Mob Dramas: Entertainment or 'Acceptable Bigotry'?

While the nation debates reparations for the historic mistreatment of African-Americans, Japanese-Americans and other ethnic groups, some are trying to draw attention to the lesser-known mistreatment of Italian-Americans.

Mafia stereotypes and wartime restrictions top the list of complaints. At a May 22 hearing in Philadelphia, families of Italian descent told Justice Department officials how U.S. and local authorities mistreated them during World War II.

Approximately 600,000 residents were classified as "alien enemies" because of their Italian heritage. Many were subjected to curfews and travel restrictions. Some were held in interment camps.

The meeting's organizers say they are not looking for reparations; they want the government to acknowledge that the mistreatment occurred so that it never happens again.

But other Italian-American leaders say their ethnicity is still being harmed, not by the government, but by the entertainment media's portrayal of Italian-Americans involved with organized crime.

"It wouldn't be so bad if there were other portrayals of Italian-Americans that were more positive," says attorney Joseph Marra, president of the Italian Club of Seattle.

According to Marra, HBO's hit series, The Sopranos, which chronicles the adventures of a fictitious Italian-American Mafia family, is just the latest example of what has become "acceptable bigotry."

"If they were to portray another ethnic group time and time again they way they do Italian-Americans, there would be a lot of organizations out there that would stand up and point out the injustice and unfairness of that," Marra said.

Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) introduced a resolution condemning The Sopranos for "unfair stereotyping" of Italian-Americans. But other Italian-American politicians have become some of the show's biggest fans, among them New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

"If they want to have resolutions, they should have resolutions condemning the Mafia, not the television shows about the Mafia," says Vinnie Richichi, a sports talk show host on Seattle's KIRO Radio.

Richichi says The Sopranos and other mob dramas are not harmful to Italian-Americans, as long as viewers are smart enough to take them for what they are -- fiction.

"We've got many great Italians," Richichi says. "But would anybody sit down and watch a four-hour miniseries about Mario Cuomo or Fiorello La Guardia? No! It would put people to sleep."

Lou Guzzo, who wrote extensively about organized crime during his years as editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, says he believes most Americans are able to look beyond the media stereotypes.

"People generally like Italian-Americans because they are such happy people," Guzzo says. "They're happy people and they're very generous people. This is the great majority of them."