Italy’s problem with racism goes far deeper than recent slurs against Cécile Kyenge

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It seems like barely a week goes by without another story coming out of Italy about another racial slur hurled at the Mediterranean country’s first black government minister, Cécile Kyenge. Italy Flag Icon

This week’s row comes from Roberto Calderoli, a member of the Lega Nord (Northern League), the autonomist right-wing party that has in the past allied itself with Silvio Berlusconi, though it’s not part of the current ‘grand coalition’ led by center-left prime minister Enrico Letta.

Calderoli, speaking over the weekend, railed against Kyenge, arguing that her success encourages ‘illegal immigrants’ to come to Italy, that she should be a minister ‘in her own country,’ and added this gem:

“I love animals – bears and wolves, as everyone knows – but when I see the pictures of Kyenge I cannot but think of, even if I’m not saying she is one, the features of an orangutan,” Mr Calderoli said in a speech to a rally in the northern city of Treviso on Saturday.

Calderoli’s comments were unthinkably crass but, unfortunately, they are not atypical in the three months since Kyenge came to power, nor are they incredibly out of the norm for a political culture that has long treated racism with a wink and a smile, such as when Berlusconi himself described Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, as particularly ‘suntanned.’

Kyenge (pictured above with Letta), an Italian citizen who was born in Congo, came to Italy in 1983, when she set up a practice as a doctor in Modena, in the central Italian region of Emilia-Romagna.  Earlier this year, she was first elected to Italy’s Camera dei Deputati (Chamber of Deputies) as a member of Italy’s center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party).  Letta appointed her as the government’s minister for integration, in part due to the work Kyenge has done since founding DAWA, an association designed to promote multicultural awareness in Italy and to foster cooperation between Italy and Africa.  Prior to becoming an Italian deputy, Kyenge served as a provincial councilor in Modena for four years, and she’s a proponent of a jus soli, a law that would grant citizenship to those children of immigrants who are born in Italy.

In short, Kyenge personifies a new kind of 21st century success story for first- and second-generation Europeans in a world where globalized ties are now bound to blur ethnic, racial, national and cultural borders.

It’s worth bearing in mind that this isn’t the first time Calderoli has been accused of racism or insensitivity.  He was forced to resign as a minister in a previous Berlusconi government in 2006 after purporting to wear a t-shirt showing the printed cartoons of a Danish newspaper depicting the prophet Mohammed.  (Having returned to a subsequent Berlusconi government a few years later, it was Calderoli who drafted the election law that now virtually everyone in Italy agrees is worthless).

Nor is it the first time Northern League politicians have made controversial statements about Kyenge — one of its local politicians earlier in June called for Kyenge to be raped, so she would understand how victims feel, and in April, another European Parliament member, Mario Borghezio, called her part of a ‘bonga, bonga government’ and argued that she wanted to ‘impose her tribal traditions from the Congo.’

Kyenge has accepted Calderoli’s begrudging apology, but it’s not even the only incident this week — members of the far-right Forza Nuova (New Force) party held an anti-immigration protest featuring nooses in Pescara in central Italy.

In the long run, it may well be that Kyenge’s graceful responses to unacceptably mean-spirited and racist comments convince more Italians that there’s no place for racism in Italian public discourse — she has the power to turn ugly incidents like Calderoli’s slur into what Obama himself might call a ‘teachable moment.’

But that task is made equally difficult by the integration portfolio that Kyenge holds, which means that she is responsible for policymaking on immigration and the nearly 4.5 million foreign residents who live in Italy.  Even as Kyenge tries to deflect tensions, Calderoli and other Northern League politicians may be using outbursts about Kyenge as a deliberate strategy to inject racial resentment as a potent political wedge issue.

Although migrants have been coming to Italy since the 1970s, which makes immigration to Italy a more recent phenomenon than in other European countries, about two-thirds of Italy’s current foreign residents have arrived in the past decade.  The net result is a country that hasn’t had time to develop the political or cultural institutions to cope with a very rapid influx of foreigners, let alone to develop the vocabulary of multiculturalism in a country that can be sometimes quite insular in a way that’s both profound and provincial, troubling and quaint (for example, there are no Starbucks in Italy, and just try to find an Indian or Thai restaurant in Rome).

As the BBC reports today, the ‘orangutan’ slur is part of a larger problem of permissiveness with respect to racist attitudes:

[Far] from the headlines, in the course of everyday life, immigrants talk of being surrounded by racism.

“You hear comments on the bus, in the markets, in schools,” said Pape Diaw, a leader of the Senegalese community in Florence.

“To think that the Italian people are racist is wrong. But there is… a type of racist mentality. “

While other European countries, needless to say the United States, also face difficulties with racism and the effects of racism within the ways governments deliver services, enact immigration policies and prosecute justice systems, Italy has faced the specter of racism and its pernicious effects from the first days of unification in the 1860s.  Italy is a country where, after all, relatively wealthier northerners have been known to refer to the relatively poorer southern Italians and Sicilians as ‘africani.’  Scientific racism heavily influenced the Italian campaigns to colonize Libya, Ethiopia and what is today Eritrea in the late 19th century, all the way through the period of fascism under Benito Mussolini in the 1930s and 1940s.  Whereas its World War II ally Germany went through a period of intense post-war introspection, emerging with a collective cultural sensitivity and a strong sense of inclusiveness, Italy never had the opportunity to conduct the same kind of introspection (for many complex political, economic and cultural reasons), nor did it push to discourage the xenophobic currents of the neo-fascist right that have become the loudest voices against immigrants in Italy today.

