Italy has always been known for being home to the Vatican and its imposing monuments but, as of late, the country is gaining notoriety for something far more sinister: racist slurs, vicious threats and intimidation tactics directed towards the country’s first black cabinet minister.
In fact, ever since Cécile Kyenge joined Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s government, she has been the target of a string of outrageous racist taunts, even death threats.
“The Italian public discourse on immigration, and diversity in general, has reached new peaks of intolerance,” says Eva Garau, a research fellow in contemporary history at the University of Cagliari in Italy.
“This is clearly apparent with the negative reaction to the newly appointed minister for integration, which has overshadowed her tenure,” she adds.
What is even more disturbing is the frenzied fanaticism is not just from the masses but the so-called privileged elite, who frankly should know better.
Indeed, Kyenge has been the victim of regular racist, sexist and personal abuse from elected politicians, prominent parliamentarians and media pundits alike.
In June, a female politician was forced to resign after she mentioned on Facebook that Kyenge should be “raped.” Just days later, Italian Sen. Roberto Calderoli said Kyenge had the “features of orangutan.”
In another insult a local Italian mayor suggested on Facebook that Kyenge frequented a road in the area known for being used by prostitutes, many of whom are black.
Mannequins doused in fake blood have also been used to bully the besieged minister.
In other grossly offensive and deeply personal comments, a member of the European parliament for Lega Nord said that Kyenge wanted to “impose her tribal traditions from the Congo.” He also branded Letta’s coalition a “bongo bongo” government.
In a recent attack Kyenge had bananas hurled at her while making a speech at a rally.
She has been the victim of a shocking “campaign of hatred on Facebook,” says Garau. “Kyenge represents the ideal scapegoat for the reaffirmation of a highly exclusive — white and male — Italian national identity.”
With each incident, at times reported in the international press, the reputation of Italy is becoming more soiled. A country famous for its wine and fine cuisine has now been exposed for racism and xenophobia.
Indeed, the situation is so bad that reps of 17 European Union countries gathered in Rome last month to condemn the “unacceptable” insults directed at Kyenge, and call for a new pact to stamp out discrimination across the bloc.
Still, Kyenge, 49, a Congolese-born Italian citizen, has throughout maintained a stoic indifference, playing down the attacks and fronting a let-me-get-on-with-the-job attitude. Though, in private it must hurt.
Anna Bull, a professor of Italian history and politics at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, says opposition to Kyenge is not solely based on race but her liberal politics. The newly appointed minister has been advocating for significant reform that would grant citizenship to foreign children born in Italy.
Bull, who is of Italian origin, says what has struck her most is that for the most part the government has remained silent, leaving Kyenge to fend for herself.
“The rest of the government is not supporting her enough,” she says. “Because immigration has become such a controversial issue maybe they are afraid of public reaction.”
She adds that even before Kyenge’s historic election in April there have always been racist undertones towards Southern Italians, with stereotypes of them being lazy, noisy and backward.
This heightened intolerance has now passed on to non-EU immigrants with the inception of the populist Lega Nord in the early 1990s, says Bull. The populist rightwing party plays on xenophobic propaganda against immigrants who have been steadily increasing in numbers in Italy.
Worryingly, Bull believes the skewed values and ideology of Lega Nord are now so entrenched in Italian politics it is completely acceptable to be politically incorrect.
“They (politicians) are pushing boundaries every day. It’s amazing how it’s happened,” says Bull.
“It’s made banal everyday racism acceptable. They are constantly breaking taboos. When they say something controversial they later say it’s a joke. People have grown used to this language.”
Garau describes this ugly chapter in Italian politics as the mainstreaming of intolerance and the normalization of fear.
“These recent attacks on Kyenge have to be looked at within the context of the increasingly exacerbated tone of political debate in Italy, where personal attacks based on race, gender and religion have become alarmingly common,” she says.
“The appropriation of more extreme rhetoric on the part of established parties has legitimized and normalized a standard of communication that until recently was typical of the most extreme right wing parties.”
It comes at a time when time when Europe is struggling to redefine itself as the economic power of the euro zone declines. Indeed, with this social and economic crisis the extreme right has become the fastest growing political spectrum in European liberal democracies.
Still, last month Germany elected its first ever black lawmakers. It remains to be seen whether the two men, of African origin, will be supported or left to fend for themselves like Kyenge.