I’ll be marching in New York’s Columbus Day Parade this year in honor of Cristoforo.
Cristoforo Colombo, yes, but also my grandfather Cristoforo Moscato, who migrated to New York in 1902 from Cerasi, a picturesque but very poor village in the Aspromonte mountains of Calabria. I don’t know if he thought of the other Cristoforo as he made his own way across the ocean blue, a stowaway according to family lore. I never met him; he died the year before I was born.
But I know from the study of history that he was among the mass of deeply impoverished southern Italian immigrants whom some of the supposed great minds of the day—leading academics and policy makers among them—considered to be genetically inferior.
The writings of Edward Alsworth Ross, a noted economist who became president of the American Sociological Association, offer a good window into the bogus, self-serving academic theories Italian immigrants had to overcome. He wrote, for example:
Steerage passengers from a Naples boat show a distressing frequency of low foreheads, open mouths, weak chins, poor features, skew faces, small or knobby crania and backless heads. Such people lack the power to take rational care of themselves.
That is, he is arguing, the shapes of their heads made them inherently undesirable. He went on to describe many of the newcomers as:
hirsute, low-browed, big-faced persons of obviously low mentality…. They simply look out of place in black clothes and stiff collar, since clearly they belong in skins, in wattled huts at the close of the Great Ice Age. … To the practiced eye, the physiognomy of certain groups unmistakably proclaims inferiority of type.
Ross coined the term “race suicide,” which amounts to a white-supremacist call to action. It meant that Americans were surrendering to the immigrant tide: “The higher race quietly and unmurmuringly eliminates itself rather than endure individually the bitter competition it has failed to ward off from itself by collective action,” as he said in his address “The Causes of Race Superiority” at the Fifth Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 1901.
According to Ross, “That the Mediterranean peoples are morally below the races of northern Europe is as certain as any historical fact.” Not only were they morally inferior, he contended, but they were ugly: “One sees no reason why the Italian dusk should not in time quench what of the Celto-Teutonic flush lingers in the face of the native American.” He predicted “an early falling off in the frequency of good looks in the American people.”
Such creepy eugenicist ideas were taken seriously: They were the intellectual foundation for the movement toward legislation passed in 1917, 1920 and 1924 with the aim of stopping the southern and eastern European migration.
Italian immigrants did not have distinguished professors jumping up to defend them against this hateful pseudo-science. But they and their defenders did have Dante. They had Michelangelo. They had Leonardo da Vinci. And they had Cristoforo Colombo.