Feature

Is Italy's lousy economy fueling racism?

The country's first black minister was called an orangutan and pelted with bananas

Italian politics — from widely suspected corruption to crippling economic failure to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's bunga-bunga parties — has long been the source of controversy.

But a recent wave of racism, a trend that may well have been sparked by Italy's economic strife and an increase in immigration dating to the late 1970s, is one of the more disturbing developments in memory on Italy's political scene.

Minister of Integration Cecile Kyenge is the first black minister in Italian history. Recently, during a rally in Cervia, a man in the audience pelted Kyenge with bananas as she spoke to supporters. At the same rally, The Forza Nuova ("New Force") party, which has campaigned hard against Kyenge, displayed mannequins smeared with fake blood and anti-immigrant messages.

Kyenge, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo but has lived in Italy since 1983, has been called "Zulu," "Congolese monkey," and "the black anti-Italian" by members of the media. She has received multiple death threats. One local politician of the Northern League party suggested in a Facebook post that she should be raped. Senator Roberto Calderoli recently said of Kyenge, "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."

Sadly, Kyenge's experience is not particularly unique in Italy. Anger (and sometimes violence) against immigrants is on the upswing in Italy.

Why? In some ways, the economy may be to blame. The economic crisis of the late 2000s affected Italy in much the same way that it hamstrung countries like Greece and Spain. In 2010, Italy's public debt was 116 percent of GDP, placing Italy second only to Greece in debt ratio. Unemployment in Italy is the worst it has been in 21 years, at 12.2 percent, with youth unemployment at a staggering 38.5 percent. The country's largely ineffective coalition government further complicates the situation, making it difficult for the government to respond effectively to the stagnating financial crisis.

In such a strained environment, where so many people must compete for so few jobs, many Italians have adopted a rhetoric of "cultural protection" and "job stealing" that targets immigrants as the cause of all economic woes. These attitudes aren't limited to internet trolls, bigots, and private citizens — it's out in the open, too, and not just in the crude insults like those directed at Kyenge.

Public figures consistently refer to immigrants and immigration as a "problem" or a "question," and fail to make any distinction between "immigrants," "asylum seekers," and "refugees." Berlusconi said in 2009 that Milan "looks like an African city because of the number of foreigners." Attacks on Senegalese and gypsy immigrants have become more and more common in recent years.

Italy is a country whose main historical experience with immigration is in citizens leaving the country (tens of millions left, mostly to America, between the unification of the country in 1861 and the rise of fascism in the 1920s). Thus, Italy is ill-adjusted to the wave of immigrants coming to Europe from Africa and Asia, a trend that only began toward the end of the 1970s. In 2010, Italy was home to 4.8 million foreign-born residents, many of whom came from either Asia (16.8 percent) or North Africa (14.8 percent). Immigrants in Italy face a number of bureaucratic difficulties in addition to the racism they encounter. Children of non-Italians are not born Italian citizens even if they are born on Italian soil, and can only become citizens after reaching the age of 18 and going through a rigorous naturalization process.

Of course, racism is far from universal in Italy. Many of Kyenge's peers in the Italian government have spoken out on her behalf, and voices across social media are demanding change.

Economy Minister Fabrizio Saccomanni recently announced that Italy should exit the persistent recession by the end of this year. An economic lift could potentially open the door to an ease in the tension, but it will be no panacea for attitudes so deeply embedded in the country's social fabric.

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