“My Heart Is as Black as Yours”: White Backlash, Racial Identity, and Italian American Stereotypes in New York City’s 1969 Mayoral Campaign

“MY HEART IS AS black as yours!” mayoral hopeful Mario Procaccino declared to an unfriendly and largely African American crowd at a Harlem campaign rally. Most reporters and pundits responded to the conservative Democrat’s claim with derision, calling it an awkward and insulting attempt at creating rapport with the African American community. The interpretation of this remark gained added significance because, in 1969, race was a key factor in all of the issues facing Procaccino and his opponents, Republican state senator John Marchi and the liberal, erstwhile Republican incumbent John V. Lindsay, who was running as a third-party candidate after losing the Republican primary.

Procaccino’s remark appeared particularly ill-advised in light of the accusations he faced throughout the campaign. From the outset, he had established himself as a strong “law and order” candidate, a position that, as former sanitation commissioner and Lindsay supporter Samuel Kearing explained, was generally “understood to mean: Elect me and I will put the Blacks in their proper place.”[1] Procaccino’s speeches on the subject of crime prevention, opined southern segregationist George Wallace, sounded like ones “you would hear in Alabama—except with a New York accent.”[2] Lindsay and his proponents, including all of the major New York newspapers with the exception of the Daily News, readily agreed and treated Procaccino’s campaign as nothing more than “an indirect appeal to bigotry,” in Lindsay’s words. Consequently, they easily branded both Procaccino and his supporters as “racist” and “anti-black.”[3] What Procaccino’s opponents failed to realize was that, if the racism of white ethnics was specifically anti-black, it also resembled the interethnic resentments and hostility “white” ethnic groups had directed toward each other in urban America, particularly that which more established groups inflicted upon those they considered “interlopers.” Their attitudes and action, therefore, were not based entirely on race hatred or difference, but also on the assumption that groups competed for urban resources and the belief that African Americans and other minorities should have to undergo the same trials that they had faced in order to gain certain “privileges.” Unfortunately, in believing this, white ethnics interpreted their own experience with ethnic bigotry and social struggle as equal to the racism faced daily by those who could not externally assimilate to whiteness.[4]

Identifying Procaccino’s supporters, mostly working-class and lower-middle-class white residents of the outer boroughs (The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Richmond [Staten Island]), as “white backlash” racists allowed Lindsay to dismiss their concerns about race and related issues. Although they often displayed racist behavior and used racist language, these New Yorkers also expressed very real concern about issues such as school and community integration, job security, and crime. They bore a striking similarity to the “Middle Americans” who had helped elect Richard Nixon the year before—Americans who had, as they saw it, worked hard to overcome heavy odds to gain access to some of the benefits of American society.[5] They were angry, as Mario Procaccino said, because “they had tried to play the game by the rules, but ended up getting pushed into a corner.” In Procaccino, the son of a shoemaker who had risen through the ranks of the Democratic Party to become city comptroller, they discovered, as Procaccino proudly proclaimed, a “little guy for the little guy.”[6]

In dismissing “the little guy” as nothing more than a racist, Lindsay effectively simplified the very nature of race: a New Yorker became either white or a minority, pro-minority or a full-fledged racist. This view ignored the fact that a majority of the Italian-born Procaccino’s supporters were more than Middle Americans. They were also “white ethnics,” southern and eastern European immigrants and their descendants who had faced varying degrees of discrimination at the hands of white, native-born Protestants.[7] Although Procaccino’s critics claimed that he was at best “insensitive to the frustrations of minority groups,” his attempt to reach out to a nonwhite audience reminded others that Italian Americans had also faced discrimination based on their “race.”[8] Just as Rudolph J. Vecoli contends in his seminal article, “Are Italian Americans Really Just White Folks?,” rather than revealing that Italian Americans had fully melted into “whiteness,” Procaccino’s candidacy and the reactions to it showed the gulf between “white ethnics” and “white” society that still existed, perhaps intentionally so on both parts.[9] Reducing Mario Procaccino and his supporters to nothing more than white racists masked the bigotry of Lindsay’s supporters, who expressed their anti-Italian sentiment not only in ethnic but also in racial terms.


Although Mayor Lindsay’s campaign classified whites into one of two firm categories—racist or pro-minority—the distinctions were not that clear-cut. If Procaccino’s supporters could be categorized as white ethnic, working-class provincial rubes, Lindsay’s could be neatly placed into three distinct categories. First were the city’s minorities, mostly African American and Puerto Rican, who were concentrated in Harlem, the South Bronx, and various Brooklyn neighborhoods including Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville. Second were the white, educated, and economically secure residents of certain areas of Manhattan. Third were those whites in the outer boroughs with a similar educational background and “cosmopolitan” attitude, namely residents of solidly middle-class neighborhoods such as Forest Hills and Kew Gardens in Queens and Brooklyn Heights. Into this third category fell many traditionally Democratic Jewish Americans, who had been put off by Procaccino’s conservatism and his inability to articulate effectively a plan for the city.[10]

By mid-1969, Lindsay had to work hard to regain support in a city that sent two conservative candidates, Procaccino and Marchi, to the general election. At the heart of Lindsay’s problem was the fact that “Fun City” was not much fun anymore. New Yorkers faced a high rate of neighborhood change as whites left for the suburbs, a rapidly increasing crime rate, a decaying urban infrastructure, a gradual decline in city services, and a growing fear of violent racial unrest. A broad coalition of voters had elected Lindsay in 1965, but their hopeful attitudes quickly turned bitter and resentful as the city’s problems worsened rather than improved. Although Procaccino’s victory in the primary was hardly decisive, many New Yorkers seemed to crave a return to “law and order,” whether they were thinking on a racial basis or not.[11]

In Republican John Marchi, who was endorsed by the Daily News, New Yorkers found a well-spoken and refined candidate who, unlike other “law and order” candidates, such as Los Angeles’s Sam Yorty, Philadelphia’s Frank Rizzo, or Chicago’s Richard Daley, expressed his decidedly conservative views in rational, well-thought-out terms.[12] Columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote that Marchi presented “terrible notions in soft, acceptable language,” but Procaccino did not.[13] In New York’s native tongue of “shirtsleeve” English, Procaccino bluntly and often simplistically expressed the views of his supporters, the “little people.”[14] “God gave me one attribute, more than anything else,” he told one interviewer. “I can talk to the college professors and I can talk to the lowest individual who cleans sewers.”[15] Procaccino often had moments of inspired alliteration, his most famous line being the off-the-cuff use of the term “limousine liberals” to describe Lindsay and his supporters, but his verbal gaffes were legendary.[16] In stump speeches, he claimed that he wanted “every child in New York to have a chance I had to come up the hard way” and introduced one of his running mates as “a man who grows on you, like cancer.” Such comments, and the candidate’s inability to stick to his scripted speeches, cast doubt on Lindsay’s claim that Procaccino savvily employed subtle, “coded” rhetoric and was intentionally racially provocative.[17] A reporter for the pro-Lindsay Village Voice described his reaction to one of Procaccino’s speeches: “One finds oneself laughing as cliché follows cliché, expressed in the most earnest tone. Yet at the end you tend to think that he may believe what he has been saying.”[18] Although he often garbled his syntax, fell into platitudes, and brought the use of malapropisms to the level of an art form, as one columnist remarked, “The people know what he means when he talks.”[19]

Bronx resident Procaccino expressed the views of many white outer-borough residents on crime, welfare, and school control in words they could understand. He, like most white New Yorkers who lived outside of Manhattan, was against the Police Civilian Review Board (PCRB), Lindsay’s controversial plan to place civilians on the board that reviewed complaints against policemen.[20] Echoing the position taken by the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) that policemen were often called upon to make split-second decisions, Procaccino bluntly stated that if he encountered a burglar in his home, “I wouldn’t run for my PBA handbook; I wouldn’t call my lawyer; I’d just blow his brains out.”[21] In addition to his anti-PCRB stance, Procaccino, like many residents in the outer boroughs, believed that Lindsay had prevented the police from enforcing the law in race rebellions in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant and during the building occupation by students at Columbia University.

Procaccino also publicly expressed the anger of millions of New Yorkers when he blamed Lindsay for failing to end quickly the prolonged school strike of 1968, the result of a battle between minority parents seeking community control of schools in the Ocean Hill—Brownsville section of Brooklyn and the largely white teachers’ union. Many working- and middle-class whites also held Lindsay responsible for failing to reopen several City College campuses that were shut down for several weeks by African American and Puerto Rican students demanding open admissions and a broader, more inclusive curriculum. As a City College graduate, Procaccino understood the role the system played in the economic and social advancement of white ethnics, and he scored major points in the polls when he sought and obtained a court order that reopened the campuses.


