Last year, the Minneapolis City Council voted to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Columbus Day, a national holiday. Busy smearing the villain Christopher Columbus, the council failed to honor the fact that, in practice, Columbus Day is Italian-American Heritage Day, and has been celebrated as such for decades. This year, by continuing to ignore how the holiday is actually observed, the council and mayor demonstrate cultural myopia and racial disrespect. Their passive-aggressive maneuvering — combined with an avoidance of actual social and economic crises among native populations — constitutes the brand of flawed leadership that gives liberalism and progressivism a bad name among moderates.
Historically, Italian-Americans have faced the nasty combination of racial discrimination and, as Catholics, religious bias. Disparaged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as unskilled peasants, destructive anarchists, socialists and un-American papal loyalists, Italian-Americans today face a long-standing and unwarranted association with organized crime. The vast majority of Italian-Americans, of course, have no involvement whatsoever with the Mafia, nor do they condone the crimes of Christopher Columbus. Rather, Italian-Americans have helped build America’s cities and fight its wars, and have contributed enormously to its civic and artistic achievements.
Playing favorites with races is an ugly game with no winners. The council and mayor should know better than to traffic in hollow self-righteousness. Taking cheap shots at a deservedly unpopular dead man is easy, while demeaning Italian-Americans by slighting their only holiday does a gross disservice to all races that comprise America’s richly diverse society. The City Council could have selected almost any other day of the year to honor indigenous peoples, but it intentionally chose to run over the straw man Columbus.
Native American child poverty rates are nearly double the national average; mortality rates before age 24 are double that of any other race; youth exposure to trauma and suicide are over double and triple the national averages, respectively, and rates of post-traumatic stress disorder mirror those of vets returning from Afghanistan. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the poverty rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives is over two and half times that of whites. Yet instead of addressing these challenges, the Minneapolis City Council and mayor offer a free and easy distraction: a holiday.
The council’s move is further perplexing, since the U.S. already has a holiday dedicated to indigenous peoples — two, actually, if you count the largely unknown Native American Heritage Day, signed into law by George W. Bush. Meanwhile, Thanksgiving is not only a day devoted to indigenous peoples but, better still, one dedicated to peace and harmony between indigenous and nonindigenous Americans.
Finally, the City Council does harm to progressivism itself. By applying the progressive value of inclusion in such a selective way, overzealous liberals open up the left to criticism of racial bias and political hyper-correctness.
Of course, we should celebrate Italian-American Heritage Day in a sensible, respectful fashion that reflects the contemporary values and practices of nonbigoted Americans. We should celebrate indigenous peoples in such a fashion as well. We ought not, however, pit America’s ethnic groups against each other, nor should we slander a great patch of the American tapestry with self-congratulatory legislation that is little more than casual intolerance toward Italian-Americans and facile avoidance of crises among Native Americans.
Lou Caravella is a writer in Los Angeles.