Italian-Americans are some of the most cartoonishly stereotyped groups in our country. A 3rd wave immigrant group, they suffered vast discrimination, and clung to their heritage as a means of coping the disappointment America brought them. To the Sicilians, part of this heritage was the Mafia culture, with bosses protecting the fellow citizens. It was in the roaring 20's that the Mafia (along with the Irish, and Jewish mobs) grew. Alcohol was banned and these crime groups began making their fortunes through bootlegging. The Irish dropped out as a major contender in organized crime rather early, giving way to the Italians and Jews. They (supposedly) set up Murder Incorporated, a delivery service for death, so to speak. They also were responsible for making Las Vegas what it is today.
Like the Wild West, the Mafia was an event of relatively low importance that was crystallized in the media. From the get go, movies like Scarface and Little Caesar got the public's interest. Later films like Some Like It Hot, The Godfather Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction, as well as the TV series The Sopranos have encouraged America's obsession with this culture.
However, it is important not to believe everything you see on screen. And that is where America¡¦s greatest fallacy has been the past 80 years.
Not all Italian Americans belong to the Mafia. At its high point, the Mafia made up less than 1% of Italian-Americans.
Although "Mafia" is an Italian term, organized crime did not consist only of Italians. At the highest point, Italians made up only 4% of organized criminals. It has been around since the early days of society, and will continiue until the end of time. Virtually every ethnic group has participated in crime; the Irish were the first real bootleggers. Jews, Chinese, African Americans, Koreans, Caucasians, Russians, and Hispanics are just a few of the many other ethnic groups to participate.
So why Italians? The timing was right, I say. "Talkies" came out at the Mafia's heyday. By that time, the Irish had become so "white" that, while they were gangsters, they were not stereotyped.
White American producers tried to eliminate bigotry in films (and, in eliminating all but the "whites" succeeded in doing just the opposite). Even though African Americans were always real players in crime, they were erased from all but the smallest comic roles; after The Birth of a Nation (a horribly racist film), directors refused to portray Blacks as the villain. The Chinese were portrayed as mystical and spiritual. While they could be evil, they could not be violent or sexy. Until the Kung Fu craze, that was all hidden from view in their flowing robes.
Jews were not depicted as gangsters very often because of the anti-Semitism in Europe. America did not want to fall into that category. Another reason for the Jews¡¦ invisibility from the Mob world is the prominence of Jews in the film industry. All five major (MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, RKO) and 2 of the 3 minor (Universal, Columbia) film corporations were run by Jews. Somehow slightly anti-Jew early-mid 20th century America did not notice this.
Ok, so you say "I don't discriminate against Italians, I am enlightened!" Under the instruction of the most distinguished Professor Ben Lawton, Ph. D, I administered a survey to Purdue students regarding this issue. Here are the numbers:
According to Census information, there are 15,000,000 Italian Americans
Based on the students' responses, these are number of 'made' members of the mafia in this country:
Mean # 'made' members of the mafia = 913,783
Median # = 300,000
Standard Deviation = 1,554,601
Based on students' responses, these are number of people connected to the mafia in some way:
Mean # connected to the mafia = 2,811,471
Median # = 1,500,000
Standard Deviation = 3,448,990
ACCORDING TO THE FBI, THERE ARE 1500 "MADE" MEMBERS OF THE MAFIA.