In his 1969 book, The City, John Lindsay explained many of his plans for New York and the motivations behind them. Historians, including Vincent Cannato, Jonathan Rieder, and Chris McNickle, have used Lindsay’s text and actions as the basis for their interpretations of his apparent disregard for the interests and issues that concerned New York’s white ethnics. They have identified this disregard as the result of two things: first, Lindsay’s sincere desire to rectify long-standing, blatant injustices faced by African Americans and other minorities, and second, his lack of understanding or knowledge of life in the outer-borough neighborhoods where lower- and middle-class whites lived[22]

There was, as one Lindsay aide remarked, “a whole world out there that nobody at City Hall knew anything about.”[23] The administration understood little about life in lower-middle or working-class ethnic neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Canarsie (Italian and Jewish), Bay Ridge (Irish and Italian), or Bensonhurst (Italian) or of Queens’s Astoria (Greek and other ethnicities), the Rockaways (Irish), or Howard Beach (Italian). Procaccino summed up the attitude of the administration in a similar way, telling his supporters that Lindsay considered anyone who lived outside of Manhattan “to be a foreigner or intruder in this city.”[24]

By the end of his first term, the Lindsay staffers knew that outer-borough residents’ “patience with the Lindsay administration [was] just about exhausted,” as one campaign memo said.[25] They were frustrated not only from the looming threat of strikes and riots, but with the “mundane urban crises of garbage cans, broken park benches, pot-holes and dirty mouthed kids.”[26] They were also nervous because many of their outer-borough neighborhoods were in a constant state of flux, with wealthier residents leaving for the suburbs and with the administration sometimes selecting them as the location for low-income housing, which they often perceived as “minority housing.” In addition, the “slum clearance” required to build such housing often drove low-income groups into neighborhoods where they had previously not resided, causing many white ethnics directly to associate both racial change and a diminishing quality of life with the administration’s policies.[27]

The administration’s faux pas outside of Manhattan ranged from the significant to the simply laughable. Lindsay managed to alienate the entire multiethnic borough of Queens with his glacially slow response to a February 1969 snowstorm, leaving residents snowbound for almost a week. One columnist speculated that the problem rested with the mayor’s inability actually to locate Queens. During the campaign, Lindsay’s staffers continued to make minor gaffes that did little to change this image. They invited people to a “happening” at Fort Tilden Beach in Brooklyn, which created some confusion since the beach is in Queens. At a rally in a predominantly Italian American Brooklyn neighborhood, staffers carried “Bensenherst Loves Lindsay” posters, which helped inspire actual Bensonhurst residents to prove the inaccuracy of this statement by pelting Lindsay with insults and eggs on his neighborhood campaign stop.[28]

In light of experiences such as these, much of Lindsay’s strategy depended on convincing residents of the outer boroughs that he “understand[s] all neighborhoods and their problems (not just Manhattan)—Queens and their #@#$%&* snow, notwithstanding,” as one campaign memo said.[29] In conjuring the ghost of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and appealing to the same New Deal constituency, Lindsay’s neighborhood ads and handbills acknowledged these New Yorkers’ importance as a voting block by admitting that the mayor had failed them:

Because [your complaints] have been ignored, you’ve been dubbed “the forgotten man.” You’ve been forgotten partly because you are hardworking, law-abiding citizens—the backbone of the city…. Your orderly voices aren’t as loud as the voices that yell and scream in riots…. [Lindsay] wants to change your image of yourself as second class citizens and forgotten men.[30]

In this sense, Lindsay had begun to understand the outer-borough “Middle Americans'” grievances.

Unlike many Middle Americans, however, New York’s “Middle Americans” had a strong sense of ethnic identity, which Lindsay understood only in theory. As ethnics, they made up powerful interest groups that politicians had carefully courted since the days of Boss Tweed. In addition, since the election of Fiorello LaGuardia in 1933, New York City politicians had made sure to balance their tickets to appeal to the city’s three largest traditional ethnic groups—the “Three I League,” or Israel, Ireland, and Italy.[31] A savvy candidate not only advertised in multiple languages, but also tailored his message to each group.[32] The city had a large number of ethnic newspapers and radio programs that supported “their” politicians, regardless of party affiliation, provided advertising space or time to “their” candidates for a nominal fee, and urged readers to, for example, “support Italians on Election Day.”[33]

Ethnic stereotypes also played a large role in establishing a candidate’s identity. Effective campaigning meant attending numerous festivals and parades, doing the “bagel and pizza routine”: in other words, eating the foods and engaging in the behaviors that stereotypically defined individual ethnic groups. Rather than any sociologically “real” sense of ethnic identity, the candidate had only to be able to plausibly adopt what Mary Waters and Herbert Gans refer to as the “symbols” of a given ethnicity. For sociologists who interpret ethnicity as composed of fixed and measurable qualities (such as language retention), the ethnic identity of many second- or third-generation ethnic New Yorkers may have seemed “symbolic” at this point. In other words, they responded positively to the same stereotypes that they used to define their own ethnicity. Therefore, a candidate’s success or failure among both his own ethnic group and others was based on how well he or she embodied that symbolic ethnicity. From Manhattan, where a cabby said, “I’m voting for Procaccino because he is Italian,” to Brighton Beach, where a woman stated that she supported Procaccino because he seemed like a “nice Italian guy” who reminded her of her “Italian girlfriends’ husbands,” New Yorkers looked for and recognized often stereotypical ethnic identifiers to determine whom they would or would not support.[34]

Despite Lindsay’s perceptions, what separated him from many outer-borough New Yorkers were not simply racial issues, economics, or geography, but his lack of ethnic identity. Outer-borough whites expressed their anger over Lindsay’s policies not only in terms of a “Manhattan arrangement,” which pitted them against wealthy Manhattan residents, but also in ethnic terms, especially in his dealing with the city’s unions. In his handling of the transit workers’ strike and the Police Civilian Review Board issue, he alienated largely Irish American unions. Nor did his preliminary negotiating tactics endear him to the predominately Italian American union representing striking sanitation men. His most costly union conflict came in the controversy over school control, when he fought the United Federation of Teachers, which was overwhelmingly Jewish. In order to win back the support of these unions, Lindsay made a variety of concessions, but he spent a majority of the campaign attempting to repair his relationship specifically with Jewish voters. He took great pains to remind them in several campaign speeches that they were not “responding as Jews” when they voted as conservatives and supported Procaccino.[35]Yet summing up the collective feelings of these working-class ethnic groups, one Brooklyn storekeeper said, “[Lindsay] doesn’t know what our life is like. Look at that WASP—what could he know?”[36]

Italian Americans in particular felt ignored when, during the first Lindsay administration, home values dropped, violence increased, and city services slowly began to disappear in neighborhoods like East New York and Canarsie. Often these changes were the direct result of Lindsay’s plans to construct low-income housing projects and new integrated schools in such places without seeking any input from neighborhood residents.[37] In Corona, Queens, the Lindsay administration slated sixty-nine Italian American-owned homes for destruction so that a new high school could be built. Coming on the heels of the snow fiasco, the resulting eight-year battle over these homes caused one columnist to quip, “Lindsay has more problems with Queens than Henry VIII.”[38] The Corona homeowners repeatedly accused Lindsay of being anti-Italian and targeting their neighborhood for destruction only because they were Italian Americans.[39] In addition, during the election, residents of some Italian neighborhoods complained that they had been excluded from the mayor’s special month-long voter registration drive.[40]

Lindsay’s 1968 “invasion” of the Feast of San Gennaro in Manhattan’s Little Italy, one of the most prominent Italian festas held in the United States, enhanced the perception that he was anti-Italian. After the police “raided” the festival on what Italian Americans saw as the pretext that “the Church and the concessionaires were paying off the Mafia,” Italian American organizations blasted the Lindsay administration for practicing what they called “anti-Italian selectivity in law enforcement.”[41] As a spokesman for the group Americans of Italian Descent stated, the incident was “part of a pattern of the Lindsay administration of neglect and contempt against the two million Americans of Italian descent in this city.”[42] The “invasion” added to Lindsay’s image as anti-Italian, even though the Police Department made it clear that law enforcement had acted without the mayor’s direct knowledge or authority.

