Culture

‘Fredo’ Is Not an Ethnic Slur

Chris Cuomo (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Chris Cuomo is talking nonsense.

A  controversial clip of CNN anchor Chris Cuomo going off on someone who apparently called him “Fredo” went viral Monday night and has drawn mixed reviews from the Left and the Right.

“Punk-ass b*tches from the right call me Fredo,” Cuomo told the man, who claimed he thought that Cuomo’s real name was “Fredo.”

Claiming that “Fredo” is an insult aimed at Italian Americans, Cuomo says in the video: “It’s an insult to your f**king people. It’s like the N-word for us.”

“You’re a much more reasonable guy in person than you seem to be on television,” the heckler started.

They went back and forth, the heckler denying that he insulted Cuomo, to which Cuomo replied, “You want to be here, then stand up like a man!”

“I’m standing up!” the heckler said.

“Then f**king own it, own what you said,” Cuomo demanded.

“What are you gonna do about it?” the heckler taunted.

Cuomo said, “I’ll f**king ruin your s**t. I’ll f***ing throw you down these stairs like a f***ing punk.”

“Please do,” the heckler replied.

“Why, so you can sue? So you can f***ing sue? Take a swing!”

“I say good for @ChrisCuomo,” Sean Hannity tweeted Monday night. “He’s out with his 9 year old daughter, and his wife, and this guy is being a jackass in front of his family. Imho Chris Cuomo has zero to apologize for. He deserves the apology.”

“As many of you know well, we are not the biggest @ChrisCuomo fans, but good for him for standing up to a thug harassing him while his little girl is standing next to her daddy,” the Reagan Battalion tweeted Monday night. “Have we all lost our collective minds?”

On Tuesday morning President Trump, as usual, took the high road, tweeting, “I thought Chris was Fredo also. The truth hurts. Totally lost it! Low ratings CNN”

Is “Fredo” actually an anti–Italian American racial epithet? The answer, clearly, is no. Fredo is the name of a character from the movie The Godfather. He’s the second son of mob boss Vito Corleone; a womanizer who lacks self-control and guile and is therefore regarded as weaker and less intelligent than Corleone’s other sons.

“Fredo” had never been recorded as a racial epithet until Monday night, when CNN’s top public-relations representative declared that “Chris Cuomo defended himself when he was verbally attacked with the use of an ethnic slur in an orchestrated setup. We completely support him.” For evidence of this, look no further than to CNN, where the so-called “ethnic slur” has been used multiple times, including on Cuomo’s own show.

Donald Trump Jr. tweeted: “Does CNN’s head of PR still think ‘Fredo’ is an ethnic slur after watching this? Because if it’s the N word for Italians like @ChrisCuomo says, I don’t understand why Chris seems so at ease with someone saying it here. An excuse just as fake as his news. #FredoCuomo.”

Even the most derogatory term for Italian Americans, “Guido,” shouldn’t be considered the Italian-American equivalent of the N-word. Without question, Italians faced persecution when they first immigrated in numbers to America, but they weren’t enslaved or subject to the indignities of formal segregation either. The suffering isn’t comparable. Wikipedia, which accepts suggestions from its users, lists eleven other slurs besides Guido: Dago, Eyetie, Ginzo, Goombah, Greaseball, Greaser, Guinea, Polentone, Terrone, Wog, and Wop. None of these are nice. None of them are equivalent to the N-word.

I’m half Italian, and despite growing up in an Italian-American community, I’ve only ever heard a handful of these terms. Which tells us something: The prejudice against Italian Americans does not persist in any meaningful way. For years, Italian Americans were “portrayed in parts of the media as ignorant, insular, superstitious, lazy, prone to crime, ignorant of the law, ignorant of democracy and prone to righting wrongs with personal vendettas and acts of violence,” writes Christopher Woolf for Public Radio International. “Police arrest records indicate nothing unusual in the number of Italians involved in crime. And yet they faced discrimination in housing and employment, police brutality and so on.”

The issue was that 80 percent of immigrants were from impoverished Southern Italy and Sicily, and only 50 percent were literate. Men came to find work with the hope of returning to buy their own farm back in Italy. Those who stayed eventually learned to fit in and had kids.

Chris Cuomo’s father, Mario, was one of those kids, born in Queens, New York. After a brief stint in professional baseball, he went back to school and graduated summa cum laude from St. John’s University School of Law in 1953. Because of ethnic prejudice, he was rejected by more than 50 law firms. But eventually he found work, later going on to become the New York secretary of state, the lieutenant governor, and finally the governor.

Born in 1970, Chris Cuomo is a member of Generation X and it’s unlikely he knew the sting of being treated like a second-class citizen, as his father did — especially given his family’s prominence by then. Italian Americans were much more accepted by society, although the memory of discrimination remained.

But by the time Chris’s generation gave birth to Millennials, the prejudice was so far removed that Italian Americans began to laugh about it and made a number of Mafia comedy movies, including Analyze This and Mickey Blue Eyes. Later, young Italian Americans on the hit TV show Jersey Shore even referred to themselves as “Guidos” and “Guidettes,” glorifying their trashy lifestyle.

These Italian Americans of my generation are nothing like people who live in Italy, and it seems they’ve rebranded the slang to fit the pop culture while trying to regain some sense of ethnic identity. When the cast of Jersey Shore began doing this, it caused controversy with older Italian Americans whose parents felt the sting of prejudice, but protest didn’t last long.

Mafia stereotypes understandably strike a nerve with older Italian Americans. Calling Cuomo “Fredo” definitely wasn’t a compliment, but his reaction wasn’t appropriate either. Cuomo owned this on Tuesday morning, tweeting, “Appreciate all the support but — truth is I should be better than the guys baiting me. This happens all the time these days. Often in front of my family. But there is a lesson: no need to add to the ugliness; I should be better than what I oppose.”

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