You grow up with prejudice, but that doesn’t mean you practice it. My Queens neighborhood was predominantly Irish and Jewish with an overlay of Italians. On Wednesday afternoon school was let out for religious instructions. The Jewish kids went to synagogue, the Catholics to St. Joan’s church. Stereotypes abounded and slurs were in the air, the Irish as drunks, the Jews as crafty, the Italians as gangsters. And yet so few people acted on the stereotypes despite the slogans and aspersions: Guns for the Arabs, sneakers for the Jews! Mick! Greaseball! much in jest but with that underlay of prejudice we can’t deny. In the public schools where we learned together there was rarely any ugliness, and yet as I say this, am I getting to the core, to the bottom? One day I walked into a store on Lexington Avenue wearing a suit and tie. A woman came up to me and said, “So how’s the Mafia today?” It hurt then, but am I such an angel? Do I secretly harbor those slurs and stereotypes from childhood conditioning? Do I measure each new person by that ethnic yardstick, or as I grow older and a little wiser do I ask how they don’t fit the mold. There’s still that residue of prejudice.
Ethnicity is our history, written about by each generation as they saw what was going on around them: James T. Farrell, Henry Roth, Pietro DiDonato, Richard Wright, Sherman Alexie, and now the Asian-Americans. The American story is an ethnic story, and the going was rougher for some than others. When one of our my sisters married a black man the reaction of my father and his Italian cadre was shameful, but they soon came around and welcomed a new member of the family. Why was that? Because they were immigrants too. I’m in the process of composing an email to some cousins in Sicily who want to know what I think about Trump. When I previously called him a Mussolini they weren’t so sure. Overwhelmed by refugees from North Africa, their city of Palermo has neither space nor money nor jobs. They want the refugees gone. When I answer their e mail I will explain that here in America we do have space, we can make space, those who come now will be no different than those who came before – those who made us stronger, more interesting, more daring as we learn to live with each other. There’s no backing away from that.