This April, Cécile Kyenge — a Congolese immigrant who has lived in Italy since 1983 — was appointed as Italy’s Minister for Integration, a position that made her the first black Cabinet minister in Italian history. But what should have been remembered as a momentous triumph of racial progress in Italy has turned into a national embarrassment. In the two and half months since Kyenge accepted her new post, she has been subject to an almost unceasing barrage of racism from both sections of the Italian public and fellow politicians.
As TIME’s Rome correspondent Stephan Faris wrote on May 6, Kyenge’s first days in office were marred by prejudice:
Her April 27 appointment as Minister for Integration in Italy’s newly formed government has kicked off a much-needed discussion on race and immigration in a country that still struggles to come to terms with its rapid transformation. That discussion has taken some brutal turns. “Kyenge wants to impose her tribal traditions from the Congo,” said Mario Borghezio, a member of the European Parliament for Italy’s anti-immigration Northern League in an April 30 radio interview. “She seems like a great housekeeper,” he added. “But not a government minister.”
Meanwhile, the Italian government has launched an investigation into neo-fascist websites, on which Kyenge has been denigrated as a “Congolese monkey” and “the black anti-Italian.”
Since then, the racism has continued unabated. Later in May, members of the ultra-right-wing Forza Nuova party hung a banner outside Kyenge’s party’s offices in Macerata bearing the words “Kyenge go back to Congo.”
Then, in June, a local councilor from the city of Padua responded to an article about an alleged Somali rapist by posting on Facebook: “Why no one ever rapes [Kyenge], so that she understands what the victims of this heinous crime go through! Shame!” The councilor was ultimately expelled from her party, the anti-immigrant Northern League. But last week another member of the group, a Senator, was criticized for comparing Kyenge to an orangutan and suggesting that she be a minister “in her own country” instead of Italy.
Now Italian police have begun investigating a protest by Forza Nuova adherents against Kyenge in the city Pescara. The protesters hung nooses on lampposts along with signs stating “Immigration, the noose of the people!” and “Everyone should live in their own country.”
With a recent surge of immigrants in the past two decades, Italy’s demographics have undergone a pronounced shift. But the country still struggles to deal with its new multicultural face, illustrated poignantly by the travails of its soccer star (and member of the TIME 100 class of 2013), Mario Balotelli, who is of Ghanaian origin. The relentless nature of the bigotry hurled at Kyenge shows Italy still has a long way to go.