In a glaring example of how polarizing the topic of race has become in the United States of America, a white man who has long identified as a white man and supports policies criticized as being white supremacy-adjacent recently rejected the notion that he is “a white man.”
It was quite an unexpected development during this week’s Los Angeles mayoral debate between U.S. Congresswoman Karen Bass and billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso when he claimed his “Latin” heritage as an Italian, precludes him from being described as “a white man.”
What made this weird flex even weirder was that it came on the heels of a racist scandal involving the now-former president of the Los Angeles City Council when a secret recording revealed Nury Martinez referred to a Black child as a “monkey,” disparaged the city’s district attorney because she said he was “with the Blacks” and made antisemitic comments.
It was in that context that Caruso shot down debate moderator Dunia Elvir when the Telemundo anchor injected race while discussing the prospects of who would be leading Los Angeles City Hall in the new year.
“The next mayor of Los Angeles will be either an African American woman or a white man,” Elvir said referring to Bass and Caruso.
But Caruso quickly jumped in: “I’m Italian.”
When Elvir corrected Caruso by saying, “Italian American,” Caruso responded, “That’s ‘Latin,’ thank you.”
“I connect with the Latino community, but quite frankly my job as mayor is to connect with every community — the Latino community, the Black community, the Asian community, right? The Jewish community,” Caruso insisted. “If one group rises, we all rise. We do this together in unison, and we don’t separate, we don’t divide.”
Isn’t Caruso white?
Caruso’s campaign website says his “grandparents, Augusto and Josephine, immigrated to America separately as teenagers, both coming from Italy through Ellis Island.”
That would indeed make Caruso “Italian American” as Elvir said.
But beyond that, are Italians white?
Are Italians white?
That’s a tricky question to answer, especially considering the wide belief that race is a social construct.
But at its most basic levels, the Washington Post put forth a number of questions that, if answered in the affirmative, make it quite clear who is white as defined by society:
Were members of the group allowed to go to “whites-only” schools in the South, or otherwise partake of the advantages that accrued to whites under Jim Crow? Were they ever segregated in schools by law, anywhere in the United States, such that “whites” went to one school, and the group in question was relegated to another? When laws banned interracial marriage in many states (not just in the South), if a white Anglo-Saxon wanted to marry a member of the group, would that have been against the law? Some labor unions restricted their membership to whites. Did such unions exclude members of the group in question? Were members of the group ever entirely excluded from being able to immigrate to the United States, or face special bans or restrictions in becoming citizens?
The Post’s analysis goes on to conclude that people who answered yes to any or all of those questions are more than likely “Irish, Jews, Italians and other white ethnics were indeed considered white by law and by custom.” That is much different than “passing” for white like light-skinned Black and brown people have done in order to avoid persecution and discrimination because of the color of their skin.
“By contrast, persons of African, Asian, Mexican and Native American descent faced various degrees of exclusion from public schools and labor unions, bans on marriage and direct restrictions on immigration and citizenship,” the Post added.
Los Angeles Times essayist Jamil Smith said it’s obvious Caruso is white.
“White identity has always been elastic, and it certainly now includes white Italians such as Rick Caruso,” Smith tweeted on Wednesday. “It isn’t so pliant that Italians should be equated to Latinas without common parentage. I can’t tell whether he was trying to pander to Latina voters, gaslight them, or both.”
Another Twitter user pointed out that Caruso has certainly benefitted from various aspects of the white power structure.
“Rick Caruso was white when he got all his business loans and his yacht,” the tweet claimed. “But suddenly when he runs for mayor in a city with 70% POC he’s conveniently not white but Italian.”
To be sure, there’s a whole book devoted to the topic unwittingly sparked by Caruso.
“Are Italians White? How Race is Made in America” is a compilation of original essays exploring “how, when and why whiteness became important to Italian Americans, and the significance of gender, class and nation to racial identity.”
Whether that book answers the question of if Caruso is “a white man” may be a different story, though.
Either way, if polling is any indication of the future, how the trailing Caruso identifies ethnically won’t much matter anyway because Bass will win the election to become Los Angeles’ first Black woman mayor.