When northern Italian Frank Sinatra, the man Mario Puzo called “the most powerful American of Italian descent,” endorsed Lindsay, Italian Americans urged Sinatra to reconsider his endorsement because of Lindsay’s “antipathy for Italian Americans.”[43] The Italo-American Times expressed the fear that “in a city with a sizable Italo-American population Mr. Sinatra’s active support could be somewhat of a factor.”[44] Letters to the editor of the Daily News disagreed, with one correspondent asking, “Does Frank Sinatra really believe that people of Italian extraction are so ignorant and gullible as to follow him in support of Mayor Lindsay?”[45] Another opined, “If Sinatra is under the impression that his personality will gain Italian votes for our dear mayor, he is as nutty as the mayor.”[46]

Lindsay further demonstrated this “antipathy” and his contempt for the man who served under him as city comptroller by what was either his inability to pronounce correctly Procaccino’s name or his deliberately derisive mispronunciation of it. It was left up to the New York Times to provide the mayor with the correct pronunciation of “Procaccino,” which it did by spelling the word phonetically.[47] Although Lindsay had Italian American campaign staffers, an Italian American running mate (Fioravanto Perrotta), and an Italian American campaign manager (Richard Aurelio), Procaccino was one of the few Italian Americans prominent in his administration. Accordingly, Italian American groups also found fault in Lindsay’s “lack of recognition of [Italian American] talents and abilities as reflected in the absence of Americans of Italian descent in his administration and in the various departments of the city.”[48]

Contrary to the belief of many Italian Americans and other white ethnics, Lindsay was not intentionally targeting them. Rather than focusing on their interests and issues, he was supporting and prioritizing the progressive reforms that he held near and dear to his heart. With much of his work, Lindsay attempted to remedy gaps that had been left by earlier public policy. In doing so, he accepted the definitions used in that policy, identifying racial difference along clear lines, based simply on color or external characteristics. Many white ethnics reaped the benefits of New Deal and postwar programs, the same programs that actively excluded African Americans and other “visible” minorities.[49] Yet it is easy to recognize why, as white ethnics, many Italian Americans felt some sense of alienation from the mayor. As Michael Novak described in The Unmeltable Ethnics (1971), they believed that, because of their particular type of whiteness, they had not experienced the same sense of white privilege that Lindsay and his forbears had enjoyed.[50] In addition, Lindsay personally appeared to have little understanding or regard for their particular lifestyle. Lindsay’s plans and priorities threatened to alter fundamentally their communities and cultural identity, while leaving his middle- and upper-class white supporters untouched.


Italian Americans were predisposed to believe that they were being discriminated against, especially by a wealthy, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant like John Lindsay. Many, including Mario Procaccino, honestly believed that they had suffered the same degree of discrimination as African Americans or Puerto Ricans. Procaccino’s claim that his “heart was as black as yours” rang true for many Italian Americans who felt that they too had been targeted because of their “nonwhiteness.” This sense of removal from “whites” set these voters apart from George Wallace and his southern supporters, who showed a great hostility towards civil rights causes and the potential of racial equality. According to Jonathan Rieder, Italians supported Wallace because of his response to “lawlessness” rather than his racial message. This, when coupled with their own sense of racial “in-between-ness,” made it difficult for them to understand why they were being called “racists” and “bigots,” regardless of their feelings about Lindsay’s policies.[51] It is clear, however, that they did act as racists, regardless of whether or not they understood their behavior as such. The fact that they remained unable or unwilling to distinguish between the discrimination they experienced and the treatment of African Americans and other minorities indicates not only a lack of empathy, but a lack of understanding of their own level of racism and the privileges that they, in reality, had as external “whites.”

Yet they continued to feel and experience some sense of separation from other “whites.” Procaccino often recalled the sense of isolation he felt from the larger “white” world.[52] At times, he expressed this in terms of the strong connection he felt with both the people of Harlem and the place itself, which was divided into distinct Italian, Puerto Rican, and African American enclaves. As he told a crowd at a gathering at the Union Baptist Church on West 145th Street, only several blocks from where he had worked as an assistant in his father’s shoe repair shop, he too knew the frustration and anger that accompanied growing up “confined” to a slum. When he said, “I am the son of a shoemaker” in English, Spanish, or Italian, it was an effective way of immediately reminding people both of his class origins and his neighborhood ties.[53] Procaccino’s pride in his Harlem connections suggested that he was out of touch with the hatred many minorities had towards “white” shopkeepers. Yet Procaccino’s stories also revealed that he thought of himself as a member of a minority group who had been “trapped” in a nonwhite neighborhood.

Although many disagreed with his assessment, Procaccino’s statements reveal how he understood his own experience with discrimination. When he went to Harlem and was greeted by cries of “Go home, you racist!” Procaccino attempted to explain that he too had faced prejudice, saying, “I know what discrimination means. I’ve suffered as much as any of you!”[54] In a televised interview before the Democratic primary, he told the hosts, “I went through the situation [that] someone has to really go through in order to understand what prejudice really is.”[55]

Procaccino often spoke passionately about his immigration to the United States at the age of nine and the anti-Italian sentiment he encountered here, including the pain he felt at being called a “wop” and a “guinea.”[56] He returned repeatedly to his encounters with anti-Italian discrimination in his speeches, recounting, among other incidents, how he had been unable to find a job after graduating from Fordham Law:[57]

No, they didn’t want the son of an Italian immigrant who finished first in his class, no, they weren’t too high on Catholic or Jewish lawyers on Wall Street in those days, they didn’t want an immigrant’s son rubbing elbows with their fancy clients. Sure, the secretaries smiled, they were polite and sweet and condescending, they asked you to wait, “No, the partner wasn’t in.” Sorry we don’t need young lawyers, why don’t you leave your resume. Good luck. You know there are still times I see those condescending smiles, the smiles that say, “You’re not my kind,” the smile that says your people don’t belong with my people, the smile that says, “Stay in your place, boy.” … Do you really believe after seeing and living with that smile, after wondering why, what’s wrong with me or my kind, do you really believe for one moment I would prevent any man of any color his right to a shot at what this city can offer?[58]

In a variation of this story, Procaccino told the Chicago Sun Times, “I went into the offices of the big firms, they looked at my record … and they said, ‘You have a good record. What’s your name? How do you pronounce it?’ I got the message real quick. I guess I didn’t belong.”[59] He also returned repeatedly to this subject in his private conversations, reminding his daughter that she too would have to work extra hard to overcome anti-Italian sentiments.[60] Procaccino honestly believed that he had been treated as if he had shared a similar “blackness” but had, through hard work and determination, been able to overcome the discrimination he encountered.

Some African American leaders, such as George Miller, president of Harlem’s JFK Democratic Club, praised Procaccino’s empathy, remarking that they “kn[ew] that he identified with black people.”[61] Opinion on the street seemed to be divided, illustrating that African Americans’ understanding and interpretations of racial identity were also changing at this time. An informal Daily News poll conducted along 125th Street in Harlem revealed a variety of reactions to Procaccino. One African American woman stated that she thought that he was “pro-Negro” because “Procaccino, himself, comes from a minority group like ours.” But in the same poll, a man opined that the candidate had “not shown sufficient sensitivity to the black community. Statements like ‘my heart is as black as yours’ don’t help.”[62]

Although he identified his struggle with theirs, Procaccino did not show “sufficient sensitivity” to the plight of African Americans and other minorities because he failed to acknowledge that he had “skin privilege” or the benefit of appearing white. Procaccino, like many other “white ethnics,” would not or could not see that, as Kenneth Clark wrote, African Americans were “unable to ‘melt’ into the American pot. Their visible differences served to continue the inferior status imposed by slavery and never lifted.”[63] Clark’s attitude, on the other hand, failed to acknowledge what was becoming apparent by the late 1960s—as both Vecoli and Novak illustrate, white ethnics had not simply melted into “the American pot” by appearing white.[64] Instead, blending into “American” culture had required that they consciously shed many of the characteristics that identified them as ethnics, the same characteristics that contributed to the construction of ethnic stereotypes.

Procaccino was stunned and deeply wounded at the accusations that he was a racist.[65] As he repeatedly told reporters, not only had he faced discrimination, but he also had the record of a progressive Democrat.[66] Yet, he said, the press tried to turn him into nothing more than a racist ogre. At one point, angered and rattled by the charges that he was a bigot, he responded to them somewhat ill-advisedly. “If you think my record is that of a bigot, you’re out of your mind—your cotton-picking mind!” he told reporters at one press conference.[67] Clearly, while deeply disturbed by the way he was portrayed, he remained unable to understand the cause of this characterization.

