Last year, at about the time a young black man was killed on the streets of Bensonhurst, Cardinal Glemp, the Roman Catholic primate of Poland, abrogated an agreement to relocate a convent from the site of Auschwitz. Aside from being manifestations of ancient prejudices, the two events are tied by a common focus on the control of a place or, more accurately, control of the meaning of a territorial area. This common concern unites two seeming disparate events and helps us makes sense of them.
“Place” means not only territory but also social location. In Bensonhurst about half the residents are recent immigrants from Sicily and southern Italy, and the rest are mainly third- or fourth-generation Italian Americans. They are mostly blue-collar workers, and conventional social science wisdom, probably correct in this instance, stresses that they see themselves as competing for jobs with black workers in a local economy offering increasingly fewer opportunities for workers without skills. They are also an “insular” group attempting to maintain a way of life strongly emphasizing family and local social relationships. Like other ethnic groups in the same circumstances, they are deeply suspicious of “outsiders,” that is, those who are not of their group....
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