Wilson’s treaty at Versailles rejected Italian control of Fiume.  Italians resisted assimilation and retreated into ethnic enclaves to preserve their own traditions.  This reclusive lifestyle led to further increases in hostilities from old-stock Americans.  Generally Italians were resented for three main reasons; providing very cheap labor, sending portions of their pay home to family in Italy, and speaking Italian in conversation with other Italians.  According to historian Stephen Fox, “Typically, immigrants spoke regional dialects over English, and were loyal to kin or paesani (townspeople) originally from Italy.”[7]  Assimilating to American ideals included such acts as speaking English, becoming a naturalized citizen
, separating church and state, name changes favoring something less ethnic, and assuming a more “western style of culture.”  The name Tony originated as something thought to be less ethnic.  As the wave of immigrants poured through the gates of Ellis Island in the early 1900s, immigrant luggage commonly read "TO: NY."  To New York was frequently misinterpreted by clerks to mean the name "Tony," which was then listed on the immigrant’s paperwork as their new name, since many could not speak English to correct the clerks.

As with employment, ethnic groups congregated together in housing which was just as unfavorable.  Once established, immigrants began sending portions of their wages home until enough money accumulated for their families to make the journey across the Atlantic.  Initially, Italians were located in the Upper East Side of New York City living in tenement housing.  Tenements were several story apartment buildings located in the overcrowded slums of a city.  The Upper East Side was filled with the aroma of Italian cooking, and the streets with the sounds of organ grinders.[8]  Inside the tenements, Italians left their doors open and socialized in the hallways, which was considered unusual by most other ethnic groups.  Also considered unusual by other ethnicities was the Italian custom of a large family: on average each household contained eight children.[9]

                While attempting to assimilate into the culture, hostilities continued as Italians found themselves frequently in the role of the scapegoat for various crimes.  The perception of Italian Americans as ruthless, dishonest, and violent thieves contributed to their lynching at the hands of native-born Americans.  In several instances, if due process did occur, the trial outcomes fell short of fair or impartial.  Public officials were outspokenly racist against Italians and condemned people on the belief that they were anarchists.  During a mine foreman’s testimony, he was asked i
f an Italian was a white man; his response was “No sir, an Italian is a dago.”[10]  It was beliefs such as these which led to one of the most controversial trials in American history—that of respected business owners Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, in 1927.  Both men were convicted of murder and sentenced to death solely on the testimony of an eye witness.  The witness did not identify either man, but claimed the assailants “looked Italian,” and further characterized them as “anarchist bastards.”[11]

Unbridled prejudice within society resulted from the immigrant’s unconventional traditions, as commonly “alien cultures have been the recipients of scorn and maltreatment throughout much of American history.”[12]  Though embracing democracy, Italian-Americans often found themselves defending Italy and its current fascist dictatorship as their beloved homeland most of whom hoped to return to one day. Xenophobia gripped the country’s mindset in 1939 as World War II loomed and threatened democracy worldwide.  In addition, ethnic Italians were closely linked to organized crime, as criminality and dishonesty were considered part of the “cultural baggage of Italian immigration.”[13]  Americans insisted that racketeering was not a native trait of America but was imported from Sicily and Naples.  The government of Italy, led by Mussolini, was believed to be founded on such terrorism, and was considered a nationalized Mafia.[14]

The Americanism Ideal

            Adolph Hitler viewed America as an inferior, mongrel, nation.  Americans held a similar view of its Italian residents.  The Italian segment of the population was even further dissected into groups of Northern and Southern immigrants.  The Northern group was considered to be the lesser of two evils, due to their lighter “Aryan” skin tone.  Some anthropologists argued that the Southern “Mediterranean” group possessed “inferior African blood…and demonstrated a moral and social structure reminiscent of primitive and even quasibarbarian times.  They are volatile, emotionally unstable, soon hot, soon cool, and when they talk their hands will be moving all the time.”[15]  Southern Italy’s location was viewed as a crossroads which joined Africa, Europe, and the East.  Americans believed it had given birth to people with an “inherent racial inferiority.”[16]  This led to discrimination against Italians based upon the worth of the province where the immigrant originated (with provinces further south being increasingly undesirable).  This belief also led to the application of another derogatory term: “Guinea,” which originally meant an “inferior African slave, and their descendents.”[17]

