CNN anchor Chris Cuomo was caught in a video screaming expletives when someone made the mistake of calling him “Fredo,” referring to the fictional character Fredo Corleone from The Godfather films. Fredo is portrayed as the gentle, but dim-witted brother, incompetent in the family’s business but desperate for respect from his father.
Until I heard Cuomo’s expletive-laden attack on a fan who wanted his autograph and, perhaps good-naturedly, used the Godfather reference, I had no idea that calling an Italian man Fredo was an attack on his masculinity, his heritage, and his dignity. The CNN anchor’s famous family includes his father, former New York governor Mario Cuomo, and his brother, current New York governor Andrew Cuomo. Perhaps the comparison hit a little close to home?
“Are any of you Italian?” Cuomo asked the men involved in the confrontation. “It’s an insult to your people. … It’s like the N-word for us.”
What a joke.
I know all about the things they used to call Italians. My grandfather was a trash collector for the city of Philadelphia and regularly got called goombah and any number of other pejoratives. He didn’t respond, did his job quietly, and exhibited the dignity that his harassers lacked. My mother would tell me about some of the things that she would hear when she ventured outside of her West Philly neighborhood, and greaser was one of the kindest.
That was the way it was, in those days. It’s no use pretending that we all got along in Philadelphia, living shoulder to shoulder in this rich stew of ethnicities, religions, and races. We didn’t. People were mean, and we dealt with it the way we dealt with everything else: quickly with our fists, loudly with our mouths, and at a distance, in our segregated neighborhoods.
Still, the Italians survived and flourished, and became the backbone of this city. And our ancestors learned to just let the slurs roll off their backs, because it didn’t stop them from earning a living wage, putting their kids through school, or sitting in the pews to worship. They managed.
Today, we don’t “manage.” We fight back against the real racism and bigotry that exists, or at least we try, and that is a good thing. We march against white nationalism and pass laws to codify justice. We try harder. I know this because I myself have protested at the History of Italian Immigration Museum when slurs against Italians were graffitied on the sidewalk last Columbus Day.
But, as a society, we have also become far too preoccupied with the minutiae of offensive speech, gazing at our navels and wondering if this comment is an insult, or that reference is a slur. And in some cases, it is becoming laughable. Should we stop watching The Godfather, because it portrays stereotypes of Italians? What about The Sopranos?
For Chris Cuomo, son of a legendary governor, brother of the heir to his father’s legacy, and a media star in his own right, life has been very good. He should thank the stars and his ancestors that he doesn’t have to sling trash for a living like my own grandfather, and that he is respected.