While “my heart is as black as yours” was an inelegant and imprudent way of expressing a sense of racial kinship, it was not the first time a New York City mayoral candidate had used that line.[68] Mayor John P. O’Brien, who found himself in a three-way race against Fiorello LaGuardia, made the same statement to an African American crowd in 1933. He also referred to Harlem, suffering mightily in the Depression, as “the garden spot of New York,” revealing his fundamental lack of connection with both the area and its residents.[69] During O’Brien’s brief tenure as mayor, Procaccino was working in Harlem with his father and was involved in student politics at City College, so he was likely aware of O’Brien’s remark. Procaccino possibly took it to heart for a number of reasons.[70] As his notes reveal, Procaccino equated the discrimination he faced with racial discrimination: “I am also a minority,” he wrote, “[I] struggled to get ahead, [I had] an accent—[was] labeled part of [the] Mafia—You think it is tough being black? Well it’s equally tough being an Italian with an accent.”[71]


Procaccino’s attitude could be simply dismissed as insensitivity or as an inability to understand the difference between ethnicity, or what historian Thomas Guglielmo describes as culture race, on the one hand, and color race on the other.[72] However, particularly for southern Italians like Procaccino, who was born near Naples, race, cultural or color, was not a simple “black and white” issue. In both Italy and the United States, southern Italians faced discrimination based not only on their cultural differences, but also on their perceived racial difference.

Within Italy, northern Italians had long treated southern Italians as a distinct “racial” group, separated from the North not only by culture and economics but also certain “racial” characteristics. Northerners claimed southern Italians were shorter, darker skinned, emotionally volatile, and lacking in respect for the law (manifested both in their resistance to northern rule and the regional prevalence of the Mafia in various forms). Northerners traced these alleged characteristics to interbreeding with various “nonwhite” groups, such as the Saracens, who had controlled the region at one time.[73] Because northern Italians came to the United States earlier than their southern counterparts and often were better educated and more economically secure, the northern view of southern Italians gained widespread acceptance within the United States. A major proponent of immigration restriction, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, welcomed the supposedly fair-skinned, more industrious, and law-abiding northern “Teutonic Italians,” but sought to stop the immigration of “‘dark skinned’ southerners, whom he described as lazy, criminal, sexually irrepressible, and emotionally volatile.”[74] The Bureau of Immigration followed suit by adopting these “racial” designations to separate southern Italians from their northern Italian counterparts.[75] Immigration records classified northern Italians in the same “racial” category as the French, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh; Southern Italians were grouped with the Greeks, Portuguese, Spanish, and Syrians.[76] The first group was definitely “white,” while the second was not necessarily so.

As a number of authors, including Matthew Frye Jacobson, David Roediger, and Robert Orsi, have shown, defining their “whiteness” often posed a major challenge for southern Italians and, as regional difference became secondary to national difference, all other Italians as well. Their identity was, at least prior to World War II, racialized. They were, as Orsi wrote, an “in-between people” who were not-quite-white. However, as historian Victoria Hattan shows in In the Shadow of Race (2007), as politicians and sociologists came to identify race as homogeneous, fixed, and hierarchical, previous racial identities became modern-day ethnic ones. In other words, ethnicity became what race used to be—culture and language-based, heterogeneous, fluid, and promising equality.[77]

Tales of anti-Italian discrimination are widespread, which Salvatore LaGumina illustrated in WOP! A Documentary History of Anti-Italian Discrimination (1999), but only recently have scholars begun to reinterpret the cause of that discrimination: namely, the belief of many Americans that, as supposedly with African Americans, the behavior and characteristics of Italians were the result of “racial,” rather than cultural or ethnic, difference. In addition, much like racialized stereotypes of African Americans, stereotypes of Italian Americans reduced them to either laughable simpletons or violent criminals.


New York was a largely Democratic city and, according to polls, Mario Procaccino was John Lindsay’s major obstacle to winning a second term. Therefore, Lindsay’s campaign team focused all its energies on defeating Procaccino, virtually ignoring John Marchi, the man who beat Lindsay in the Republican primary. The mayor’s supporters, like Procaccino’s, were motivated by fear; as Procaccino summed up the situation, “Those who fear Mario, smear Mario.”[78] Lindsay’s public policy and personal feelings may not have been anti-Italian, but his campaign and its supporters now assumed a decidedly anti-Italian tone. Procaccino apparently realized very early the types of attacks he might face; shortly after announcing his candidacy, he told a group of Italian American businessmen, “No one—and I mean no one—is going to stop me from becoming mayor of our city because I have an Italian background.”[79]

What began as observations about Procaccino’s lack of political savvy, his use of malapropisms, or his “neighborhood style” quickly became something different. As the Village Voice reported, when Lindsay supporters “speak of poor Mario, they start by analyzing his media image, but frequently end up talking about Italians and pencil-thin moustaches.”[80] This rhetoric reflected a class bias, but as one commentator remarked, “Italians, especially, must wonder where contempt for class leaves off and prejudice against Italians begins. People who would not dream of telling Negro jokes regale each other with Italian jokes…. If I were Italian I might imagine that the ‘humorous’ liberals are not conspicuously partial to Italians.”[81]

In Procaccino, Lindsay supporters found a representative of the prevalent stereotypical views of Italian Americans. Stereotypes of previously racialized behavioral characteristics remained intact; the strength of these stereotypes was, no doubt, enhanced by the growing public awareness of the Mafia, which had started in the previous decade with the U.S. Senate’s televised investigation of organized crime and culminated in the 1969 publication of Mario Puzo’s epic tale of Mafia life, The Godfather. A majority of the well-known nonfictional and fictional Mafiosi were Italian Americans, a fact that made them unwilling and unwanted representatives of the Italian community. This, consequently, colored all interpretations of Italian American identity. Participants in a 1967 Princeton University study on social stereotypes described Italian Americans as passionate, pleasure loving, impulsive, and quick tempered.[82] In addition to being short, swarthy, and emotionally volatile, the stereotype of Italian American New Yorkers also had a class component that, when combined with earlier stereotypes, encompassed not only Italians’ actions and sense of style, but also where and how they lived. As Richard Severo reported, in New York, Italian Americans were supposedly

Garbage collectors who adorn their lawns with plastic flamingoes and who sit behind aluminum storm windows in Queens and talk about how the Negroes and Puerto Ricans must wait until they are qualified before they get new jobs. The image of the barber who keeps the Madonna on his dashboard remains alive and well.[83]

Lindsay’s supporters joked that if Mario were mayor, he would buy a plastic flamingo for the lawn of Gracie Mansion, solve the city’s snow removal problems by shoveling it himself, and then “roll down the plastic throw cover on his bed, say a prayer for all the ‘little guys’ in the world, rest his head on his plastic covered foam pillow, and gently go to sleep.”[84] With such jokes, they were laughing at more than Procaccino’s working-class roots. The answer to “What is a Mario Procaccino?,” the mocking question that circulated throughout City Hall after his election as comptroller, appeared fairly obvious: Mario Procaccino was an Italian American.

According to the prevalent stereotypes, John Marchi, the Republican candidate, was not. Although Marchi was of Italian descent, spoke fluent Italian, and was married to an Italian woman, Procaccino remained the “most visible Italian of 1969,” perhaps because the stereotypes employed to describe him did not apply to Marchi.[85] Marchi (pronounced Markey) was one of Henry Cabot Lodge’s idealized “Teutonic Italians”—a solidly middle-class, northern Italian who had the air of an “absent-minded professor.” He had changed his name from Giovanni to John while still in high school. Thin and “tall for an Italian” (five feet ten inches), Marchi joked that he would lose the Italian vote because people who saw him and only heard his name would assume he was Irish.[86] Marchi was not readily identifiable as a member of any particular ethnic group; in fact, he was so nondescript that one of his aides stated his major problem when campaigning was “many people look at him and they know that they’ve seen him before, but they just can’t place him.”[87]

Marchi did not act like the stereotypically impassioned and impulsive “Italian.” While Procaccino compared himself to the fiery northern Italian LaGuardia, Marchi called himself “the Perry Como of politics.” In emphasizing the laid-back nature he shared with the singer whose ancestors came from Palena (outside of Rome), he illustrated the difficulty and complexity of Italians’ stereotypes of their own regional characteristics.[88] The press dubbed the conservative Republican a “law and order” candidate. But rather than calling him a racist, they referred to him as both gentle and cultured. His speeches decrying the rising crime rate and calling for unfettered policing were “less impassioned oratory to sway votes or win headlines than a measured explanation of his own thought process.”[89] The confidential report on Marchi used by the Lindsay campaign to prepare for debates summed up the Republican candidate as “calm and quiet to the point of being dull. He never loses his temper.” Therefore, Lindsay’s advisers suggested that he strike first before Marchi had a chance to “come on all cool and reasonable.”[90]