            Even in Italy countrymen were guilty of stereotyping themselves according to this cultural division, which was strangely familiar to our own mentality during the Civil War.  Northern Italians viewed themselves as the industrious, wealthier, educated, sensible, and the stable half of the country.  The southern Italians saw themselves as the agricultural, honest, hard working backbone of the country.  They felt they were less conscientious but friendlier, warmer, and more sociable than the citizens from the north.  The north viewed the south as disorganized, unreliable and impulsive.  These views originated from a combination of historical and geographic factors.  Granted there are economical, social, and cultural differences among Italian regions; but sociologists had not indicated until modern times that the personalities of both northern and southern Italians are remarkably similar, even during the emigration of the early 1900s for the United States.[17.5] Terracciano, Antonio.  North vs. South:  What's the Difference?  Italian America magazine.  The Order Sons of Italy in America, Winter 2010, page 8.

            Most of the immigrants in the close-knit familial communities were illiterate laborers living at poverty level, which ultimately became a great advantage.  As the depression set in, and wages decreased, many higher-paid Americans lost their jobs. However, the Italians, who were already at the bottom of the pay scale, continued working on the docks and in coal mines - among other unskilled employment.  Additionally, Italians were accustomed to living inexpensively among large groups of family, this allowed for social mobility when the rest of the country suffered the effects of doing without.  The playing field was leveled as the depression took its toll.  Italians would work for bushels of potatoes, share crops, and share livestock to feed paesani and their own extended families.[18]  As Italians continued to live relatively unaffected, they found themselves economically better off than the majority of the country, which eventually started to translate into some political rights.  For the first time Italians began to hold public office and inspire the nation.   Success was found by Italian Americans such as Congressman Fiorello La Guardia, Congressman Vito Marcantonio, Mayor Frank Rizzo, Mayor Joseph Alioto, boxer Rocky Marciano, Baseball star Guiseppe “Joe” DiMaggio, and many others.

War Time Hysteria

            As America became involved in the war in 1941, hysteria made clear that the strides Italians had made during the depression were inconsequential.  Society’s deeply rooted perception of the unscrupulous Italian immigrant resulted in Italian Americans being stigmatized as enemy aliens.  Italian’s allegiance to America began to be questioned because so many immigrants did not take steps to complete the extensive requirements to become naturalized citizens, even though most had been here as long as forty years.  Officials from the Justice Department and War Department were “convinced the Italians were under some kind of ideological spell from their fascist homelands.”[19]

The First problem with that belief is that Italy had not become a nation until 1861.  The Second problem was that many Italian immigrants despised the Italian national state ruled by Benito Mussolini.  Once the United States entered the war, virtually the entire Italian American community dropped whatever lingering support they held for their homeland and strongly endorsed the American war effort.  Italian Americans enthusiastically and outspokenly supported war bond drives across the country. Yet the prejudice and fears of native-born Americans persisted.  Unrealistic distrust of immigrants led to outrageous claims that communities of Catholic enemy aliens were waiting to strike at secret orders from Rome.[20]  One perspective is noted from a decorated World War II veteran regarding life dur
ing the war:  “We were treated worse than the niggers were.  Sicilians were thought to be the worst people on earth.  We were treated like what the Mexicans are today.”[21] 
Backlash against Italian Americans echoed throughout various levels of the federal government.  Senator Theodore G. Bilbo of New York had to be reprimanded for refusing to acknowledge Italian descended constituents, and fellow congressman Vito Marcantonio, as anything other than “dagos.”[22]  Representatives of Placer, Orange, and Yolo counties in California called for the immediate removal of all enemy aliens and their descendents.[23]  In Imperial County, California, all aliens were registered, finger printed, placed under curfew restrictions, and prohibited from engaging in agricultural work.
            The Justice Department warned enemy aliens in mid December of 1941 that they would have to give up their firearms or be interned. Two weeks later they were forced to give up all cameras and radios.[24]  Fears continued to make matters worse, as enemy aliens were barred from traveling any further than five miles from their home or work. Special permits to travel farther could be obtained for business use only.  Vacations, entertainment, and pleasure trips were completely out of the question.  Tensions became so bad that an official in San Francisco banned an Italian American woman from attending her friend’s funeral in the neig
hboring county.  In order to enforce these policies, federal regulations required enemy aliens to carry identity cards displaying fingerprints and a photograph.[25]
Intelligence reports issued at the end of December 1941 reported that illegal aliens had already contacted enemy forces.  In turn, the enemy forces were using the information provided them to prey on west coast shipping.  Fears of compromising the ports along the coast were fed by Lieutenant General John L. Dewitt, who remarked “I want to go in and search the house or residence and premises of every alien…right now.”  Supported by Attorney General Earl Warren, Dewitt concluded that all enemy aliens should be removed from the west coast.  Results came swiftly, as the Justice Department issued the first enemy relocation order on January 29, 1942.[26]

