Richard Gambino, the chairman of the first academic Italian American studies program in the United States and a leading critic of those who reflexively viewed Italian Americans as Mafiosi and mocked them with ethnic stereotypes in popular culture, died on Jan. 12 at his home in Southampton, N.Y. He was 84.
His death, in hospice care, was caused by lymphoma, his daughter Erica-Lynn Huberty said.
Dr. Gambino was an assistant professor of educational philosophy at Queens College in 1972 when he published a lengthy essay about Italian Americans in The New York Times Magazine, one month after the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s movie “The Godfather.”
He wrote that the “nativistic American mentality, born of ignorance and nurtured by malice,” insisted on stereotypes of Italian Americans as either “spaghetti-twirling, opera-bellowing buffoons in undershirts (as in the TV commercial with its famous line, ‘That’sa spicy meatball’), or swarthy, sinister hoods in garish suits, shirts and ties.”
He added, “The incredible exploitation of ‘The Godfather’ testifies to the power of the Mafia myth today.”
The Mafia myth — which suggested that a significant percentage of Italian Americans were involved with, or benefited from, organized crime — occupied Dr. Gambino in the decades after he was named to lead the newly formed Italian American studies program at Queens College in 1973. It was also one of several subjects covered in his well-received book “Blood of My Blood” (1974), a personal, sociological and psychological exploration of his ethnic group’s first, second and third generations.
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