In New Job, Italy’s First Black Minister Confronts Culture of Casual Racism

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Italian Minister for Integration Cecile Kyenge during a news conference in Rome on May 3, 2013

Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black government minister, proposes a law that would give citizenship to the children of immigrants if they are born on Italian soil. Under the current legislation, Italian nationality is passed on most commonly by blood, meaning the grandchildren of an Italian who has never set foot in the country has more rights to citizenship than someone who was born in Rome to foreign parents.

But even if Kyenge, 48, is unable to push a single piece of legislation through Parliament, she will already have secured an important legacy. 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.”

Even in Italy, a country all too often permeated by casual bigotry, Borghezio’s words were a step too far. An online petition calling for him to be sanctioned or evicted from his post has gathered more than 75,000 signatures, and the Northern League’s leader, Roberto Maroni, a former Interior Minister, has come under pressure to denounce him. Maroni himself reacted with hostility to Kyenge, voicing opposition to her proposal on citizenship.

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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.” In a press conference on May 3, Kyenge, an eye surgeon living in Modena, denounced the attacks as representative of a minority opinion and called for the public at large to respond. “I’m black and I’m proud of it,” she said. “It’s important to underline that.”

Born in the Congo, Kyenge moved to Italy in the 1980s to study medicine in Rome, before obtaining a position in a hospital in Modena. She met her husband, a native Italian with whom she has two children, after he underwent surgery in her department. Kyenge was at the forefront of a dramatic demographic shift in Italy. As recently as 1991, just 1 in 100 residents held a foreign passport. Today, it’s 1 out of every 12. For every five children delivered in the country, one is born to a foreign parent. Unlike Kyenge, most of Italy’s recent arrivals are poor and employed in jobs that Italians refuse: construction workers, maids, caregivers for the elderly. The foreign-born middle class has yet to establish itself, while the first generation of immigrant children born and educated in the country is just moving into the workforce.

While Italians don’t like to think of their country as racist, the experience of non-white Italians and resident immigrants illustrates a culture that has found it hard to welcome increasing diversity. “How many times have I been told, ‘You’re so beautiful, you don’t even seem truly black?'” says Medhin Paolos, 23, an Italian of Eritrean descent and a member of Rete G2, a group campaigning for a reform of Italy’s citizenship laws. “Where I come from, this is not a compliment.”

A study by the University of Messina and the anti-discrimination group ARCI found that a substantial majority of the children of immigrants reported being insulted on the streets, talked down to by teachers, watched with suspicion in shops, turned away from restaurants and treated rudely by immigration officials. In 2002, the Italian government passed a law requiring all non-Italian residents to have their fingerprints taken, as part of the process for applying for residency.

“There’s the idea that black people stink,” says Jean Zongo, 28, the son of African immigrants. There was a period when he was younger, Zongo was afraid to take the bus at night, for fear of encountering racial violence. More than once, he has climbed aboard to hear a group of young men grunting like monkeys. It’s a charmless display of racism that has migrated from Italy’s soccer stadiums — where Mario Balotelli, the Italian football star of Ghanaian heritage, has famously faced chants of “There’s no such thing as a black Italian” — to youth culture at large. Zongo has traveled to France, Spain and England. Only in his own country, he says, is he made to feel second class. “[Discrimination] is present in just about every aspect of life, in every circumstance,” he says.

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Kyenge’s appointment gives cause for hope that things will get better for Italy’s immigrant population. But according to Ferruccio Pastore, director of the Turin-based International and European Forum for Migration Research, Kyenge won’t have an easy ride as she tries to create legislation to speed that process. “The real proof will be whether she will be backed politically,” says Pastore. “Will she be able to do something? Or will she be kept there as a kind of token?”

Kyenge, who served as a spokesperson for a group calling for immigrant rights, is new to national politics; she was elected to Parliament in February. Her Ministry doesn’t have a budget, and she’s part of a government that’s divided and whose priority will be to fix Italy’s battered economy. “[Her appointment] is a positive symbol,” says Mohamed Tailmoun, the spokesperson for Rete G2. “But we’re not looking for symbolic acts, but concrete ones. What’s important is that she’s able to obtain a majority in Parliament. And this unfortunately doesn’t depend on the Minister, but on the courage of the whole Italian political class.” Appearing on an Italian talk show on May 5, Kyenge said her proposal will be ready “in the coming weeks.” She’ll soon get a chance to discover what her fellow parliamentarians are made of.

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