            Perhaps the most notable violation of liberty was the internment of several thousand Italian immigrants during the war.  In the United States, society’s fear led to the destruction of families, most of whom had enlisted sons fighting for America.  This system
atic round-up of Italian nationals was characterized by the government as a “mild loyalty scare” imposing restrictions which were “irritating, but not too confining.”[27]  In February 1942, sixty-five-year-old Martini Battistessa of San Francisco could not understand why the government was forcing him to give up his locksmith and saw-filing business of twenty years.  Battistessa was ordered to report to Simpson College in San Francisco for relocation.  Simpson College had been converted to an INS detention center at the beginning of World War II.  Battistessa, who was unable to complete the lengthy naturalization process and therefore declared an enemy alien, also lost his home.  He went to the local bar and attempted to convince a friend to shoot him in the head for fifty dollars.  When his friend refused, Battistessa left the bar and went to wait for the next train - on the tracks.  This reaction was not uncommon.  The betrayal felt by Italian-Americans [in the San Francisco Bay area] resulted in four elderly men committing suicide that February, within a five-day period.[28]
            During the first eighteen months of the war, some sources calculate as many as 3,500 Italian nationals were detained.  General DeWitt exiled the internees a minimum of one hundred fifty miles from the coastline in military facilities.  His actions were assisted by the overzealous J. Edgar Hoover, who pushed for legislation to apprehend and detain any persons of interest without probable cause. His actions failed,[29]but nonetheless, families were split up as men identified as enemy aliens in restricted zones were taken into federal custody.

The major internment sites for Italian Americans were Fort George Meade in Maryland, Camp McAlester in Oklahoma, Fort Sam Houston in Texas, and Camp Forrest in Tennessee. Italian Americans were also sent to Fort Missoula, Montana; and any one of the forty-five other internment camps used by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Provost Marshal General's Office.[30]


Italian nationals saw for the first time the grim spectre of internment camps, mass evacuation of families, and the revocation of business licenses.  These acts were similar to what the German and Japanese aliens of enemy descent had been experiencing.  Doctors and dentists were forced out of work in a savage hunt to crush secret organizations which did not exist.[31]

            Military facilities which had been converted to internment camps eerily resembled prisons.  Each camp was enclosed inside a perimeter of fence, was isolated and overcrowded.  Living arrangements were communal, as housing quarters were substandard and th
e men mostly slept in bunks.  All meals were served in mess halls guarded by military personnel.  The internees were under constant supervision, but they enjoyed the freedom to organize activities and to entertain visitors.  Sundays were a popular day for soccer games, as most camps organized teams and maintained playing fields within the compound.
Italian Americans who were detained in internment camps were chosen by the FBI as a result of loyalty investigations.  If an individual supported remaining family still in Italy or their fascist government, or was accused of such loyalty, they were detained.  In September of 1943, Delos C. Emmons replaced DeWitt as Commanding General.  During his first nine months in command Lieutenant General Emmons rescinded 155 previous exclusion orders for
enemy aliens.  During this process Emmons discovered that many of the people providing accusatory information on aliens were related to the internee.  The fears of persecution had turned neighbor against neighbor as one half of the nation stood guard over the other half.[32]  As the federal government attempted to quell fears, they streamlined the steps to naturalization.  The new, friendlier registration process helped to temper intolerance by showing America that an overwhelming number of Italian immigrants were loyal and law abiding persons.[33]