Nor can the friction be blamed wholly on some kind of innate Italian racial animus.  For a country that’s now entered a tough recession after over a decade of little or no economic growth, migrants have become an easy target for economic frustration as unemployment rises, growth seems further out of reach,  and Italy’s political class seems incapable of enacting the kind of labor market reforms that could make Italian exports and services competitive once again.  In the same way, as Greece’s economy has disintegrated, support has risen dramatically for the anti-immigrant, neo-nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece.

That doesn’t excuse racial slurs, of course, but it helps us explain why seemingly racist attitudes and behaviors seem to be on the rise — and that doesn’t begin to address the chants and slurs that black sports players face in Italy, including Mario Balotelli, one of the stars of Italian football.

In contrast, while the integration of Turkish guest workers in Germany over the past half-century has not always been a success, there’s a sense that German politicians care about trying to improve the situation with policies designed to better integrate Turkish migrants into mainstream German society.  In Italy, there’s all too often a sense that the top priority of leaders is to harass immigrants — and even Italian citizens of immigrant descent.

For example, former Roman mayor Gianni Alemanno, a member of Berlusconi’s center-right Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom), fulfilling a promise he made when he was elected in 2008, bulldozed up to 200 illegal housing camps in September 2010 in what Alemanno called ‘Operation Nomad,’ leaving hundreds of Roma migrants homeless, some of whom were from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Romania, and some of whom were even Italian citizens.  The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has issued a report that warns about the stigmatization that Italian Roma face, and other human rights groups have issued similar calls.  Alemanno’s anti-Roma efforts are one of the reasons that he lost his June reelection bid in what was a landslide victory for center-left candidate Ignazio Marino.

Earlier this month, the new head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, visited the island of Lampedusa — a small Italian island halfway between Tunisia and Malta that has become the largest gateway of migrants not only to Italy, but to Europe — with prayers and words of apology for the conditions that immigrants to Europe face not only in Lampedusa but in a country that often makes it clear that immigrants are not welcome.  In March 2011, Berlusconi faced significant pressure to act to transport 5,000 refugees from Lampedusa to Sicily and mainland Italy after conditions had been reported as inhumane and squalid.

In Coccaglio, a town in the Italian Alps, local officials conducted door-to-door searched for illegal immigrants on Christmas Day in 2009 during what they referred to as ‘Operation White Christmas.’  Roberto Saviano, who documented the rise of the Camorra, the Napolitano organized crime group, in his 2006 book Gommorah, has alleged that the Mafia uses African migrants as slave labor throughout southern Italy.  Attitudes to Albanian immigrants, who migrated to Italy in waves in the early 1990s, have been met with similar impassivity — Italy even passed the ‘Martelli law’ in 1991 to try to limit and contain the number of Albanian refugees fleeing the final days of its socialist dictatorship.

Moreover, in Prato, a few kilometers from Florence in central Italy, the growing population of over 40,000 Chinese migrants has transformed Prato’s population to nearly one-quarter Asian in the past decade, and Prato, of all places, is now the largest hub for Chinese migrants throughout the entire European Union.  The city, long known for its textiles, has now become the seat of a rival Chinese network that’s churning out low-quality clothing with a ‘made in Italy’ label, thereby undercutting the foundations of one of Italy’s longtime industries:

The Chinese substitution of cheap and fast for the Italian tradition of slow, fine, and expensive, has cut into the heart of Italy’s fashion industry and, by extension, into Italy’s economic culture as a whole….

Rather than blame large corporations for working with cheap suppliers, many Italians fall back on a more nativist explanation: They argue that the Chinese deliberately colonized this prized sector of their national industrial heritage. The backlash has been both legal and political: In addition to the factory raids, historically leftist voters in Prato have been electing center-right candidates for the last few years, and support for extreme right-wing, anti-immigration parties has grown. All the while small, family-owned businesses, the backbone of the postwar Italian economy, are struggling, and the way of life and the Italian craftsmanship they support are under threat.

Having spent some time in Prato in the mid-2000s, I was well aware of the awkward dynamics of the influx of Chinese workers in such a small guild town in Tuscany.  But since the economic downturn, as elsewhere in Italy, tension is rising between Prato’s longtime locals and the more recent Chinese migrants.

At a time when the fragile Letta government is focused on enacting any reforms to help get Italy’s economy growing, addressing a public debt that’s now 126% of GDP and crafting a new election law that might result in a functional government when the next round of elections take place (probably next year, if not sooner), it’s not clear that immigration reform is at the top of the government’s agenda.

But it should be.

Ironically, Italy should be welcoming immigrants in light of the fact of a declining birthrate — just 1.41, compared to 1.42 in Germany, an average 1.58 in the European Union, 1.61 in Russia, 2.06 in France and 2.08 in the United States.  Italy’s growing demographic woes have left the country with a median age (44.3) that’s older than all but two countries in the entire world (Japan and Monaco).

But whether it’s Libyan refugees in Lampedusa, Chinese textile workers in Prato or central African migrants coming to Italy for a chance at a better life, just as Kyenge herself did 30 years ago, the changing demographics of Italy are a phenomenon that Italians are going to have to accept in the long run.  Kyenge’s challenge as Italy’s controversial new minister for integration might not be to change Italian public opinion overnight, but rather to help prepare Italy and its culture to embrace the inevitable realities — both positive and negative — of living in a globalized world.

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