The perception of Marchi as something other than a “real” Italian extended to his wife as well—ironic, since she was Italian and had met Marchi when he was on a family visit to his parents’ hometown of Lucca. The “model-slim,” “unpretentious, and a little shy” Maria Marchi created a calm oasis of good taste at the Marchi’s Staten Island home. She conducted interviews surrounded by silver vases holding yellow and orange marigolds, while seated under a skillfully painted portrait of her husband. Her hair was carefully coiffed and her “smartly tailored” dresses made-to-order and worn a “fashionable two inches or so above the knee.” Mrs. Marchi’s “indefatigable sense of style” was, as one reporter wrote, the greatest asset to her husband’s campaign.[91]

Maria Procaccino was “the other end of the spectrum,” according to Newsday. She had recently dyed her dark hair blonde. She purchased off-the-rack dresses, conservatively cut, at sales in Eastchester department stores and, as the New York Post reported, kept the furniture in her Pelham living room covered in plastic. The Procaccino’s hard-earned, split-level home was in a neighborhood where, as reporters noted, the women went bowling for fun and the city’s comptroller could be found working on his yard. Mrs. Procaccino had never been to Gracie Mansion, but she assured reporters that she would not serve chianti, an inexpensive wine sold only in squat, straw-covered bottles, at official dinners. Whether Mrs. Procaccino was asked about the chianti or took it upon herself to challenge this particular Italian American stereotype is unknown. Presumably, she would also have forgone using red-and-white checkered tablecloths.[92]

The presence of Marchi’s running mate, Vito Battista, only served to enhance the difference between the Marchis and stereotypical Italian Americans. Battista, a Brooklyn assemblyman and perennial mayoral candidate, provided the Marchi campaign with a representative of the Italian American stereotype. Although he was an MIT graduate and architect who had established his own architectural school, Battista was best known for his attention-grabbing political stunts. In one memorable ploy, he protested a proposed tax by parading a camel through Midtown, announcing that one more tax would break its back. “The extent of Mr. Battista’s fiscal experience consists of a walk down Wall Street wearing a barrel,” said Fioravanto Perrotta, summing up his competitor for the position of comptroller.[93]

Depending on which newspaper one read, Battista was either “small, round and peripatetic” or “short, florid and voluble.”[94] Journalists also frequently commented on what they called his “direct Sicilian style,” although he was not Sicilian. It did not seem to matter that Battista had been born in Bari, on Italy’s Adriatic Coast; apparently, all southern Italians were essentially of the Sicilian “race.”[95] One reporter summed up the Marchi-Battista ticket, writing that “this alliance of the slender and the genteel with the broad and vulgar promises to be the normal Italian family relationship, slightly ridiculous to the foreigner but cheerful and enduring all the same.”[96]

In addition to reinforcing the power of Italian American stereotypes, Marchi and Battista also illustrated the divides that existed (and still exist) between northern and southern Italy. The two candidates did not appear to share the same ethnicity or ethnic identity. In addition to using the English language in a different way than Battista, Marchi’s Italian set him apart from his running mate. Marchi spoke Standard Italian, while Battista, like a majority of New York’s Italian speakers, spoke the southern Italian Napoletano-Calabrese dialect. As Marchi told the press, when they tried to speak together in Italian, Battista could not understand him.[97] Although they technically shared an identity as Italian Americans, Marchi and Battista appeared to be from entirely different “races,” as did Marchi and Procaccino.


If John Marchi was neither Italian enough nor a realistic enough political challenger, Mario Procaccino was both “ethnic in the extreme” and Lindsay’s major threat.[98] As Procaccino’s detractors found, he could easily be attacked using existing Italian American stereotypes, which, in turn, raised the question of Italian Americans’ racial identity and their place in “white” society. One Yale professor captured the apparent feeling of many Lindsay supporters when he remarked at a party, “If Italian Americans aren’t actually an inferior race, they do the best imitation of one I have ever seen.” As author and publisher Michael Lerner reported, everyone at the dinner table laughed.[99] Attitudes like this, when coupled with the preexisting perception of Lindsay as anti-Italian, served to make Procaccino’s “racial” identity a campaign issue.

In an age when the importance of media image had become paramount, Procaccino’s looks, especially when placed in juxtaposition to the tall, WASP, “movie star mayor,” made Mario a living example of what Jimmy Breslin called the “Ellis Island heartbeat.”[100] At five feet four inches and two hundred pounds, with a pencil-thin moustache and dark, slicked back hair, Procaccino was a living caricature, not only of Italian Americans, but of all white ethnics. As Time reported, Procaccino’s electric-blue suits and watermelon-pink shirts “accentuated the ethnic” of his speech and gestures.[101] Although his appearance was continually mocked by the pro-Lindsay press, Procaccino knew that in the outer boroughs, he was not unusual; in fact, his hair, moustache, and suits were all what one journalist called “refreshingly familiar neighborhood characteristics.”[102] While Lindsay was profiled in Menswear Magazine, Procaccino’s looks, when coupled with his “garbled syntax,” supplied the minor imperfections to which his supporters could relate.[103] “Yes, we have different cultures; yes, we have different customs … we aren’t sick, we don’t have to be remade in Lindsay’s image,” Procaccino told a group of his supporters.[104] In Lindsay, white ethnics might have seen, as one columnist wrote, “a handsome, winning personality—but they don’t see themselves.”[105] One of Procaccino’s aides captured the essence of the situation when he said, “If Mario shaves off that funny little moustache, we’re dead. We’ll lose the vote of every little guy with a pencil-thin moustache in town. I know you don’t see that moustache around Lincoln Center too much, but why don’t you try the Garfield Cafeteria on Flatbush Avenue someday?”[106]

The Garfield Cafeteria notwithstanding, the Procaccino campaign’s attempt to place a positive spin on Lindsay’s supporters’ characterizations of him did not dispel the anti-Italian nature of such characterizations. While some characterizations were overt, others made only oblique but easily understood references to Procaccino’s “undignified” ethnicity. The kindest contended that Procaccino “looked like a prosperous Bronx grocer dressed up for church,” conjuring up images of life on Arthur Avenue, the Bronx’s Little Italy, on a quiet Sunday morning.[107] Not content to simply mock his off-the-rack suits and neighborhood style, journalists used them to imply far darker connections. Procaccino, in his pin-striped suits, looked, as one journalist pointed out, like the stereotypical “Italian ward heeler, so much so that many who demand a degree of dignity in a public figure may find it hard to take him seriously.”[108] Another writer opined that “if you put Mario Procaccino in a white apron he could hawk mackerel at the Fulton Fish Market,” an occupation that had long been dominated by Italian Americans in a market long dominated by the Mafia. Another used film analogies to liken both Procaccino and his supporters to gangsters, referring to the candidate’s “George Raft suits” and to his supporters as people who “look[ed] like something out of an old Edward G. Robinson movie.”[109]

Implying ties to gangsters and the Mafia has become a common way to attack Italian American politicians, as both Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro discovered when seeking national office. Reporters, believing their own stereotyping that Procaccino’s supporters not only looked like extras from old Edward G. Robinson films, but also supposedly acted like gangsters or “heavies,” found Procaccino staffers intimidating. To prevent reporters from being scared, one letter writer suggested to Procaccino that he have “as few men as possible” surrounding him.[110] One journalist wrote of his experience at Procaccino campaign headquarters: upon arriving he was greeted by a group of “saturnine young men in electric blue suits of a style fashionable with young men introduced in the ring at Sunnyside Garden as coming attractions.” Although these “boxers” were polite and well-mannered, the potential for violent confrontation hung in the air, for “they look[ed] as if they’d bring home an A in deportment in any normal saloon brawl.”[111] The New York Post reported that a member of Procaccino’s entourage threatened one of its reporters, grabbing his shoulder and saying, “You write it nice—or you don’t walk no more.” The paper noted that the reporter assumed this meant he would not be able to walk with the Procaccino campaign, yet the initial impression was that of a candidate surrounded by illiterate, knee-breaking thugs.[112]

The press attempted to link Procaccino to the Mafia through one of his district leaders, Rose Catania, whose husband was the brother of Joe “The Baker” Catania, killed in a mob hit some thirty-eight years earlier. Accordingly, a reporter at the Village Voice drew the conclusion that Procaccino’s entire Bronx Democratic base was tied to the Mafia, while the Lindsay campaign implied that, as comptroller, Procaccino had knowingly dealt with Mafia-controlled banks. Neither charge could be substantiated.[113]

