Why there are still ignorant racists in Italy

"I love animals, but when I see her, I can't help but think of an orangutan". These words were uttered by one of Italy's politicians, Roberto Calderoli, in reference to Cécile Kyenge, Italy's minister of integration, at a recent festival organised by his party, the Northern League. Kyenge is black, was appointed to the Cabinet in April, and Calderoli added that "maybe Kyenge should be a minister in her own country [sic] … she is only encouraging illegal immigrants to dream of success".

Calderoli's is the latest in a long line of revolting racist comments from politicians and others from right across the political spectrum. Incredibly, Calderoli himself claimed that what he had said was a "little joke" and that it was "not racist".

What is going on here? Why has Kyenge's rise to the Cabinet led to such an outpouring of racism and hatred?

When I started living in Italy in 1988 (in Milan), immigrants were few and far between. Things changed in the 1990s and 2000s as more than four million foreign workers arrived to work largely, at first, in the "dirty" sector of a booming economy.

Italy's ageing population and increasing wealth led to huge demand for cleaners, home helpers and ordinary workers – all jobs Italians were no longer willing to do in large numbers.

These immigrants were excluded from the political system, and restrictive citizenship laws made it very difficult for the second and third generation (the so called Balotelli generation) to gain any rights at all.

Even those born in Italy had to wait until their 18th birthday before being allowed to become officially Italian. This was also the context in which the Lega Nord (Northern League) rose to power and prominence.

Kyenge arrived in Italy in 1983, and is a qualified ophthalmologist. She married an Italian man in 1994 and her two daughters were born and have grown up in Italy. She is Italian and black, and has promised to try to reform Italy's citizenship laws, a change the Italian centre-right violently opposes.

The Lega began as a party that concentrated on an anti-political and anti-southern-Italy stance, with its heartlands in the provinces of northern Italy. Its politicians took power in a number of northern cities (including Milan) in the 1990s, and in alliance with Silvio Berlusconi they rose to national power. Calderoli himself has been a minister, and was speaker of the senate, one of the most important institutional positions in the Italian political system.

The Lega has always been a racist party, fanning the flames of ethnic and religious conflict whenever it has been able to. You could compile an encyclopedia of the League's racist comments and activities.

There was, for example, the mayor of a major Italian city who argued that immigrants should be dressed as animals and hunted down, or the League politician who recently claimed to be happy on hearing of the death of immigrants trying to arrive by sea.

This kind of thing has been going on for more than 20 years. The Lega's founder and former leader, Umberto Bossi, referred to somewhere called "Bongo Bongo land". Racism has been official government policy, handed down from above, tolerated at all levels, including by the Italian left (who were in an unholy alliance with the League for a time).

One of the problems is that there is disagreement over what racism actually is. Calderoli thinks that comparing a black woman to an orangutan is a "little joke", or even a "funny joke". When Mario Balotelli was depicted as King Kong in a cartoon, many people didn't see any problem at all.

Things have been changing. Debates are starting to alter the language used. For a long time, even mainstream quality newspapers used racist language to stereotype immigrants. It took years for the Corriere della Sera to stop using the term vu cumprà to stereotype foreign workers as street traders who couldn't speak Italian properly.

Individual acts, such as that of the footballer Kevin Prince Boateng who walked off the field in the face of disgusting racist chants (surprise, surprise: one of the chanters turned out to be a Lega militant), have led to further discussion.

But progress is painfully slow, and the exclusion of immigrants from the political system and from any sense of power makes them vulnerable to attack and exploitation.

Italy is not a racist country, but it is a country where racism is tolerated and where a person like Calderoli has held institutional power. Yet the racists will not win, because the future is with the Italy of Balotelli and Kyenge. Italy is a multicultural country, whether they like it or not. And when I see Roberto Calderoli, I can't help but think of an ignorant racist. – © Guardian News and Media 2013

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