Cecile Kyenge
Cecile Kyenge Reuters

Dolores Valandro, a former member of Italy’s far-right, anti-immigrant Northern League party, who was expelled for making inflammatory remarks against a black female government minister, faces a court hearing on July 1.

Il Mattino di Padova, a local newspaper in the northern Italian city of Padua, reported that Valandro, 58, will face a charge of using racism to incite the commission of sexual violence. Last week, on her Facebook page, she suggested that Cecile Kyenge, the Congolese-born minister of integration, should be raped in retaliation for the alleged rape of an Italian woman by an African immigrant.

“Why doesn't someone rape Kyenge so she can understand what victims of atrocious crimes feel?" Valandro wrote on her page, suggesting that immigrants commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime in Italy. Valandro’s remarks were immediately condemned, even by members of her own Northern League party who pushed for her expulsion.

However, this was only the latest racist outrage Kyenge has suffered since she 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."

The far right was particularly incensed by Kyenge’s plan to allow the children of immigrants, born in Italy, to obtain Italian citizenship automatically. They fear that such measures will further dilute the country’s national identity. 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.”

Kyenge’s ongoing ordeal may actually have a beneficial impact, at least in the long term. "The positive aspect of this extremely unpleasant language means that others who are offended as much as [Kyenge] is, say so and support her," said James Walston, a political commentator from the American University in Rome, quoted by Deutsche Welle. "When a member of the Northern League says that Kyenge should be raped, it's not just good, nice liberals who were shocked, but also her party's leaders who have to say this is unacceptable and expel [that member] from the party.”

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. I don't know if we'll ever win the battle but we've all got to try to together."