Racist outbursts as Italy struggles to adapt to immigration

Italian's first black minister Cecile Kyenge poses during a news conference in Rome

ROME, Latium - From monkey chants in football stadiums to threats against the first black minister, racial outbursts in Italy reflect the profound social change taking place in a country relatively new to immigration.

Shocking episodes of racism have multiplied over the past few months, from hooligans taunting star striker Mario Balotelli with inflatable bananas to crude and vicious insults against the country's Immigration Minister Cecile Kyenge, an Italian citizen born in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kyenge, who refuses to write Italy off as racist, has taken the brunt of the abuse since her election in April, shrugging off derogatory nicknames or photograph montages online in which her head is superimposed onto the bodies of indigenous African women.

"Why does no one rape her, so she can understand what the victims of atrocious crime feel?" a party official with Italy's anti-immigrant Northern League party wrote of her last month in a Facebook post, while last week the vice-president of the Senate compared her to an orangutan.

The former was given a 13-month suspended sentence and was banned from public office for three years, while senator Roberto Calderoli is being investigated for inciting racial hatred - though he refuses to resign, insisting he has done enough by apologising to Kyenge with a bunch of flowers.

Bizarrely, the probe against him was only opened after a consumers association, Condacons, launched a complaint. And despite a petition signed by 200,000 people calling for Calderoli's removal, the League member has so far managed to hold on to his prestigious Senate post.

"Italy is no more racist than other European countries, but sensitivity to the issue is not as developed here," Italian historian Marco Fossati told AFP.

Michela Marzano, a philosopher and deputy from the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), said: "there is an extreme tolerance towards intolerance."

"Italy has not had many opportunities to enter into contact with 'the Other', because it has always been a country of emigration rather than immigration," she said.

While millions of Italian fleeing poverty emigrated to the United States, Latin America and other parts of Europe throughout the Twentieth century, the Mediterranean country has only had to absorb large numbers of immigrants over the past 20 years or so.

"We have remained very provincial, and the Calderoli affair has sparked a lot of indignation but no concrete action," said Fossati, adding: "anyone who reacts with indignance is seen as a moralist, someone who is infected with the 'politically correct' virus."

Luigi Manconi, head of the civil rights commission in the Senate, dates the 'legitimisation' of racial abuse back to an episode in 2007, when an Italian woman was raped by a Romanian man ahead of municipal elections, kicking off a fear-based campaign equating Romanians to rapists.

From that point, Manconi says, the Northern League - and Calderoli in particular - have felt increasingly free to be racist and "have played a fundamental role in the legitimation of xenophobia."

Adriano Prosperi, modern history professor at Pisa University, compares Italians' apathy in the face of racism today with the introduction of racial laws in 1938 which were "passively absorbed by Italian society" under dictator Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime.

Centre-right former premier Silvio Berlusconi, renowned for off-colour comments, sparked a backlash in January when he stated during the inauguration of a Holocaust museum that the regime "in many ways did good things" for Italy - before retracting his comment.

Despite such incidents, Prosperi said he does not think Italy is "profoundly racist at heart". While the League may generate shock headlines - its former leader Umberto Bossi once said immigrants arriving by boat should be shot at with cannons - it won just four per cent in the last elections.

The real reason Calderoli has not been forced out, Prosperi says, is that the current government "has sacrificed values for the sake of realpolitik."

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