ROME – From monkey chants in soccer stadiums to threats against the first black minister, racial outbursts in Italy reflect the profound social change taking place in a country relatively new to immigration.
Shocking episodes of racism have multiplied over the past few months, from hooligans taunting star soccer striker Mario Balotelli with inflatable bananas to crude and vicious insults against the country’s immigration minister, Cecile Kyenge, an Italian citizen born in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kyenge, who refuses to write Italian society off as racist, has taken the brunt of the abuse since her election in April, shrugging off derogatory nicknames or online photograph montages in which her head is superimposed onto the bodies of indigenous African women.
“Why does no one rape her, so she can understand what the victims of atrocious crime feel?” an official of the anti-immigrant Northern League party wrote about her last month in a Facebook post. Last week, the vice president of the Senate compared her to an orangutan.
The official was given a 13-month suspended sentence and banned from public office for three years while Sen. Roberto Calderoli, also a Northern League member, is under investigation for inciting racial hatred, though he refuses to resign, insisting he has done enough by apologizing to Kyenge — with a bunch of flowers.
Bizarrely, the probe against him was only opened after Condacons, a consumers’ association, lodged a complaint. And despite a petition signed by 200,000 people calling for Calderoli’s removal, he has so far managed to hold on to his prestigious Senate post.
Michela Marzano, a philosopher and deputy from the center-left Democratic Party, said that “there is an extreme tolerance toward intolerance.”
“Italy has not had many opportunities to enter into contact with ‘the other,’ because it has always been a country of emigration rather than immigration,” she said.
While millions of Italian fleeing poverty emigrated to the United States, Latin America and other parts of Europe throughout the 20th century, the Mediterranean country has only had to absorb large numbers of immigrants over the past 20 years or so.
Luigi Manconi, head of the civil rights commission in the Senate, dates the “legitimization” of racial abuse back to a 2007 episode in which an Italian woman was raped by a Romanian man ahead of municipal elections, kicking off a fear-based campaign equating Romanians to rapists.
From that point on, Manconi said, the Northern League — and Calderoli in particular — have felt increasingly free to voice their views on racism and “have played a fundamental role in the legitimation of xenophobia.”
Adriano Prosperi, a modern history professor at the University of Pisa, compares Italians’ apathy in the face of racism today with the introduction of racial laws in 1938 that were “passively absorbed by Italian society” under fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s regime.
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, renowned for his off-color comments, sparked a backlash in January when he stated during the inauguration of a Holocaust museum that Mussolini’s regime “in many ways did good things” for Italy, before retracting the comment.
Despite such incidents, Prosperi said he does not think Italy is “profoundly racist at heart.” While the Northern League may generate shock headlines — its former leader, Umberto Bossi, once said that immigrants arriving by boat should be shot at with cannons — the party won just 4 percent of the ballots cast in the last elections.
The real reason Calderoli has not been forced out, Prosperi said, is that the current government “has sacrificed values for the sake of realpolitik.”