Italy’s First Black Cabinet Member Bombarded With Racial Slurs, Insults From Far Right

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Cecile Kyenge
Cecile Kyenge

Italian authorities vow to probe a flurry a racist remarks directed at the government’s new minister for integration, Cecile Kyenge, the first black cabinet member in Italian history.

Kyenge, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and is an eye surgeon, has been targeted by racist and far-right websites, as well as by a member of the right-wing Northern League party.

She was appointed integration minister by new prime minister Enrico Letta on Saturday, making her one of seven women in the new government.

Now, in the wake of racist taunts from an array of sources, including epithets that described Kyenge, 48, as a “Congolese monkey," "Zulu" and "the black anti-Italian," equal opportunities minister Josefa Idem has ordered the National Anti-Discrimination Office to investigate.

"I am doing this in my capacity as new minister for equal opportunities but above all as a woman," said Idem, according to Reuters.

Idem is herself a foreigner, born in Germany, but married to an Italian man. Condemning the insults hurled at Kyenge, Idem has asked police to shut down certain neo-fascist websites under laws that forbid the spread or incitement of race hatred.

In addition, Mario Borghezio, a European parliamentarian from the Northern League, referred on a radio program to Letta's coalition as a "bonga bonga government,” an apparent racist reference to Kyenge. He further said that Kyenge wants to "impose tribal traditions like those of the Congo" in Italy, and that the African people did "not produce great genes."

Laura Boldrini, president of the Chamber of Deputies of Italy, condemned what she called "racist vulgarities" that have appeared on websites and inflammatory comments by "a politician" (an obvious reference to Borghezio).

Borghezio, who has a long history of controversial comments, including verbal attacks on immigrants, has been condemned by some members of his own party.

Manuela del Lago, a Northern League official who is running for mayor of Verona, said she was "absolutely disgusted" by Borghezio's latest remarks.

Gazzetta del Sud reported that Kyenge moved to Italy in 1983, graduated from Rome's Sacred Heart Medical University, then specialized in ophthalmology at the University of Modena and now lives in the northern town of Castelfranco dell'Emilia. She has two children with her Italian husband.

Kyenge was elected to the Modena city council in 2004 for the Democratic Left (DS) party, the predecessor of the Democratic Party (PD) of Letta.

On a purely political basis, the far-right have some real concerns about Kyenge’s proposed policies – among other things, she wants the law changed to permit children born in Italy to immigrant parents to receive automatic citizenship instead of having to wait until they are 18 to apply. (The Northern League strongly opposes this measure).

Kyenge is hardly the first prominent Italian of black African origin who has been targeted by racists. One of the country’s most famous soccer players, the Ghanaian-born star of AC Milan, Mario Balotelli, has also been attacked with racial slurs and insults. Balotelli, who was adopted by Italian parents, has had to face monkey chants and tossed banana peels on pitches in Italy and elsewhere.

Balotelli has praised Kyenge’s appointment as "another great step forward toward an Italian society that is more civil, more responsible, and aware of the need for a better and definitive integration.”

The coach of Italy's national soccer team, Cesare Prandelli, also applauded Kyenge's rise, calling her "the future" of the country.

"In my opinion, this is an opportunity to understand a different way of seeing things. It will help open minds and encourage people to listen," Prandelli said.   

Premier Letta himself gushed, "We must treasure the desire for new Italians, and the nomination of Kyenge is a concept that turns barriers into hope. A community based on integration is built in the halls of schools and universities.”

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