• Italian explorers, including Christoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus), played a major role in
opening the Americas to European colonization and exploitation. An Italian navigator, Amerigo Vespucci,
made a number of voyages to the Americas shortly after Colombo’s voyages. Because of his early maps,
the continents came to be named after him.
• Since 1820, more than 5 million Italians have migrated to the United States. Between 1880 and 1920,
immigration was heavy, with more than 4 million immigrants. Prior to 1880, most immigrants were from
northern Italy; after 1880 very large numbers came from southern Italy.
• As with the Irish, land and agricultural problems triggered much of the Italian emigration. National
unification under a government controlled by northern Italians had brought heavy taxes to southern
Italy. Low income, poor soil, a feudal land system, unreasonable taxes, and government corruption were
important push factors. The often exaggerated image of the United States as a place of expanding
opportunity was a major pull factor. Some came to stay, but the majority of the early immigrants saw
the United States as a temporary workplace.
• The Italians had much in common with the Irish, Germans, and other early immigrants: they were from
Europe; they arrived poor; they were Christians (Catholics) as were many Germans and most Irish; they
were seeking opportunities in the New World; they kept to themselves and maintained their own
culture and community; and they experienced prejudice and discrimination at the hands of the
• There were also important differences between Italian, German, and Irish immigrants. Unlike the Irish,
the Italians spoke little English, and they did not have a long history of interaction with the English. The
Italians came to the United States later than the Irish and Germans. Also, the Italians came by steamship
rather than sailing ships, making it easier to return to Italy. Many arrived with the idea of returning
home, and about one-third did.
• The Immigration Act of 1924 established a small discriminatory quota for Italians. By 1929, the annual
quota for Italians was only 5,802, compared with 65,721 for Great Britain. The quota system was based
on nativists’ belief that those countries that had furnished the most “good American citizens”—that is,
Protestant immigrants prior to 1890—should receive the largest quotas.
• By the time the 1965 Immigration Act replaced the national-origin quota system, there was a backlog
of 250,000 immigration applicants. Gradually, by the late 1970s, that backlog was exhausted, and since
that time the number of Italian immigrants has dropped sharply.
• More that 11 million Americans listed Italian as their first ancestry in the 1990 census; most of these
were U.S. born. Counting both first and second ancestries listed by respondents in the census 2000
supplementary survey, the census bureau estimated that there were 15.9 million Italian Americans in 2000, making them one of the largest ancestry groups in the United States.
• Most immigrants worked as unskilled laborers, often on transportation systems such as canals and
railroads and on water and sewer systems. Pay was low, and individuals as well as families were usually
poor. Segregated in “Little Italy ghettos” within cities, Italian immigrants and their children frequently
faced economic, political, and social discrimination.
• Italian Americans were funneled into urban ghettos in two ways:
1) Most members of the the dominant group and other groups, such as the Irish and Germans, did not
want to live in the same communities as the Italian immigrants. Many of them could afford better
neighborhoods and left the poorer ones to the Italians. Because of their poverty and the prejudice
against them, the Italians were forced into Little Italies.
2) Italian Americans wanted to be with their families, their relatives, and other compatriots (particularly
those from the same region or district in Italy who spoke the same dialect). Such enclaves allowed Italian
Americans to sustain themselves, and in the long run these colonies facilitated the assimilation process.
They created and nurtured institutions centered on the family, employment, mutual benefit
organizations, and the Catholic Church that would support the immigrants in the new country.
• By the end of the nineteenth century, nativist stereotypes of the “apelike” Irish were giving way to
negative stereotypes of southern and eastern European immigrants, especially those who were
Catholics and Jews. Italian immigrants were scorned by nativists as dangerous, contemptible, inferior,
and disloyal. Popular writers, scholars, and members of Congress warned of the peril of allowing these
“inferior” stocks from Europe into the United States; it was held that newer immigrants would make
Americans a mongrel race.
Stereotypes of Inferiority in Intelligence
• In the first three decades of the twentieth century, Anglo-Protestant stereotypes of southern and
eastern European immigrants’ intellectual inferiority were based in part on misreadings of the results of
the new psychological tests that were often inaccurately labeled intelligence (IQ) tests. These tests
measure only selected, learned verbal and quantitative skill