During a Tuesday-morning interview with WAMC-FM radio’s Alan Chartock, New York governor Andrew Cuomo took a strange detour from the topic being discussed. “Apropos of nothing,” Cuomo said — neglecting to specify whether he was referring to his own tangent or the New York Times quote he was about to share — “[Many Americans] used an expression that southern Italians … were called quote-unquote, and pardon my language, but I’m just quoting the Times, ‘N- - - - - wops.’ N-word wops, as a derogatory comment.”
Cuomo was responding to Chartock’s earlier question about whether he would keep hiding budget shortfalls by delaying Medicaid payments “to push them into the next budget year,” as the Times had reported he was doing. “To tell you the truth, I don’t even, I don’t understand that fully,” Cuomo said. When Chartock responded, with mild sarcasm, that “if the Times said it’s so it must be so,” Cuomo cited an unrelated Times op-ed published on Saturday titled “How Italians Became ‘White.’” The article, written by Brent Staples, charts how Italians in the U.S. went from being a reviled minority to eventual members of the white majority — a fascinating story, none of which is at all relevant to Cuomo’s budgeting or Medicaid in New York.
Cuomo tried to use it as a cudgel against the paper anyway. Here’s the governor’s full quote:
They used an expression that southern Italians were called, I believe they were saying southern Italians, Sicilians — I’m half-Sicilian — were called, quote-unquote and pardon my language, but I’m just quoting the Times, “n- - - - - wops.” N-word wops, as a derogatory comment. When I said that “wop” was a derogatory comment, that when The Times Union told me, no, you should look in Wikipedia, “wop” really meant “dandy.” I’m sure that’s what they were saying to me back in Queens! “You’re a dandy,” when they looked at me with scorn and they gave me a hand gesture and called me a “wop.” So that’s the New York Times.
It’s unclear how “that’s the New York Times” — implying that the publication has a habit of getting these things wrong — when the paper Cuomo seems to be accusing of mischaracterizing the word wop is actually The Times Union, an entirely different publication. Nor is it clear how Staples’s op-ed has any bearing on Medicaid budget allocations in New York, or why Cuomo’s point couldn’t be illustrated without using several racial slurs. Minutes earlier, he and Chartock had discussed negative stereotypes of Italian-Americans and the importance of apologizing for offensive remarks. But that subject had passed well before the governor brought up the Times piece.
One reading of the exchange is that Cuomo was practicing the timeworn tradition, common among many white Americans, of vivifying accounts of his own hardship by equating it with the historical suffering of black Americans. He has firsthand experience with anti-Italian prejudice, which he endured as a young man in Queens, but the term “n- - - - - wop” was unfamiliar to him. His decision to invoke it here suggests he’s found a newer and striking way to describe the discrimination he’s experienced — discrimination so bad that it’s comparable to that faced by black people. Recent examples abound of similarly dubious comparisons: Cuomo’s brother, Chris Cuomo, has described being referred to as “Fredo” as “like the ‘N-word’ for us Italian-Americans.” (It isn’t.) Former Maine governor Paul LePage said being called a racist is “like calling a black man the ‘N-word.’” (It’s not, and LePage is a racist.)
But the comparison mostly doesn’t work because the Times op-ed Cuomo is referencing draws the opposite conclusion: Italian-Americans may have faced horrific and violent prejudice at one point, but were eventually embraced as essential to the American fabric in ways that black people weren’t. The threat of war with Italy made the continued persecution of its emigrants to the U.S. untenable through the late-19th century, Staples writes. President Benjamin Harrison kept conflict at bay by calling on Congress to pass legislation protecting foreign nationals — though not black Americans — from mob violence, like lynchings, and by establishing what later became Columbus Day, which was celebrated this week.
Black people were afforded no such protections. And the whitening of Italians was made possible by opportunistic contrasts created to separate the two. So perhaps the more likely explanation for Cuomo’s remarks — given their incongruity with what was being discussed and irrelevance to the subject at hand — is that he simply wanted an excuse to use a taboo slur. Maybe we’ll never know. Maybe we’re worse off for even bothering to ask. The only certainty is that Governor Cuomo said “n- - - - -” on the radio this morning, and nobody seems clear as to why.