If the average American witnessed an interchange between two individuals, with one person proclaiming that they were from Manchester, England, and with the other person adding in response "Oh, you must be in the IRA!," they very likely (if they at least had an IQ over 80) would cringe at the stunning and incorrigible ignorance. However, this is what Northern Italians endure all the time. Usually, a stereotype has at least some truth to it, even if it is exaggerated, out of context, or not put up to the scrutiny of the relative overall facts. In some rare instances, there is no truth to it. In some even rarer instances, reality is 180 degrees in the opposite direction.
[Note: the above analogy is in reference to an indifferent and illogical stereotype, and is not in reference to anything regarding the movement for Irish independence]
The 1994 movie 'Il Postino', starring the famous Sicilian actress Maria Grazia Cucinotta, was filmed on the small island of Pantelleria. Pantelleria is a part of Italy, despite the fact that its small population of native inhabitants are ethnic Tunisians. In reality, whether we like it or not, many people might just as well think that the coastal town featured in the movie could just as well be on the coast of the Adriatic in the Veneto.
In the famous scene in 'The Godfather' where Michael Corleone is first shown hiding out in the Sicilian mountain town of Corleone, which the author of 'The Godfather' book, Mario Puzo, referred to as "appearing like a strange looking Moorish village"; well, many people could just as well assume that this could have been an Alpine village in Lombardy. After all, to many, it was merely "in Italy."
Once I skimmed through an old book of "ethnic jokes," usually targeted at white ethnic group identities. Well, I was surprised that some jokes, particularly the Italian and Polish ones, were rather vicious. The Italian jokes were often, in a contrived-light hearted way, based on the idea that "Italians can't do anything right." For 600 years, as is made crystal clear in the scholarly 2003 book 'Human Accomplishment', Northern Italians have been at the very top in every single area of human endeavor, not the least of which has been the technology that has brought mankind to Saturn in recent years, and soon to PLUTO! This is reality, not fantasy. Only German ingenuity could stand up to the comparison with Northern Italy during the last six centuries, with "Anglo-America" certainly catching up during the last century and a half.
I once had a grammar school teacher in Daly City who was a man of Irish descent, and very proud of it. He made a point of making "Italian jokes" to his fifth grade class. Many of the students were born in the third world and had no concept of white cultures at all.... AT ALL. A couple of years later, I had a teacher who was of Sicilian descent, and went on that "the Mafia was necessary to get Italians out of Italian ghettos" which is total nonsense. Anyway, teachers often don't do the right thing anymore than the average person, but I just wanted to add the example of me, personally, enduring "Italian jokes" which, in actuality, the content of which would be light years closer to his Irish culture (organized crime) than to mine.
Organized crime is basically an enhanced, predatory, gang-oriented, black market. There has been a black market in any civilized society for the last 6,000 years. However, in Europe, and extended to America, it is by far (by a country mile!) more prevalent (the bad 1-2%) in Southern Italian, Irish, Albanian, Russian, Jewish, and Corsican cultures. Again, "the bad 1%." Other white ethnicities have been more impoverished, and still had no unusual problem of organized crime at all. For example, Andalucia, over say... the last 150 years, has had a great rate of poverty, much more than Sicily or Ireland, and is in no way known for organized crime. The same could be said of many other European regions. It is necessary to bring this subject up, in a responsible manner, when the stereotype is placed on our doorstep. Logic and facts must be adhered to here.
There have been many movies produced by Hollywood regarding Italian-Americans in northeast cities, that at least present a strong image to the audience. In them are some very strong stereotypes, from various slang words, mannerisms, attitudes, speech, dress, and the "Italian tough guy culture" of the street. Virtually none of this rings any bell to me. In certain period pieces, there could be some similarity to various attitudes presented, if they are/were common attitudes of that time period in regards to America at large, but not to the Italian-American urban culture, real or imagined (or exaggerated).
Where I grew up, when it was much more largely made up of European Americans, it was the Irish or Portuguese youth (using examples of other White people for relative comparison) who had problems with the law at a much greater comparative rate, and it was the Italians (predominantly people of northwest Italian descent) who were model citizens. In New York City, it is a different situation, but one in which "we" are not even represented in the demographic mix, or to such a small degree that comparison would be impossible. For clarity, from our perspective in the American experience, Irish and Southern Italians are dramatically intertwined with us, but still have a much different history when compared.
The 1971 movie 'Dirty Harry' seemed to present the main character of Harry Calahan as a racist Irish-American police detective in San Francisco. Later movies with the same character altered him into a "he hates everyone equally" type of guy. When looking at those movies though, it's obvious that he hated mainly Italians. He frequently featured a mafia in San Francisco, even though there hadn't been a mafia arrest here in over a half century! There had been a small local Sicilian mafia in San Francisco and San Jose that didn't amount to a hill of beans, and was long gone, yet he was able to change reality, as movies frequently do. Those were Clint Eastwood's movies. His vision. In recent years, Eastwood married a woman who was a mixture of Mexican, Japanese, and African-American, and has children by her, so obviously he's not racist, but simply hates Italians period.
I wanted to conclude with the examples of the Hollywood movies depicting urban northeast Italian-American life. I think that they were able to present neighborhoods that were clean, colorful, and safe, as a general rule, which is the norm I believe (albeit in the backdrop of the "tough guy culture" presented). Still, and taking in consideration that many things are exaggerated, I did find much of the culture in those movies to not ring the faintest bell of familiarity in me. In other words, I didn't feel any more closeness to that culture than I would if they had presented a Polish-American neighborhood. Still, I always admired the ability of Southern Italians to hold onto their culture, and of their togetherness.
3-17-09 ADDITION: I wanted to add two points to this entry. First, in regards to the "San Francisco and San Jose Mafias." I didn't pull "Sicilian" out of a hat for convenience. According to crime reporter and author Carl Sifakis, the two local mafias were in fact, Sicilian in origin. Also, I don't think I exaggerated in the Clint Eastwood/Harry Calahan example. In the 1988 Dirty Harry movie 'The Dead Pool', a "San Francisco Italian Mafia" was presented, even though none existed anymore according to the FBI. Even when a tiny mafia gang did exist, it was just several Sicilian families, and not the Northern Italian majority in any way. Do you see how obscene this is?? We're forced out of this city that we built, by behavioral groups who were hostile to our culture, ethnically bigoted in fact, then presented as "the criminal element" by a person who was born in San Francisco.... and who singles out "Italians" in numerous movies he's made, as clearly the worst people of them all.... AND gets away with it without criticism! I say this in the context of San Francisco as a place where most of the "Italians" were of Ligurian, Tuscan, or Piemontese descent.