Few European immigrant groups have faced as much ethnic prejudice as Italians. Epithets such as “wop,” “dago,” and even “Eye-talian” have been only surface manifestations of anti-Italian sentiments. The popular tendency to associate Italians with the Mafia and other criminal elements was long widespread. The federal Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of southern and eastern Europeans who could migrate to the United States. The measure can be seen as at least partly motivated by anti-Italian sentiment.
The conviction of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for robbery and murder in 1927 has often been cited as an example of anti-Italian xenophobia because the evidence used against them was weak. Their long trial process was highly politicized. Instead of concentrating on the evidence concerning the crimes of robbery and murder, the trial focused on the defendants’ anarchist political views, which probably played a greater role in their conviction and eventual execution than the actual evidence in their case.
As time passed and Italians moved into the American cultural mainstream, groups such as the Italian American Civil Rights League (formerly the Italian American Anti-Defamation League) and the National Italian-American Foundation worked to combat negative stereotypes. The fact that criminals in films and television dramas often had Italian surnames contributed to the stereotypes. However, the Godfather films that seemed to romanticize the Mafia also made the American public more aware of the warmth of Italian family life and family values. By the early twenty-first century, stereotyping of Italians was declining, even though the popular cable television series The Sopranos was keeping alive public perceptions of criminal Italians.