Cecile Kyenge
Italian Minister for Integration Cecile Kyenge gestures during a news conference in Rome on June 19, 2013. Reuters

The violent racial abuse directed at Italy’s first black government minister simply will not let up. In the latest embarrassing incident endured by Congolese-born Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge, a banana was thrown at the Democratic Party minister during a political rally in the town of Cervia on the northeastern coast on Friday night. (The banana, tossed by an unidentified spectator, missed hitting the minister.) The racially inflammatory act mirrors similar incidents frequently taken against black and African soccer players in pitches across Europe.

While Kyenge was forced to issue a tepid response, namely lamenting that throwing away bananas was “sad” and constituted "a waste of food," some of her colleagues in Rome reacted more forcefully. Environment Minister Andrea Orlando wrote on Twitter that he felt the "utmost indignation for this lowly act." Education Minister Maria Chiara Carrozza commended Kyenge for exhibiting such courage and determination in such a hostile environment.

Even her political opponents defended her. Luca Zaia, the regional governor of Veneto and a member of the right-wing, anti-immigration Northern League, said that "throwing bananas, personal insults ... acts like these play no part in the civilized and democratic discussion needed between the minister and those who don't share her opinion." (Zaia is scheduled to debate Kyenge over the immigration issue next month.)

Kyenge did further address the incident when she declared that "the courage and optimism to change things has to come … from the bottom up to reach the institutions.”

Just prior to her speech at Cervia, members of a far-right group called Forza Nuova (“new force”) placed mannequins covered in fake blood near the site of the rally to protest immigration and criticize Kyenge’s proposal to allow anyone born on Italian soil to obtain instant citizenship. One of the leaflets left beside a dummy read "immigration kills," apparently a reference to murders committed by immigrants. But Forza Nuova has denied that one of its members threw the banana at Kyenge.

Earlier this month, Northern League official Roberto Calderoli was condemned for suggesting Kyenge looks like an orangutan. He subsequently apologized and even sent the minister a bouquet of roses. In June, a councilor of the Northern League, Dolores Valandro, suggested Kyenge should be raped as retaliation for the rapes allegedly committed against Italian women by illegal immigrants from Africa. (She has since been temporarily banned from office and received a suspended jail term, for inciting racial violence.)

Kyenge was named to the government ministry by Prime Minister Enrico Letta in April, making her the first black cabinet member in the country’s history. The 49-year-old doctor has endured a steady stream of abuse from extreme right-wing Italians, and even anonymous death threats, underlying the country’s deep divisions over race and immigration.

Among other transgressions, Kyenge has been called (by Northern League members) a “Congolese monkey” and a member of “bonga bonga government." Kyenge and soccer star Mario Balotelli are the two most prominent Italians of African descent, and both have been subjected to unrelenting racist abuse. During a press conference at the Foreign Press Bureau in Rome, Kyenge, who has lived in Italy for 30 years, asserted that she is not afraid. "The insults and threats against me are because I'm in a visible position now," she said. "But they're really threats against anyone who resists racism, who resists violence."

Immigrants now account for about 7.5 percent of Italy’s population, up from only 2 percent in 1990. “I've always said, though, that Italy isn't a racist country,” Kyenge said at the press conference. “It's a country that needs to get to know more about migration and the value of diversity and maybe what's missing most here is a culture of immigration. Only after the country has processed these things can we say whether it's racist or not.”

As for Balotelli, who plays for AC Milan and also for the national team, he has threatened to walk off the pitch to protest racist abuses from the terraces. Like many black African soccer players in Europe, Balotelli has been bombarded by “monkey chants” as well as banana peels. "They say that football [soccer] is combating racism, but it doesn't seem so to me looking at the rules," Balotelli told Associated Press. "Not enough is being done. All they've done is given the referee the power to suspend a match in cases of certain chants. But the fact is that his feeling might not be the same as mine. Shouldn't I decide if an insult is taken as racist or not? Racism is a real problem here and it needs to be combated with more determination.”