The appellation “tough street fighter from Queens” has been applied to both Donald Trump and Anthony Scaramucci to explain their verbal abuse of others, and in some cases, alas, to excuse it. I find the appellation objectionable for several reasons.
One reason is that, though many of its users seem to regard “streetfighter” as a term of admiration, in reality it means a person who ignores rules and fights dirty. That meaning is especially troubling in the case of Scaramucci, whose family name derives from the 17th century Italian word Scaramuccia—literal translation, skirmish—which was also “the name of a cowardly braggart . . . in traditional Italian comedy.”
A tough street fighter sharing the name Skirmish with a comic character. Life imitating art!
More important than the bizarre correspondence between Scaramucci’s name and reputation is the likelihood that his “streetfighter” image will resurrect the stereotypical image of Italians (and other southern Europeans) that was common in the 1890s, shaped discriminatory immigration law in the 1920s, and has lingered below the surface of the culture ever since. That image is of intellectually deficient, loud, boorish individuals given to violent behavior. Scaramucci was probably not victimized by the negative attitudes associated with the stereotype, but his parents probably were and his grandparents surely were.
I’m not suggesting that he was fired from the White House because of discrimination. Clearly, the causes of his firing were the attitude he displayed toward his associates and the gutter language he used about them. That behavior drew condemnation from other Italian-Americans, as well. For example, Christine Flowers called it “Trumpfellas arrogance” and found it “disgusting.” And the leader of an Italian-American coalition, Andre DiMino, said “Let’s be clear. Anthony Scaramucci in no way represents the 25 million Italian-Americans who are hard-working, law-abiding and respectful.”
I find the appellation “tough street fighter from Queens” objectionable for a yet another reason. To imply that a borough of New York or any other city has a special association with boorishness, vulgarity, or violence is to engage in stereotyping. The reference to Queens, even if made admiringly, is thus a slur against the entire borough.
I take that slur personally because my roots, like Scaramucci’s, are in Queens, as were my father’s and uncles’. They lived in the original Italian neighborhood in Queens—Corona—for the better part of a century. And the values that they grew up with and taught me, notably personal responsibility and respect for others, were shared not only by other Italians, but also by most individuals and families of other ethnic, religious, and racial groups in the borough.
Queens is in fact a storied place. It was first settled in 1635. Its “Flushing Remonstrance” of 1657, protesting the persecution of Quakers, provided a model for the freedom of religion clause in the U.S. Bill of Rights. It became one of the original 12 counties of New York in 1693, and today the Borough of Queens comprises several dozen municipalities with a total of 2,333,054 residents. That is more than the population of 15 states, more than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, and more than the capital cities of Texas, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Virginia combined.
Queens is also, according to Andrew Weber, “the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world.” It’s residents represent more than 27 countries from around the world, almost half of them foreign born.
So let there be no mistake. The term “tough street fighter from Queens” is not a compliment to anyone—not to Anthony Scaramucci himself, not to the Italian-American community that he shamed by his behavior in the White House, and certainly not to the two-and-a-third million residents of the Borough of Queens.
Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved