Does Italy Have A Racism Problem?

The recent appointment of Italy's first black Cabinet minister was greeted with racist comments from a handful of political leaders. That has raised questions about whether the nation has a broader problem with bias. Host Michel Martin gets the latest from NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we are going to head to the islands of Cape Verde. They are off the coast of West Africa. We're going to find out more about efforts to reclaim that country's Jewish ancestry. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, we go to Italy, the land of fashion, food, art and architecture, but we're finding that underneath those iconic images is an uglier reality of anti-black racism. It's something that you may have seen on the soccer field, but it's recently been found in the political arena.

The appointment of Cecile Kyenge as the first black cabinet minister has sparked a racist response from members of the country's Northern League political party. They've called her - and I apologize, but this is - I'm reporting here - a Congolese monkey. They've derided her the new, quote, unquote, "bunga-bunga government."

We wanted to find out more about this, so we've called NPR's senior European correspondent, Sylvia Poggioli. Welcome, Sylvia. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, overall, though, I mean, we have taken note of these kinds of racist remarks and there are others which I don't feel a need to repeat, but overall, what's been the reaction to Ms. Kyenge's appointment?

POGGIOLI: I think it's been generally a very good reaction, one of - it was praised and I think it struck a lot - it hit a lot of the pride among a lot of Italians. So she's one of seven - and that's an unprecedented number - seven women in a cabinet of 21 ministers, so the fact that there are all these women and one of them is non-Italian and black. I think a lot of Italians were very happy, but what happened is that reaction was totally spoiled by the reactions of several members of the Northern League, as you mentioned. And not just that, also, some really virulent racist epithets on fascist and far right websites. You mentioned some of them and they are - many of them, really too horrible to repeat.

And I think what we see is that, essentially, the northern league is an anti-immigrant party. It's been around now for more than 20 years and they refuse being called xenophobic, but there's no question about their being xenophobic, and I think what the problem is - that they, by having been in government for so long - they were - they're not now, but they were very close allies of Silvio Berlusconi and his conservative party for most of - more than a decade - over the last two decades.

And, by being in government, contrary to similar parties in other parts of Europe, Le Pen's party in the national front in France or the other nationalist and right wing parties in Britain and Germany, they've always been on the fringes, essentially, in opposition. But by being in government and by passing some very strict laws on illegal immigration, they, in a sense, have legitimized racism in a certain sense in this country and that's really the basic problem.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you a little bit more about the Northern League. I mean, they're described as xenophobic, but is it all immigrants that they don't like or just some of them? I mean, I note that you noted that she's one of seven women in this new cabinet. Another one of the ministers who's a woman is also a German immigrant. Cecile is an immigrant from the Congo, married to an Italian, has two children and is also a doctor, but there's another minister who has a German ancestry. Is the Northern League similarly hostile toward her or do you think that this is animus directed toward particular immigrants with a particular demographic profile?

POGGIOLI: Well, it's definitely more directed at a non-European immigrant. Not that they love Germany because, of course, they think of Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel as having imposed some very strict austerity in Italy, but that's another issue.

In terms of immigration - no - the animus is directed at non-Europeans, although even East Europeans, Romanians and then, of course, there are many Roma from Eastern Europe and Pol - they're not very well liked, either, but mostly, the animus is against Africans and North Africans.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think accounts for this animus toward immigrants? I mean, there are immigrants throughout Europe. I mean, and of course, you know, we hear from time to time that obviously - that there are animosities and issues in other places, you know, in France, in Germany and a lot of other places. But this kind of kind of overt - you know, just kind of open expression of hostility - I mean, a lot of it - again, we see this on the soccer pitch. I mean, Italian striker Mario Balotelli is somebody who's spoken out publicly about this, but what is it about the immigrant experience in Italy that seems to be calling this forth?

POGGIOLI: Well, I think, first of all, you have to compare it, again, to France and Germany and Britain. Italy's a relative newcomer to this influx of immigration. For most of the early part of the 20th century, Italy was a country of emigration. The influx of immigrants to Italy started just two decades ago. First, the waves of East Europeans after the fall of communism and then followed by Africans and North Africans.

And, again, as I say, I think one of the reasons was that racists were in government. They passed laws. They had control of the media. Certainly, Berlusconi did, who is a media mogul, and even though most of it - most people accuse the Northern League, simply, of being the racists. Even Berlusconi himself, while he was prime minister, said, I do not want to see a multicultural Italy. And he's even better known for his horrible remarks about Obama being - President Obama being well-tanned.

But I think saying he doesn't want to see a multicultural Italy, you get the sense exactly. When you have people running the government, you - and the media reflects this kind of animus, you're going to get a very racist country. I think things are - and you're right. You mentioned the soccer stadium and that is another place where there are some of the worst displays of racism in Italy. Mario Balotelli has been incredibly courageous and defiant in the face of racist epithets.

But I think we're getting close to a - there might be a turning point. It came just a few months ago when another soccer player, Kevin-Prince Boateng - he defied European soccer rules that fine or suspend players who resist racist taunts on the field. He walked off when there were all these racist chants and he was followed by his teammates, by players of the opposing team and by referees, and his coach said these racist episodes must end. Walking off was the right thing to do.

And, just this week, another team, the Juventus, was fined 30,000 Euros for fans' racist taunts during a game, so we may be at a turning point. Of course, it's up to soccer authorities now to really impose - to set the example and because it's a cultural thing. You're going to have to - you know, you don't change people's mindsets very quickly. You have to impose it somehow with legislation.

And, in effect, as you mentioned, the other new minister, Josefa Idem of German ancestry - she's the minister for equal opportunity - and she immediately ordered an investigation by the National Antidiscrimination Office into these racist epithets by the Northern League and by these insults on websites, fascist and ultra-right wing websites.

MARTIN: Well, getting back to Minister Kyenge, one of the first things she did was propose to change immigration law so that children who are born in Italy to immigrant parents get automatic citizenship, which is how it is in the United States, instead of having to wait until they turn 18 to apply. Now, that's an interesting kind of first step. How is that being received?

POGGIOLI: Well, again, of course the Northern League - they certainly didn't like that, but it's a law that I think already the mood is changing. For instance, it's - again, it's a citizenship law passed by Berlusconi and his Northern League allies. As you said, it's an absurd law. It gives - because, at 18 - it doesn't give automatic citizenship to a person born in Italy. At 18, they have like a window of opportunity, one year, to apply for citizenship and they have to show that they had lived all 18 years here in Italy and, in some places, they even have to show that they are enrolled in a university or have a solid job contract. So it's an extremely strict law. It's much stricter than any other in Europe.

And I think, though, the mood is changing because there was a poll last year by the Italian Statistics Institute that said 72 percent of Italians are in favor of liberalizing the citizenship law.

MARTIN: And, finally, how is Minister Kyenge responding to all this? What has she said about some of these comments? I mean, apparently, you know, again, you know, it's one thing to have, you know, social media chatter, even media chatter, but to have, you know, a fellow parliamentarian making these kinds of remarks. I mean, how has she responded to this and how have her fellow ministers responded to this?

POGGIOLI: Well, fellow ministers and all of the political world, the non-Northern League, have responded extremely well and just outraged and very condemning remarks of this kind. She herself has responded with a very ironic touch, very, very elegant and without - perhaps maybe even a little too soft, perhaps, for some people's taste. But she's been - she's quite elegantly, I'd say, but as I said, I think, you know, the mood is changing.

There's also a difference between north and south. In Southern Italy, there's a much, much more - there's much better relations between Italians and immigrants. I think there's a greater memory of their ancestors having emmigrated abroad and so there's this big north-south difference and I think perhaps we're going to see a bit of a change, also, in the north.

MARTIN: Sylvia Poggioli is NPR's senior European correspondent. She was kind enough to join us from Rome. Sylvia, thank you so much for speaking with us.

POGGIOLI: My pleasure. Thank you.

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