Thursday, August 13, 2009


Stephen Contrado

American society has for several decades perpetuated the myth that Italians have an international network known as the mafia. The word “mafia” is an Italian word used as a synonym for criminality and organized crime of every shade, from urban thugs and gangsters to white collar executives and corrupt politicians. Many Americans believe the mafia represents a unified conspiracy to gain political power and wealth. Even many educated and liberal-minded citizens fear involvement with Italian Americans whom they think entrap naive individuals into underworld crime, such as illegal gambling, theft, assassinations, drugs, dirty politics, and prostitution.

The evidence contradicts the myth that Italians ever led others in violent and antisocial activity. No one ethnic group in the United States has had a monopoly on organized crime. In fact members of every ethnic group from WASPs to Jews have sometimes conducted illegal ventures with some measure of success. The truth is present for anyone sober and patient enough to study it. Just be sure to delve deeper than an encyclopedia article or the word of newspaper reporters and amateur criminologists. A good knowledge of American history, sociology, and social psychology is valuable because the acceptance of myths serves some basic psychological need or social function not met by society, and often myths act as a way to help people to cope with boredom and meaninglessness stemming from social alienation. When people have no genuine source of identification and lose hope in social progress they flee reality and look to myths to provide some satisfaction. When no great ideals are manifest in a society sometimes a counterfeit ideology of myths emerges, seeking to find a scapegoat to alleviate frustration and bashing powerless victims. Then bullies and dictators are mistaken as heroes.

A number of institutions have contributed to the longevity of the mafia myth. Some of these institutions serve to promote special interests. The mass media perpetuate the myth of the mafia. They look to entertain as well as inform. They sensationalize crime stories with loaded terms of Italian origin, such as “capo de regime,” “reputed mafia figure,” and “vendetta” in bold headlines. Their broadcasts and articles not only make captive audiences accept negative stereotypes about Italian Americans but also make people reluctant to hire, promote, and elect Italian Americans. The bigotry goes so far as to make some people refuse to patronize businesses owned and run by Italian Americans, and it makes others unwilling to rent or sell housing to them. Cruel and perverted prejudices form because the media lack real and meaningful values. The media have no conscience, no memory, and very few analytical skills. What they have is an expertise to survive in volatile political environments and the determination to sell their product and make a profit. Included in the media are publishers who buy and distribute crime novels and popular crime “nonfiction.” They encourage Americans to share their perverse tastes in theme and style.

Law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice systems hardly deserves a better review. How deeply entrenched are their prejudices and their hypocrisy our generation may never know! Let the FBI agency in Boston serve as an example. The Boston branch of the FBI provided the Irish mob under James “Whitey” Bulger in South Boston with information to escape criminal prosecution for years because the FBI sought Bulger’s assistance to obtain evidence that would eliminate the so-called mafia. When the FBI succeeded in crushing a local, predominately Italian-American group of bookies and loan sharks the media hailed the FBI as national champions. Later is was revealed that the FBI had aided and supported the drug dealing and murders of the Irish mob in South Boston to get information of questionable value to prosecute a few Italian Americans as mafia criminals, a shameful and indelible stain on the image of the FBI. Certain federal, state and local authorities shared a role in the delusional farce. Whitey Bulger used them to eliminate his competition while he ran the most successful racket in Massachusetts history. Bulger escaped prosecution and is still at large.

The term “mafia” does not depict or explain American organized crime. “Mafia” refers to a uniquely Italian historical problem. The use of the word in the Italian media should not encourage the American media to use it out of context. The myth of the American mafia only serves a sinister psychology and dirty politics.

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