The traditional injustices suffered by the Italian population typically served as motivation to improve their situation.  Most families raised their children to work hard, appreciate what they had, and to speak English.  Many of those children became successful members of society.  Italians traditionally succeeded in America through hard work, perseverance, and without accepting government assistance.  In July of 1942, President Roosevelt began to consider appropriating five million dollars from his presidential emergency fund to accommodate the Italian and German internees expected to be released over the coming months.  In a silent effort to avoid national attention, signs were posted at the internment camp Post Offices announcing the release of all internees and the availability of federal aid.  The federal aid was planned to fund housing and unemployment benefits; each detainee was eligible for twenty dollars of unemployment pay per week for twenty weeks.  Of more than 3500 Italian American detainees only an estimated three hundred sought assistance.  Richard Neustadt of the Social Security Board was warned by officials that Italians were too proud and would commit suicide before accepting government assistance.[34]  They were correct.  Italian Americans had a difficult time finding employment, and suicides were reported across the country.  The greatest desire was for a man to provide his family with a better life than the one he had left behind in Italy.  Ani Difrano is credited with having said, “The world owes me nothing.  We owe each other the world.”[35]

Although the internment was behind them, prior to the war’s end in 1945 soldiers of Italian ancestry were treated differently than other soldiers.  Jack Tabone recalled a meeting during the war with a high ranking officer.  As Jack was escorted into the officer’s tent he was questioned about his loyalties to the United States and asked what he would do should he be ordered to march into Italy.  In a related story of mistreatment, Private First Class Frank Vizza did not receive any medals for his heroic efforts in battle until President Ronald Reagan ordered a review of war records in 1984.  Later that year Vizza was awarded the Bronze Star, Good Conduct Medal, European Theater Badge with Two Battle Stars, North African Theater Badge, Combat Infantry Badge for Sharp Shooting with Wreath, and the Victory Medal; all accompanied by a heart-felt letter of appreciation from President Reagan.  When asked why it took forty years to be acknowledged, Vizza proudly responded, “No it wasn’t racism… when you are in combat things move so fast that the paper work gets lost for a while.”[36]

Due to members from the “greatest generation” one finds little or no prejudices directed to the Italian population in modern day society.  This is partially the result of efforts from that generation assimilating into the culture and pursuing naturalization.  Through perseverance and pride, Italians have virtually eliminated racism.  By Refusing government assistance, tightening of their belts, and working hard, the first two generations of Italians gained success in America.  As a final act of vindication, in 1999, as a result of lobbying by the Italian American community, the United States Congress addressed the treatment of Italian Americans during World War II.   This resulted in House Resolution 2442, acknowledging that the United States violated the civil rights of Italian Americans during the war. The bill was passed in the House of Representatives in 1999, the Senate in 2000, and signed by President Clinton that same year.[37]

 ^  Just two days after Pearl Harbor.



Italian Slurs and Slang Definitions

Condensed from above.

1. Tony - This was never a name. Immigrant luggage commonly read "TO: NY." To New York was frequently misinterpreted by clerks at Ellis Island to mean the name "Tony." Tony was then listed on the immigrant’s paperwork as their new name, since many could not speak English to correct the clerks, and the ones that could did not want to argue with a clerk that could deny them entry to the U.S., and make them get back on the boat to go home.

2. Dago - Various ethnic groups (Scottish, Polish, Irish, Italian, etc.) working at N.Y.'s docks would negotiate agreements to load or unload cargo for ship captains; however, captains took advantage of the laborers by promising to pay the men on a given day. Often the ship would sail during the night prior to payday, leaving those laborers with nothing after a week of hard work. Quickly each of these various ethnic groups learned to band together in makeshift "unions" and demand “we get paid by the day or we go.”

3. Wop - Derived from the Italian word "Guappo" meaning thug. Originally used to describe an Italian grape picker in Spain.  Some sources cite an acronym meaning illegal alien:  W.ith O.ut P.apers.

4. Guido / Guidette - Gino - Mario - A lower class/working class urban Italian immigrant.  Popularized by MTV's "Jersey Shore" this is commonly now used to describe a loud, materialistic, arrogant, high maintenance, stereotypical New Jersey/Staten Island Italian American.

5. Goombah - Originally this was a term Italians used among one another when referring to a fellow associate from the same mafia. Today this is a derogatory term usually meaning fool or buffoon of Italian heritage.

6. Guinea - Originally meant an inferior African slave, and their descendants.

7. Paesan / Paesani - Typically, immigrants spoke regional dialects over English, and were loyal to kin or paesani (townspeople) originally from Italy.

