Italian Integration Minister Cecile Kashetu Kyenge listens to a question during a press conference at the Foreign Press Club in Rome, June 19. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)
by Nicole Winfield

ROME (AP) — Italy’s first Black Cabinet minister is facing Internet death threats before a visit to a region known for its anti-immigrant political base.

But Cecile Kyenge says she’s not afraid and challenged Italians to respond to such intimidation themselves to prove that Italy isn’t racist.

Kyenge, a Congolese-born doctor who has lived in Italy since 1983, has been the target of racist diatribes ever since she was named integration minister in April. She has been called “Congolese monkey,” and a member of a “bonga bonga government.”

Last week, a local politician from the xenophobic Northern League party was expelled from the party after she suggested on Facebook: “Why doesn’t someone rape her (Kyenge), so she can understand what victims of atrocious crimes feel?” The official, Dolores Valandro, was implying that immigrants were responsible for violent crime in Italy.

Kyenge on Wednesday acknowledged “racist episodes,” but declined to brand the country as a whole racist. She has offered a muted response to the attacks against her, saying it’s more for Italy as a nation to respond.

“These actions are directed against all of us, not just me,” Kyenge told reporters. “Surely it hasn’t left me indifferent. But I think the response that the country gives is important.”

Unlike France, Germany or Britain, where second and third generations of immigrants have settled, albeit uneasily, Italy is a relative newcomer to the phenomenon, with the first waves of immigrants coming to Italy’s shores only in the 1980s. The country’s race problem was then largely seen at soccer stadiums, where even today Black stars like Mario Balotelli are routinely subjected to racists taunts.

But Kyenge’s emergence onto the political stage has brought the issue to the fore, spurred on in part by her call for Italy to change its citizenship law to allow children born in Italy of legal immigrants to obtain citizenship more easily.

Currently, such children can only apply once they turn 18, and can be denied citizenship for a host of bureaucratic mistakes or omissions. Kyenge says changing the law is a key part of changing Italians’ very concept of citizenship, to take into account the country’s changing demographics.

Foreigners made up about 2 percent of Italy’s population in 1990; currently the figure stands at 7.5 percent.

“It’s a new citizenship that comes about by the meeting of different cultures,” she said.

Her call, however, has been met with stiff resistance by the anti-immigrant Northern League, which isn’t taking part in a parliamentary committee drafting the new citizenship law. Kyenge’s spokesman, Cosimo Torlo, said it’s unclear at what age citizenship could be obtained under the proposed legislation — at age 3, 5 or 10 — but that “Whatever it is, it will be better than the current law.”

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