Friday , August 02, 2013 - 9:58 AM
Last week, Italy’s first and only black cabinet minister, Cecile Kyenge, delivered a speech in Cervia about her program to expand immigrants’ rights. Applause followed, but so did a shockingly racist and cowardly act: One observer threw bananas at Ms. Kyenge. She pretended not to notice, later tweeting, “With so many people dying of hunger, wasting food like this is so sad.”
Elected officials lead by example, and last month, Roberto Calderoli, vice president of Italy’s Senate, was addressing an outdoor rally for the anti-immigrant Northern League party when he said, “I love animals ... but when I see pictures of Kyenge I cannot but think of, even if I’m not saying she is one, the features of an orangutan.”
Ms. Kyenge immigrated to Italy three decades ago from the Democratic Republic of Congo and now oversees matters relating to immigration and the “integration” of new Italians. She has been the target of racist, xenophobic remarks since she took office in April. In the United States, we’d like to hope that remarks such as those of Mr. Calderoli would mark the end of a career. In Italy, the racism is sadly unexceptional and even an instigation for others.
Ms. Kyenge’s opponents have hung nooses on lampposts next to signs declaring, “Immigration, the noose of the people,” and “Everyone should live in their own country!” In April, Italian European Parliament member Mario Borghezio said, “Kyenge wants to impose her tribal traditions from the Congo. ... She seems like a great housekeeper but not a government minister.” In June, a local official from Padua posted on Facebook, “Why no one ever rapes [Ms. Kyenge], so that she understands what the victims of this heinous crime go through! Shame!”
Mr. Calderoli apologized for his remarks, but they prompted few serious calls for his resignation. Ms. Kyenge, who champions immigration reform measures deeply unpopular with the Northern League, has responded to previous attacks against her by saying, “Some people are struggling to accept that the country has changed.” Ms. Kyenge moved to Italy as a teenager in the 1980s, graduated from medical school, became an eye surgeon, married an Italian, became an Italian citizen and served on the Modena city council before being appointed to the cabinet. She took her position at a moment when Italy is becoming a land that attracts newcomers. In the past 10 years, Italy’s immigrant population has grown from 1 million to 4.5 million people, roughly 8 percent of the population.
Like the rest of southern Europe, Italy is struggling with soaring unemployment rates. But over the long run, Italy will need every immigrant it can attract, given its minuscule fertility rate and aging population. The casual acceptance of ugly racism is offensive. It is also self-defeating.