8. M.A.F.I.A. - Mothers And Fathers Italian Association.

9. Spaghetti-bender / Organ-grinder.  Worthless, Italian immigrant pandering for money.

During the early 1900s Italians were believed to have an “inherent racial inferiority.” This led to discrimination against Italians based upon the worth of the province where the immigrant originated (with provinces further south being increasingly undesirable). Northern Italians fit the "Aryan" skin tone with predominantly blond hair and blue eyes. The further south you go in Italy, the Italian was considered to have a "muddied" background from the crossroads of the world. Different cultures from all over the Mediterranean would trade or invade at different times in history, the result was dark hair, dark eyes, and darker, greasy skin. Most people from our area are Southern Italians who settled here to work in the coal mines.

Many local doctors would deliver babies and translate Italian names into German, or change them altogether to make them sound more "American" on the birth certificates. Dr. King and Dr. Bowser were local doctors who practiced this idea.

The Ku Klux Klan used to burn crosses in protest of Italian immigrants in Wishaw and the surrounding area.

Most immigrants who left Italy for America did not end up any better off than they were in Italy. In fact, many families ended up far worse off socially and financially.





Foot Notes

[1] Salvatore LaGumina, Wop!  (New York:  Quick Fox, Inc), 12.
[2] Stephen Fox, The Unknown Internment (Boston:  Twayne Publishers), 9.
[3] LaGumina, 53.
[4] Dominic Pacyga, Catholics, Race, and the American City [Web site] (1997);;  Internet; accessed 14 April 2006.
[5] Fox, 26.
[6] Wayne MoQuin, A Documentary History of the Italian Americans.  (New York:  Praeger), 46.
[7] Fox, 8.
[8] Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements.  (Philadelphia:  Temple University Press), 13.
[9] Peiss, 15.
[10] Jennifer Guglielmo, Are Italians White? (New York:  Routledge), xi.
[11] LaGumina, 239-240.
[12] LaGumina, 14.
[13] LaGumina, 61.
[14] LaGumina, 256.
[15]Guglielmo, 9.
[16]Guglielmo, 9.
[17]Guglielmo, 11.
[18]Frank Vizza, interviewed by Phil Mennitti, History of Wishaw, Historical Society, 8 November 2004.
[19]Fox, 6.
[20]Fox, 2.
[21] Jack Tabone, interviewed by Phil Mennitti, History of Wishaw, Historical Society, 3 November 2004.
[22] LaGumina, 268-272.
[23] Fox, 47.
[24] Fox, 59.
[25] Fox, 62.
[26] Fox, 41-54.
[27] Fox, xi.
[28] Fox, 1.
[29] Fox, 156.
[30] Fox, 26.
[31] Fox, 43.
[32] Fox, 176.
[33] Fox, 59.
[34] Fox, 142.
[35] Guglielmo, vii.
[36] Frank Vizza, 8 November 2004.
[37] U.S Department of Justice, Report to the Congress of the United States:  A Review of the Restrictions on Persons of Italian Ancestry during World War II [PDF file] (2001);; Internet; accessed 7 February 2006.





Corbis.  Web site.  2006.  Available from  Internet.  Accessed 14 April 2006.

 Fox, Stephen C.  The Unknown Internment: An Oral History of the Relocation of Italian Americans during World War II.   Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Guglielmo, Jennifer.  Are Italians White?  New York:  Routledge, 2003.

Justice, U.S. Department of.  Report to the Congress of the United States:  A Review of the Restrictions on Persons of Italian Ancestry during World War II.  PDF file.  2001.  Available from  Internet.  Accessed 7 February 2006.

LaGumina, Salvatore J.  WOP!  A Documentary History of Anti-Italian Discrimination in the United States.  New York:  Quick Fox Inc., 1973. 

MoQuin, Wayne.  A Documentary History of the Italian Americans.  New York:  Praeger, 1975.

Pacyga, Dominic A.  Catholics, Race, and the American City.  Web site.  1997.  Available from  Internet.  Accessed 14 April 2006.

Peiss, Kathy.  Cheap Amusements.  Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1986. 

Tabone, Jack.  Interviewed by Phil Mennitti.  The History of Wishaw.  Historical Society, 3 November 2004.

Vizza, Frank.  Interviewed by Phil Mennitti.  The History of Wishaw.  Historical Society, 8 November 2004.