Australia’s history of anti-Italian racism echoes grotesquely in rhetoric about Sudanese people

Jeff Sparrow
That long history of anti-Italian racism makes the public embrace of Pellegrini’s both remarkable and relevant.
Photograph: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

“Melbourne will stop tomorrow and the nation will watch as the city pays its respects to an Italian-born cafe proprietor whose death at the hands of a deranged assailant has rubbed raw a debate about immigration numbers, refugee intake, ethnic crime and Islamist-inspired terrorism.”

That’s Fairfax columnist Tony Walker, arguing on Monday that the murder of Sisto Malaspina, the co-owner of Pellegrini’s, should prompt “a root and branch conversation about the costs and benefits of Australia’s immigration and refugee intake programs”.

Well, perhaps that’s true – but not in the way that he thinks.

The history of Malaspina’s beloved Pellegrini’s illustrates the obvious similarities between the prejudices of the past and those that lurk at the edges of Walker’s piece.

In his book Italians in Australia, Francesco Ricatti explains the prism through which southern European immigrants were once viewed:

In the late 19th century, and indeed well into the 20th century, the ‘scientific’ theories of Italian anthropologists such as Lombroso and Niceforo – who argued for the racial inferiority of southern Italians and their racial proximity to Africans – were very popular not just in Italy but also in the Americas. In countries of Italian migration like the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia, these theories fostered the idea that southern Italian migrants were not really white, that they were racially ambiguous, that they had a drop of black blood in their veins, and that they were the ‘Chinese of Europe’.

The use of southern Italians as replacement for the indentured labour of Pacific Islanders reinforced this identification of Italian immigrants as non-white.

In 1907, the Bulletin solemnly explained that, while northern Italians should be classified as degenerated Germans, southerners possessed distinctly African blood.

“By the 1920s,” says Ricatti, “Italians were often described as ‘black Mediterranean’, and there is some anecdotal evidence that a variation of this expression, namely ‘black Italians’, was still used in north Queensland in the 1960s.”

Furthermore, like many immigrants today, Italians were victims of religious bigotry.

They might not have been Muslim but they were Catholic, which, at the time, was far, far worse. The respectable Protestant ruling class associated the Church of Rome with disloyalty (until 2013, a Catholic was automatically disqualified from succession in the royal family), a prejudice reinforced by the involvement of Catholics in the Easter Uprising of 1916.

Thus, in 1920, Smith’s Weekly, a publication oriented to returned soldiers, labelled the Italian migrant as a “dirty dago pest” and campaigned against “a greasy flood of Mediterranean scum that seeks to defile and debase Australia”.

That long history of anti-Italian racism makes the public embrace of Pellegrini’s both remarkable and relevant.

In 1954, the year that the brothers Leo and Vildo Pellegrini established their restaurant, a mass meeting brought some 2,000 people to the Sydney Town Hall. They were there to protest, in very Walker-like terms, at “the irreparable harm being done to our social structure and national culture by the immigration policy of the federal government”.

But they weren’t upset about Muslims or Sudanese. Instead, they railed against “further migration from southern Europe”, with the main speaker, a Mr Aubrey Downer, denouncing “a constant shuffle of Italian liners back and forth bringing some of the most undesirable residents”.

Today, Walker blames the political class for failing to address honestly and overtly concerns about immigration, except by surreptitiously imposing a ceiling on net overseas migration.

In 1954, Downer made a very similar claim.

“The number of Italians and other southern Europeans flooding this country,” he said, “are of vital statistical import if the object of the census is to collate fundamental facts. Is it that the Migration Department is desperately anxious that the number of foreign communities in this country be concealed?”

Walker tells us that in Melbourne, “police are being run ragged in their efforts to combat ethnic crime”, and singles out Sudanese youths for special mention.

That Town Hall meeting heard the same arguments about Italians.

“[I]t is impossible,” said Downer, “to pick up a daily newspaper without some fresh crime by a new settler being reported, mostly of a serious nature.”

It was, in fact, an ubiquitous argument during that decade.

A year earlier, Truth had denounced a “terrorist racket on migration”, in which the dreaded “Black Hand” society was said to be smuggling Italians into Australia.

“New Australians should be photographed and fingerprinted,” it concluded, “and rigorously checked to exclude undesirables.”

Along similar lines, the Sydney event passed a resolution linking immigration with criminality, in which the protesters demanded the deportation of “all migrants convicted of serious offences in Australia”.

By 1958, Pellegrini’s had grown large enough to extend from its original, tiny premises into a bigger space.

That was the year that, during a parliamentary debate, an MP casually explained that southern Italians “had no law but that of the tooth and the knife”.

It’s a passage the current rhetoric about Sudanese people grotesquely echoes.

Today, Australian expats claim the flat white coffee as almost a signature drink, a caffeinated emblem of antipodean culture.

But in the 50s the espresso machine deployed for the first time at Pellegrini’s represented the heights of exoticism. When contemporary conservatives sneer at “latte drinking” intellectuals, they’re inadvertently channelling the prejudices of a half century ago, back when only the effete intelligentsia would join Italians in enjoying a decent brew.

The centrality of Italians (and other southern Europeans) in industries like construction and manufacturing meant that they played a crucial role in the political and industrial struggles out of which contemporary multiculturalism emerged.

But that’s another story.

Suffice to say that the enormous affection for Pellegrini’s exemplifies a tremendous social reform, with an identity once mocked and feared by respectable Australia moving to the very centre of the culture.

We might, if we so chose, see Malaspina’s murder as the occasion for a renewed nativism, in which all the old fears about immigrants would be voiced.

Alternatively, we could understand the grief over his death as illustrating the potential to overcome prejudice, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

• Jeff Sparrow is a Guardian Australia columnist