The Meaning of “Fredo” and Italian-American Discrimination

On August 11, 2019 as CNN anchor Chris Cuomo was traveling with his family, two men approached the man and called him “Fredo” sparking a rant which most people with internet access are now undoubtedly familiar with. Cuomo said that the term was an ethnic slur against Italian-Americans, and when the man who initially confronted the anchor spoke again he said he believed that Fredo was actually his name. Perhaps the most well-known part of the rant was Cuomo threatening to throw the man down a flight of stairs. While certainly not Chris Cuomo’s best moment in terms of his demeanor, the defense of his own character as well as his heritage are admirable, and hours later The Daily Wire‘s Ryan Saavedra shared the full video of the encounter, ostensibly to make the CNN anchor look bad for both his loss of temper and for claiming that “Fredo” is an ethnic slur. Shortly after Saavedra put up the video, President Donald Trump added to the fire by saying that he thought Chris Cuomo “was Fredo also.” While in the daily scandals of this White House it is easy to brush aside each minor incident as the volume of gaffes and stories come out of the Oval Office, it is necessary to examine how the term “Fredo” is offensive in two ways, one to Chris Cuomo specifically and the other to Italian-Americans in general.

For context around the name surrounding this scandal, in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II the character of Fredo Corleone is the middle brother of the older Sonny Corleone and the younger Michael Corleone. Throughout the intrigue between the Five Families of New York in the late-1940s, Don Vito Corleone’s eldest son and heir to the crime family is famously killed at the Long Beach Causeway toll plaza. Rather than naturally passing the crime family on to his next son, Fredo, Vito deems his middle child to be a craven, always attempting to work for stronger men like Moe Greene and later Hyman Roth, both of whom show disrespect or are outright antagonistic to the Corleone family. At the end of the second film, as the rift between Fredo and his younger brother grows over his continuing to side against the family in business and criminal affairs, the older brother is killed on Lake Tahoe by one of Michael’s enforcers. It is perhaps one of American cinema’s most tragic endings for a compelling character. For Chris Cuomo to be called “Fredo” has one personal implication, a lack of success compared to a sibling. His elder brother is Andrew Cuomo, the largely successful three-term Governor of New York who is one of the highest profile politicians in the country. While Chris Cuomo is himself successful in his own right, with a career in journalism ranging from being a co-anchor of ABC’s 20/20 to his more recent successes on cable news with his own show on CNN. To be compared to cinema’s stereotypical jealous brother is very likely a grating experience, especially as he is often compared to his older sibling.

However, the use of the term “Fredo” for Chris Cuomo also has darker undertones. Just as racism today might not take the form of overt Jim Crow laws or legal segregation and are instead replaced by microaggressions, dog-whistles, or hidden racism, antagonism towards other ethnic groups through this type of terminology are becoming more commonplace. For example, people in the alt-right often will talk about “New York Values” as a way to criticize one of the most prominent Jewish-American communities in the world. Even being “too New York” has been seen as code for being “too Jewish” without exposing someone’s antisemitism. In saying that “New York Values” are not “American Values” is to the people using this terminology to say that Jewish-Americans are not real Americans. These tropes in the past have similarly been used to attack other ethnic groups. In 1960 then-Senator John F. Kennedy had to defend himself for being Catholic and needed to reassure Americans that his Catholicism would not influence him or his administration. Irish-Americans like Kennedy faced similar dehumanization, and at the height of immigration to the United States in the mid-1800s, they were portrayed as being inhuman. A Thomas Nast cartoon that depicted Irish mobs attacking police officers used primate-style physical features for the Irish, while the Anglo-American police often had normal features. Even the old stereotypes survive today, with the old stereotype of the Irish being alcoholics still existing in some form often as fodder for late-night television.

Italian-Americans faced a different type of discrimination, one perhaps even more insidious. With the first waves of Italian immigrants arriving in the late-1800s came the mafia. Just as Latinx immigrants today are accused of bringing criminal elements such as MS-13 with them, or Muslim immigrants are accused of bringing terrorism with them, Italians were thought to be bringing the “Mafia” or organized crime. These claims were especially common with immigrants coming from Southern Italy, in particular Calabria and most prominently Sicily, where the fictional Corleone crime family is from. Italian immigrants faced immense discrimination upon arriving in this country. Between 1890 and 1920 some fifty Italians were lynched, in one instance eleven were victims of mob violence after the murder of a New Orleans police officer. Even The New York Times reported on the New Orleans incident in 1891, calling Sicilians “the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigation.” In the same way that President Donald Trump has called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, old anti-immigrant advocates said the same of Sicilians and other ethnic groups. Even in the present day the stereotype that Italian-Americans are connected to mafia groups exists. New York Governor Mario Cuomo, the father of Governor Andrew Cuomo and CNN anchor Chris Cuomo was the target of such attacks. When in 1991 the elder Cuomo was seen as a possible front-runner in the 1992 Presidential election, he decided not to run for office. Speculation was rampant, a popular theory being that he was connected to the mafia and was unable to run at risk of these connections being publicized. Although there were minor connections which were difficult to avoid in New York politics in the 1970s, even in 1992 fears still existed that connections to the mafia could undo an Italian-American politician.

It is therefore completely natural to be disturbed by President Trump’s use of an age-old tactic. While there is nothing wrong with The Godfather itself (Note: It is one of my favorite films) or even other mafia movies and television shows, the use of one of its characters is meant to be an attack on Cuomo’s Italian heritage. Had he been of German descent or of Irish descent he certainly would have been attacked one the many stereotypes those same ethnic groups faced at one point in time. Instead now we face debates over what is and what is not an ethnic slur or stereotype. Rather than simply admitting that Trump and those who follow his use of stereotypes to besmirch and individual’s or a group’s reputation, we are instead arguing what is the meaning of “Fredo.” It is extremely clear to anyone who has been following Donald Trump’s rhetoric for the past decade that the term is nothing less than an attack against Cuomo’s heritage, and it follows a long line of assaults against African-Americans, Latinx people, LGBT+ people, and the countless number of other groups the President of the United States and his most staunch supporters have attacked. It shows that even no matter how many generations removed you are from immigrants, those ugly stereotypes and acts of discrimination are still potent and used against members of those ethnic groups. There is absolutely no legitimate excuse for the use of them, and even if we disagree politically, ethically, or personally with someone, we must fight against these hurtful tactics.

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