Still, the Lindsay campaign implied that Procaccino’s alleged Mafia ties prevented the “law and order” candidate from clearly stating his plan to deal with organized crime. Procaccino responded with indignation: “I don’t know any Mafias. I never have and I never will. Don’t talk about the Mafia to me because I think it is insulting…. There’s always a connection of trying to put some Italian name with a Mafia. There’s a Jewish Mafia, an Irish Mafia, and a black Mafia.”[114] Nevertheless, many Lindsay supporters appeared to miss, either intentionally or otherwise, Procaccino’s point that not all organized crime was Italian and not all Italian Americans were members of the Mafia. Pete Hamill of the New York Post wondered, “Why does Mario Procaccino think that questions about the Mafia are insulting?”[115] Another journalist used Procaccino’s statement to further tie him to the mob, claiming that it showed that he “believe[d] in ‘omerta,'” the Mafia code of silence, when it came to organized crime.[116]

In reality, John Lindsay was observing a “code of silence” when it came to Mafia connections, connections that even the average New Yorker understood. As one of the “forgotten men” protesting at a Lindsay rally in Rockaway said, “He’s in with the Mafia, with that Tony Scotto. He’s a racketeer!”[117] The man was referring to Anthony “Tony” Scotto, who had married into the Anastasia crime family and, as head of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1814, ran the New York waterfront. Lindsay appointed Scotto to the committee on vacancies of his Independent Party and supported him even after the Justice Department identified Scotto as a captain in the Gambino crime family.[118]

A few observers pointed out this connection, but the generally pro-Lindsay press gave it little attention. Ed Koch had crossed party lines to support Lindsay in 1965 and, despite his choice not to endorse him in 1969, maintained many of the same liberal views as the mayor. Still, he wrote in a letter to the editor of the Village Voice, “If either [Mario Procaccino or John Marchi] had placed any one of the Mafia hoods identified in the FBI Mafia chart in their campaign organizations, Nat Hentoff [a Village Voice reporter], the mayor, and his friends would have a field day.”[119] Others, including the Village Voice’s own Mary Perot Nichols, echoed this sentiment and questioned the way in which reporters had handled the story. Nichols, who had reported on Procaccino’s alleged mob ties, blasted her colleague: “If Mario Procaccino had put Tony Scotto on his ballot, and Koch had said he was concerned with Procaccino’s ‘Scotto involvement,’ Hentoff would not have said one word. In fact, Hentoff would have probably said to himself, ‘Aha! I knew all along that guy was in with the Mafia.'” Lindsay’s connection with a known member of the Mafia received hardly any notice, probably because, as Nichols reported, some journalists and political pundits believed that “Scotto was planted on Lindsay by the Procaccino people so Lindsay couldn’t make Procaccino out to be the Mafia candidate.”[120]

Because of existing stereotypes, Procaccino’s connections to the Mafia and his hypothetical involvement in a Mafia conspiracy were easy to believe, while Lindsay was, in part, shielded by his “nonethnic” identity. He was protected from other allegations of Mafia connections by his image as a “cooler” of racial unrest. In 1966, when racial violence in East New York spiked, Lindsay’s aides reached out to the Gallo brothers, members of the Colombo crime family, to check the behavior of Italian American youths in the area.[121] As one handbill distributed by the Yeshiva College Student Coalition for Procaccino asked, “Are we so far gone to have to deal with the Mafia to work out a local problem?”[122] Indeed, the incident provides a clear illustration of exactly how Lindsay’s supporters viewed both Italian Americans and their connections with the Mafia. The administration’s actions implied both that Italian Americans could not be reasoned with, responding only to the threat of violence, and that they were all intimately involved in the Mafia or in contact with it.

Lindsay’s supporters took the stereotype of Italian American lawlessness one step further. They used Procaccino’s comments about shooting the hypothetical burglar as a premise to investigate the origin of the handgun Procaccino mentioned. To their disappointment, they discovered that he had purchased it legally and that it was licensed.[123] But some interpreted the potential of a pistol-packing Procaccino as a very real threat, especially because he was, as several journalists reported, “Italian-style emotional.”[124] This meant that, among other things, he displayed a “volatile” temper.

In debates with other Democratic hopefuls and with hecklers on the street, Procaccino reportedly “exploded when rattled.”[125] “I don’t believe that a man can lead New York into the 1970s if he is blinded by the rage of his own emotion,” Lindsay told his supporters at a campaign kickoff rally.[126] The Procaccino campaign’s internal memos reveal that staffers worried about their candidate’s propensity to explode when “exasperated.”[127] Despite the fact that they gave him notes reminding him to stay “cool” when challenged, Procaccino would respond with animation, “his voice rising to a shout,” as he simultaneously pumped his arms in the air and “spoke” with his hands.128 Lindsay’s goal became, as his staffers confided to a New York Times reporter, “to get Mario to make a fool of himself,” presumably by goading him to act like a stereotypical Italian.[129] For example, Lindsay deliberately baited Procaccino by keeping the obsessively punctual Procaccino waiting for meetings and the beginning of the first televised debate.[130] Despite having undergone extensive preparation in which he had been reminded that Lindsay would “try to get him excited,” Procaccino became incensed and let his feelings show.[131]

In some situations, especially those in which Lindsay could capitalize on the height discrepancy that existed between them, the mayor’s strategy was especially effective. Procaccino was nearly a foot shorter than the six-feet-three-inch Lindsay.[132] In debates against his Democratic rivals, the “little warrior” was seated behind a desk, which, as the press gleefully reported, hid the fact that he had to sit on a pillow in order to rest his arms comfortably on that desk.[133] When, in a later debate, the candidates were seated on tall chairs, Lindsay’s baiting technique appeared particularly effective. Lindsay sat comfortably, while “the diminutive Procaccino … could not reach the floor with his feet, so that he looked like a child,” recalled Sid Davidoff, a Lindsay aide, in an interview with historian Chris McNickle.[134] When Procaccino became angry, his legs flailed about, accentuating both his agitation and his inability to remain grounded, both literally and figuratively. The press poked fun at Procaccino for this, implying that his height and emotionality rendered him ineffectual and impotent, while Lindsay, with his feet planted firmly on the ground, was calm and in control. Procaccino was, after all, just a little Italian.[135] Although Lindsay claimed that he was running a campaign for all men, not specifically targeting “tall men or short men or medium-sized men,” his tactics seem to imply that he was taking advantage of his “bony Protestant[ness]” by attacking a “stubby little” Italian who was, as the Village Voice reported, devoid of the “cool emotionless WASP nature that was [Lindsay’s] heritage.”[136]

Just as Lindsay’s heritage rendered him calm and cool, Procaccino’s, as one journalist wrote, made him prone to “sweaty sentimentality.”[137] Announcing his candidacy in a press conference that the New York Times called “rollicking,” Procaccino made his announcement with “tears of pure joy” streaming down his face.[138] He also wept happily when he won the Democratic primary, just as he had when he was sworn in as comptroller in 1965. A crying candidate provided perfect fodder for Lindsay and his supporters, for Procaccino’s tears provided a shorthand way of making negative comments about both his ethnicity and his masculinity. At times, Lindsay’s supporters actively tried to make Procaccino cry in sheer frustration, as J. Raymond Jones, a city councilman from Harlem, did when he repeatedly called Procaccino a coward for failing to agree quickly to televised debates. Procaccino, upon hearing Jones’s comments, reportedly “dissolved into tears” among his campaign aides.[139]

The image of a crying little Italian also lent itself easily to caricature. Throughout the campaign, the pro-Lindsay press ran numerous caricatures of Procaccino, holding an oversized handkerchief, with tears streaming down his face. New York Magazine excelled in depicting a weepy Procaccino. Nestled among caricatures of Procaccino as Pagliacci, the sad clown, the magazine ran a mock contest, asking aspiring writers to submit their “teary theory” by answering the question, “Why is this man crying?” Prizes included “a splendid new recording of La Traviata by the Sanitation Department Band” and dinner for two at the Port Authority building.[140] Illustrating the idea that any candidate who cried could not handle the job of mayor, the magazine accompanied its article, which projected what the first one hundred days of a Procaccino mayoralty might look like, with a cartoon showing him drowning in a sea of his own tears as the city’s problems worsened.[141] When Lindsay needled Procaccino about his crying, the implication was clear: Procaccino, despite all of his “law and order” rhetoric, was no “tough guy,” nor was he man enough to be mayor of the toughest town in the world. Procaccino was nothing more than “tears and tripe.”[142]

Yes, he was “emotional,” Procaccino said years earlier, acknowledging and accepting the stereotype: “That’s the way Italians are.” Yet Procaccino interpreted the attacks against his emotionality to be not only ethnic, but racial in nature.[143] As a campaign memo reveals, Procaccino felt that it was “most important to give a speech on [the] emotion of an Italian with inference that it is racial to suggest some of us are too emotional and/or aggressive to govern.”[144] He later made just such a speech, declaring that he was “proud to be emotional, just as the people are.”[145] As The Catholic News reported, Procaccino “is proud to be someone from the Southern Mediterranean where no one is ashamed of their compassion or their sense of understanding or their heart.”[146] Still, Lindsay’s supporters and the press continued to mock his emotional nature, his hands-on interaction with his supporters, and his expressiveness, the very “Italian” characteristics that were at the root of his “racial” identity.


