"I'm a lawyer, but my dad was a shoemaker."
That's my favorite line in this month's often hilarious cover story about "the long, happy life of America's anti-defamation industry" ("E Pluribus Umbrage," page 24). The speaker is Ted Grippo, head of Chicago's American-Italian Defense Association, and his statement neatly summarizes the absurdity that infuses too many discussions about racial, religious, and ethnic identities. "Since 1930, we've had over 800 Mafia-type movies. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked if I'm connected," he tells Reason's Web editor, Tim Cavanaugh.
I can identify with Grippo's complaint—my maternal grandparents emigrated from Campania in the 1910s. There's no question that my older relatives' opportunities were limited by negative attitudes about Italians. There's also no question that my cousins and I, growing up only a few decades later, faced no such problems.
Grippo, like many anti-defamation activists, seems almost desperate to keep the bad old days of ethnic and religious enmity alive. For him, unmistakable progress is a warrant for heightened sensitivity and legal action, not evidence of waning levels of prejudice and discrimination. Last year he brought a lawsuit (eventually dismissed) against Time Warner Entertainment, alleging that the hit HBO show The Sopranos ran afoul of the Illinois state constitution's anti-discrimination clause.
What Grippo might not appreciate is that The Sopranos does an excellent job of lampooning his misplaced sense of victimization. This season's episode about a Native American protest of Columbus Day drove home the point that fewer and fewer groups can lay claim to the sort of exclusion that once marked much of American life.
The episode featured self-pitying speeches by gangsters and suspiciously timed discoveries of Indian blood by opportunistic casino owners. It also presaged a real-life flap in which the organizers of New York's Columbus Day parade refused to allow two Sopranos stars to march. Why? "The show stereotypes the Italo-American family in the worst way….Besides the whole crime element, it shows Italo-Americans as uneducated, low-life brutes."
While such a charge is false on the most basic level of description, it captures the sense of outrage and wounded pride that is nearly universal in an America that has never been more diverse and inclusive. However misguided, such sentiments are "useful in forming cultural identity, particularly where such identity is fading or never existed in the first place," writes Cavanaugh. "This may explain why anti-discrimination is a growth industry even—or especially—while identity politics fades into history, more Americans decline to identify themselves by ethnicity, and actual discrimination is, by virtually all measures, at historically low levels."
In a counterintuitive yet compelling way, the richness and frenzy of our "umbrage market" may well be the leading indicator that we're more of a melting pot than ever.