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Immigrants of a great many nationalities came to American shores, so why was it the Italians who reached such elaborate levels of criminal organization? (The Jewish & Irish seem to have come in second.)

Why not German or Scandinavian immigrants? Why did it have to be recent immigrants at all? Why not African Americans? (African American gangs only emerged as a major organized criminal force in the late 20th century.) British organized crime, the so-called "Firms", was "native" until very recently, and still mostly is, according to Wikipedia.

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    Why Italians and not Germans might have something to do with Sicily being in Italy. Don't know about why Jewish and Irish gangs emerged, though. – Semaphore Nov 29 '14 at 5:23
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    Yes, I suspect it's because the Italians—and in particular the Sicilians and Calabrians—already had a long history of criminal organization, while the others did not. – Gregory Higley Nov 29 '14 at 6:27
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    @jwenting I think you are misunderstanding the question. It's not about the mere existence of gangs, but about domination for a good chunk of the 20th century. Here is information from Wikipedia on Jewish gangsters, such as the famous Meyer Lansky, a close associate of "Lucky" Luciano. – Gregory Higley Nov 29 '14 at 15:19
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    WASPs dominated the legitimate political power. Other groups had use other means... – James Nov 29 '14 at 21:50
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    Someone had to? WASPS occupied legitimate authority; organized crime is probably subject to a network effect (large actors push out smaller), extra-legal enterprises benefit from the loyalty associated with ethnic groups. Can anyone suggest an test case - a disenfranchised, but ethnically homogeneous, but pervasive and tight knit group that did not turn to crime> – Mark C. Wallace Dec 2 '14 at 19:13
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Actually, it was the Sicilians, not Italians. The mafia is an ancient way of life adhered to generally in Sicily for at least 1500 years. The adherent to mafia is known as the mafioso. The code of conduct for the mafioso is known as omerta. It is sort of a poor man's chivalry that stresses vengeance and eye-for-an-eye justice. Sicily was frequently invaded in ancient times and the inhabitants developed mafia as a way of resisting these invaders. When Sicilians later immigrated to other places they retained mafia and continued to practice it. Outsiders tend to see mafia as a type of criminal conspiracy, but actually the Sicilians use it for everything, both lawful businesses and criminal activities.

The advantage of following omerta in crime is that it is first and foremost a personal code that requires no courts or authority, so it can operate as a method of justice without a central authority. In criminal activities, this is an advantage because such activities lie outside the courts. For example, if you buy dope and your dealer rips you off, you have no recourse. If you call the police, they will just arrest YOU, not give you justice (this actually happened, btw, some woman called the cops to complain about her dealer ripping her off). For those living within mafia, they always get justice. The advantage of this system compared to undisciplined criminals who have no code should be obvious.

There is a similar system local to Naples called the carbonari, but this was never developed to the extent of the mafia. The Carbonari had the same origin as the Mafia, resistance to foreign invaders.

  • This was the origin, but after a while, the Italian-American mafia became less discriminating. They didn't care whether you were Sicilian or Calabrian or whatever. Italian of any sort was good enough for them. – Gregory Higley Dec 3 '14 at 1:54
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    I am providing some reasoning why the Sicilians succeeded. This is what the OP is asking about. – Tyler Durden Dec 3 '14 at 3:17
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    @fdb If I explained why the Bolsheviks succeeded in the Russian revolution, would that be pro-Communist propaganda? – Tyler Durden Dec 3 '14 at 3:20
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    Given anti-invasion origins of Mafia, one cannot help but notice that Mafia actually helped one of the invasions to succeed. :) – Michael Dec 7 '14 at 23:27

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