On the night before the election, Procaccino told the crowd assembled at his campaign headquarters that John Lindsay and his supporters had “worked over Mario Procaccino, but that [was] part of the game.”[147] The next day, Lindsay won the election with 41 percent of the vote to Procaccino’s 33 percent. WCBS-TV reported that Procaccino won 55 percent of the Italian American votes to Lindsay’s 13 percent; John Marchi won the other 30 percent. Procaccino and Lindsay each won 44 percent of the Jewish vote, while 80 percent of African American and 64 percent of Puerto Rican voters supported Lindsay. The New York Times wrote that what had turned the election in Lindsay’s favor was capturing the votes of the poor and the rich, while Procaccino and Marchi had each suffered from divisions within the middle class.[148]

Lindsay won Manhattan and all of the city’s minority districts, including those in the outer boroughs, such as the South Bronx and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Surprisingly, he also was able to win a majority of votes in Queens, the borough were he had been most maligned and had spent a good deal of time apologizing. Undoubtedly, this was the result of a voting shift in Jewish neighborhoods. Lindsay won many of the Jewish districts that had supported Procaccino in the primaries, while Procaccino retained his hold on the Italian districts, such as Howard Beach. Procaccino did emerge victorious in both his home borough of the Bronx, carrying the northern, nonminority districts, and in Brooklyn. In Bensonhurst, where Italians had both metaphorically and literally egged Lindsay while he was on the campaign trail, Procaccino outpolled him by two to one. He also won Little Italy in Lower Manhattan. Staten Island, John Marchi’s home borough, voted for its candidate, and in most of the Italian neighborhoods throughout the city, such as Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, Marchi came in second to Procaccino, illustrating that even a nominal Italian might be preferable to Lindsay.[149]

The loss devastated Procaccino. According to his daughter, what hurt him more than losing was the way in which his fellow Democrats, the press, and the Lindsay campaign had treated and portrayed him. Although he publicly claimed that the attacks he faced were “politics as usual,” privately he felt that he had been the victim of a dirty and very personal campaign.[150] Procaccino unsurprisingly saw its roots in anti-Italian sentiment. As he angrily said in a postelection speech, the treatment he received showed that “these Limousine Liberals, the Manhattan Arrangement, the Democratic Demolition Committee and the radical left have no use for Italo Americans.”[151]

Procaccino alleged that many editors and reporters had cast him and his supporters as racists and bigots while they freely mocked his Italian “race.”[152] They had, he claimed, allowed their personal antiethnic bias to color their reporting. In fact, Procaccino claimed their bias was so thorough that they effectively “stole” the election from him.[153] They had done so, Procaccino alleged on a news show in December 1969, by willfully and consciously working with the Lindsay campaign to “distort his image.” Although some of Procaccino’s accusations read like typical sour grapes, some were legitimate complaints. Lindsay later admitted that the press helped him immensely by effectively exaggerating Procaccino’s “image as an emotional candidate.”[154]

Also, Procaccino believed that he had lost the support of many Democratic politicians, not because they necessarily disagreed with his message, but because he did not fit their image of a candidate. Theodore Sorenson, John F. Kennedy’s principal speechwriter, reportedly confirmed in private that “if John Lindsay had looked like Mario and Mario looked like John Lindsay, even though they took the same positions which they did during the election … there would not have been a rush of self styled liberals and progressives to Lindsay.” Sorsenson apparently believed that “nationality prejudice” had been the root cause of Procaccino’s image problem.[155]

Procaccino blamed his loss not only on rich WASPs and Democratic politicians, but on the “super-assimilated”—those “ex-ethnic” editors, writers, and commentators who had lost touch with their roots and ethnic identities. Procaccino identified the “super-assimilated” as those members of the media who had consciously shed the external trappings of ethnic identity, for example, by changing their surnames, in order to better blend in to “white” culture. According to Procaccino, they were embarrassed by their ethnic roots, a feeling that contributed to the particular viciousness of the attacks against him.[156] In Procaccino’s view, their embarrassment was rooted in their perception of ethnic identities as inherently negative, an interpretation reflected in their campaign reporting.

Procaccino’s deep belief that anti-Italian discrimination played a role in his defeat became apparent in his postelection activities. After venting his rancor and sharing some of his theories about the cause of his defeat, Procaccino turned to fighting anti-Italian discrimination. In the years that followed, he spoke at venues throughout New York and New Jersey to groups such as the New York State Human Rights Commission and numerous Italian American organizations and in support of a variety of both Democratic and Republican candidates. Procaccino also spoke at the first Italian Unity Day rally in 1970, sponsored by the Mafia-linked Italian American Civil Rights League, which was, ironically, formed to combat anti-Italian discrimination and the depiction of Italian Americans as Mafiosi.[157] Despite the way he had been characterized, Procaccino again stepped into his role as spokesman for “the little guy.” “I came to this country as an immigrant, and I know—from personal experience—what discrimination, prejudice and personal ethnic slander mean,” he told the assembled crowd, “But I also know the great promise of American life, and how—despite the personal failures, and even the malice of many—that great promise is kept.”[158]

Although Richard Reeves of the New York Times called Procaccino’s campaign the “worst campaign in American political history,” Procaccino’s supporters urged him to run again. Their letters to him suggest that they too recognized an element of anti-Italian bias in the campaign against him. To counter this, some went so far as to propose that the key to success in the next race would be toning down his “Italian-ness.” “Your peculiar ethnic characteristics are not offensive,” wrote one such supporter, “but they must not overshadow your other fine attributes.”[159] Procaccino, however, both chose to remain unabashedly “Italian” and not to pursue the mayoralty again.


Despite Procaccino’s claims that the election had been “stolen” from him, his loss was the result of much more than just anti-Italian discrimination. The general consensus, both contemporary and historic, is that his pursuit of the mayor’s office had been a single-issue, “law-and-order” campaign, ineptly managed and significantly underfunded. Yet many contemporary accounts also oddly echoed Procaccino’s own sentiments when they stated that he had lost because he too closely fit the image of the “average New Yorker.”[160] Consequently, he had given such New Yorkers nothing to which they could aspire. “Mario’s dilemma,” wrote one journalist, “was that he said linoleum floors and formica kitchen tables and strapped undershirts and canned beer constituted a lifestyle that ought to be cherished.”[161] To these reporters, Procaccino’s loss proved that New York’s “forgotten men” wanted nothing more than to follow the reporters’ own example and shed their ethnic identities to become “super-assimilated.”

Yet the “forgotten men” seemed content to ignore John Lindsay at the polls, indicating that they desired neither the class status nor the whiteness that he offered. Lindsay’s campaign had simplified white New Yorkers into two basic categories—either racist or not. In doing so, Lindsay and the press also simplified race and racial definitions into black and white. In the terms set out by their definitions of race, it was clear to them that Mario Procaccino and his supporters were white racists who failed to acknowledge their racial privilege. And indeed, this was true. At the same time, however, Lindsay and his supporters neglected to recognize that much of their own rhetoric was also racial in nature, most likely because they chose to acknowledge only the external whiteness of Procaccino and his supporters.[162]

The rhetoric and characterizations that John Lindsay and his supporters used illustrate how Procaccino and other Italian Americans faced what Michael Lerner called “respectable bigotry.”[163] This concept is best summed up by another author, who wondered: “Why is it no longer permissible in respectable circles to use pejoratives to refer to Negroes, Puerto Ricans and Jews, but almost fashionable to direct the same vulgarity at Italians and expect them to laugh at ‘wop,’ ‘guinea,’ ‘dago,’ and other terms?”[164] Although critics dismissed Procaccino’s claims of discrimination and assumed that his empathy with the plight of African Americans was merely awkward campaign posturing, the tactics used against him suggest that Italian Americans, in particular, had not, according to Lindsay’s supporters, successfully assimilated into their version of white America. Based on their skin color, Italian Americans may have been white, but they were not acting like “whites.” The “racial” identity of Italian Americans continued to be questioned, and they continued to face a type of subtle, yet pervasive, discrimination. In successfully utilizing “respectable bigotry” against them, the Lindsay campaign minimized the legitimate concerns of Italian Americans and other ethnic New Yorkers.

What the rhetoric of Lindsay supporters reveals is not only “respectable bigotry” and an unfamiliarity with ethnic identities or outer-borough lifestyles, but also a complete lack of understanding of the existence of white “in-between-ness.” As Italian Americans’ ability to participate in many New Deal programs indicates, since the 1930s, politicians on both sides of the aisle considered Italian Americans to be white enough. So while Procaccino and his supporters may have claimed and held tightly to their experiences with discrimination, the fact remains that they were in reality at least nominally white and had benefited from their external whiteness. Yet as historian Matthew Frye Jacobson illustrates in Roots Too (2006), the whiteness of Procaccino and his supporters—what he identifies as “Ellis Island whiteness”—was inherently different from the WASP whiteness, or “Plymouth Rock whiteness,” of John V. Lindsay and many other powerful politicians.[165] “I feel somewhat like Leif Ericsson must have felt when he sailed into the first American harbor—and found three Italian ships waiting for him,” quipped Lindsay at a Columbus Day dinner. “I understand that they gave him a warm welcome—they burned his boat.”[166] What the race between Lindsay and Procaccino illustrates is that by claiming and seeking to legitimize a different type of whiteness, white ethnics were burning the boat of “Plymouth Rock whiteness.”

In light of this, the 1969 New York City mayoral election raises important questions about the nature of the “white backlash,” one of which is how white was the “white” backlash? But perhaps the question should be: How white did the “white” backlash want to be? Mario Procaccino and his supporters were content to remain an “in-between” people, both unable and unwilling to claim either the whiteness of Lindsay or the nonwhiteness of New York’s minority groups.[167] They resented that their own complex class and status concerns could be reduced by their critics in the pro-Lindsay camp to charges of anti-black racism, even while failing to recognize the validity of those allegations. This failure, and another, in the end prevented Procaccino and his white ethnic supporters from being able to form a bond with minority voters. African Americans and other minority groups recognized what white ethnics could or would not, namely that regardless of the discrimination they faced, the white ethnics were white and, therefore, inherently privileged. Therefore, for many minorities, Procaccino’s claims of a shared sense of discrimination held no truth and little appeal.

Blind to their own racial privilege, Procaccino’s supporters found little in common with the same minorities and civil rights advocates who, his supporters believed, were seeking to redefine the way in which privileges or rights were obtained. What white ethnics fought to retain were the privileges that they understood to be the results not of whiteness, but of hard work accompanied by the endurance of bigotry.[168] Meanwhile, within a changing racial discourse in America, at the time of the 1969 election, many white ethnics began to recognize that their own “in-between-ness” could be an equally valuable commodity. They were becoming aware that their external whiteness had entitled them to reap the benefits of the American system. Meanwhile, their own racial “in-between-ness” now might also be used to open the doors for them that persistent antiwhite ethnic discrimination had kept closed. The fact that Italian Americans in particular continued to face “respectable bigotry,” which they could and did easily equate with racism, made their claims of discrimination and mistreatment difficult to ignore.

This raises another important question about the white backlash: at whom was the backlash really directed? Although this backlash expressed a very real racism directed at the African Americans and other minorities who most visibly benefited from much-needed civil rights reforms, evidence suggests that, for white ethnics, the “white” backlash was also directed at other whites. White ethnics were lashing out against those whites who continued to subject them to bigotry.

While the 1969 New York City mayoral election raises several interesting questions about common understandings of whiteness and the white backlash, it also reveals one of the fundamental tragedies of the politics of the late 1960s: the inability of groups, white, black, or “in-between,” to recognize or accept their own lack of understanding of the plight of others. It was not the surfacing of “respectable bigotry” that was the tragedy, but the inability of each of the groups to recognize and accept that they were all practicing some level of bigotry. When Mario Procaccino announced that “[his] heart was as black” as others, he may have been sincere in his belief that the ethnic bigotry he felt victimized by was tantamount to racism. Yet he was unable to understand or accept that he and his supporters had benefited from the “privilege” accorded to them by the whiteness of their skin. By the same token, John Lindsay and his supporters may have been unable to recognize that bigotry is often more than skin deep.


1.� “Samuel Kearing Endorses Mayor Lindsay” (press release), September 11, 1969, Box 136: Folder 107, John V. Lindsay Papers, Yale University (hereafter JVLP).

2.� Richard Reeves, “How Procaccino Could Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory,” New York Times, July 20, 1969.

3.� Alfonso A. Narvaez, “Procaccino Warns Lindsay on Charges of Racist Campaign,” New York Times, September 17, 1969.

4.� James R. Barrett and David R. Roediger, “The Irish and the ‘Americanization’ of the ‘New Immigrants’ in the Streets and Churches of the Urban United States, 1900–1930,” Journal of American Ethnic History 24 (Summer 2005): 3–33.

5.� “The Troubled American,” Newsweek, October 6, 1969, 31–68.

6.� Richard Reeves, “Procaccino as the ‘Little Guy,'” New York Times, August 31, 1969; “New York: The Revolt of the Average Man,” Time, October 3, 1969, 15; Richard Reeves, “The Big Upset Wasn’t All Backlash,” New York Times, June 22, 1969; Richard Reeves, “Color Many Voters Conservative,” New York Times, May 18, 1969.

7.� Michael Novak, “Confessions of a White Ethnic,” in White Ethnics: Life in Working Class America, ed. Joseph A. Ryan (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1973), 28.

8.� Richard Reeves, “It’s Happening Here: The Ugly Issue of Racism,” New York Times, September 21, 1969.

9.� Rudolph J. Vecoli, “Are Italian Americans Just White Folks?,” in Beyond The Godfather, ed. A. Kenneth Ciongoli and Jay Parini (Boston, 1997), 307–18.

10.� “Primaries Shock NY Blacks,” New York Amsterdam News, June 21, 1969; Gertrude Wilson, “Lindsay All the Way!,” Amsterdam News, June 28, 1969; “An Ethnic Pattern Is Broken,” New York Post, June 18, 1969; “Ethnic Division in Vote Is Noted,” New York Times, June 19, 1969; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Metropolitan New York (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1960 and 1970).

11.� Martin J. Stedman, “About That List,” New York Magazine, January 12, 1970, 7; Maurice Goldbloom, “Is There a Backlash Vote?,” Commentary, August 1969, 17–26.

12.� Regina Fishbein, “Audience, Issues, and Image in Mario Procaccino’s Campaign for Mayor of New York City, 1969” (master’s thesis, Queens College, 1971), 61.

13.� Jimmy Breslin, “Is Lindsay Too Tall to Be Mayor?,” New York Magazine, July 28, 1969, 23.

14.� John Quinn, “Procaccino Sees the Cure for All the City’s Ills in Dr. Mario,” New York Daily News, June 2, 1969; Jacob Fuchsberg, “A Decision for Democrats” (WCBS Editorial Reply), June 13, 1969, Box 1: The Practical Politician, Mario A. Procaccino Papers, privately held (hereafter MAPP).

15.� Transcript of Mario Procaccino on New York Speaks Out, Box 157: Folder 461, JVLP.

16.� Reeves, “Procaccino as the ‘Little Guy.'”

17.� According to his daughter, Procaccino often wandered from his prepared speeches and found himself in deep water. Marierose Procaccino, interview with the author, June 12, 2007.

18.� Nick Brown, “Mario Procaccino: Giving Every Kid A Chance to Come Up the Hard Way,” Village Voice, September 25, 1969.

19.� Woody Klein, “Don’t Underestimate Mario,” The Villager, undated clipping, Box 1: Speeches and Position Papers, MAPP.

20.� David Abbott, Louis Gold, and Edward Rogowski, Police, Politics, and Race (New York, 1969), 8.

21.� Tom Buckley, “Answering November’s Big Question: What Is a Mario Procaccino?,” New York Times Magazine, August 10, 1969.

22.� See Vincent Cannato’s The Ungovernable City (New York, 2001), Jonathan Rieder’s Canarsie (Boston, 1985), and Chris McNickle’s To Be Mayor of New York (New York, 1993), as well as John V. Lindsay’s The City (New York, 1969).

23.� Cannato, Ungovernable City, 391.

24.� “Cadillac conservatives” (notes), Box 3, MAPP.

25.� “Memo on the Bronx and Brooklyn,” Box 161: Folder 545, JVLP.

26.� “Lindsay Alienates Middle-Class; Calls Voters Racists and Bigots,” Il Popolo Italiano, June 1969.

27.� Walter Thabit, How East New York Became a Ghetto (New York, 2003).

28.� Not only was Lindsay heckled and assaulted in Bensonhurst, he also lost the primary in that precinct by a 12 to 1 margin. Mark Levy and Michael Kramer, T




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