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‘I’m a symbol’: Italy’s first black cabinet minister sued by populists she deemed ‘racist’

Cécile Kyenge, Italy’s first black cabinet minister, is standing trial for libel after calling the League, a populist party, racist. She has been the subject of repeated attacks. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2013, bananas were hurled at Italy’s first black cabinet minister, Cécile Kyenge. The same year, a local councilor for the Northern League, a regionalist party, said she should be raped, and a senator for the same party likened her to an orangutan.

It was once easy for Kyenge, an eye surgeon who was born in Congo, to brush off these attacks. During her speech in the seaside town of Cervia, she pretended not to notice the fruit flying toward her, later tweeting, “With so many people dying of hunger, wasting food like this is so sad.”

The Northern League used to be a minor faction netting about 5 to 10 percent of the national vote. In 2014, Kyenge gave an off-the-cuff assessment at an annual social-democratic political event in the northern city of Parma, calling the party “racist.”

Now, that party, rebranded simply as the League, is in power, governing in a populist coalition after winning nearly 18 percent of the vote in March. Its leader, Matteo Salvini, is Italy’s interior minister and deputy prime minister, working to make good on his nativist promises.

Not lost in Salvini’s portfolio is his long-standing effort to obtain a legal judgment against Kyenge for criticizing his party. Kyenge, who is now a member of the European Parliament, said in an interview this week with The Washington Post that she is happy to defend herself in court. She chose to give up the enhanced protection for freedom of expression enjoyed by lawmakers in Brussels in order to stand trial, she said.

“If they attack me, they attack many other people,” she said. “It’s important for me to be there and to make sure that the court doesn’t accept these accusations, not just for me but for all people who stand up against racism in Italy.”

Kyenge said there is a simple reason she is targeted by the League: “They want me to shut up.”

“I’m a symbol in Italy,” she said. “I’m a symbol for migration, for diversity.” 

The League maintains that its opposition to immigration, put on vivid display last month when Salvini refused to allow 177 migrants to disembark from a coast guard vessel at a Sicilian port, is not racist.

After two unsuccessful attempts to open a case against her, Salvini persuaded a judge in the northern city of Piacenza this year to order Kyenge to stand trial for libel. The proceedings began last week and will yield a judgment by 2021. If she loses, the former minister for integration could be fined. Part of the judge’s reasoning, according to Italian news agency ANSA, was that the former cabinet minister had implicitly linked the League to Nazis, maligning not just the party name but its members.

Italy, like many European countries, doesn’t collect data on race and ethnicity, though it uses proxies of citizenship and place of birth that indicate that native Italians remain the overwhelming majority.

Still, Italy has been on the front lines of some of the migration pressures buffeting Europe and elevating far-right parties over the last several years. There were 370,000 immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa living in Italy as of 2017, according to Pew.

The postwar taboo surrounding race, a response to Fascist-era laws discriminating against Jews and other groups, doesn’t make race a nonissue, Kyenge said. Rather, she argued, it makes racial prejudice harder to root out.

“I think that racism has a strong place in many of the developments we are seeing now in Italy,” she said. “The racial resentment is the only political agenda of the right wing. They have nothing to talk about if it they weren’t afraid. Because they don’t have any suggestions when it comes to the economy or the international role of Italy.”

Kyenge said she has seen racist attitudes take increasing hold with the passing of the generation that experienced the racial laws promulgated between 1938 and 1943.

“It’s already forgotten by the younger generation,” she said.

Racial tensions have also been exacerbated by the country’s ongoing financial turmoil, she said, as politicians blame social changes for their own failure to stimulate growth and get public debt under control.

But she said she remains “proud” to be Italian.

Kyenge, 54, was born in the mining town of Kambove. She was 19 when she moved to Italy in 1983 to continue her studies. She worked as a maid to support herself while attending the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Rome and became a naturalized citizen in the 1990s, as well as a certified doctor. Married to an Italian engineer, she has two daughters.

Her political work began in the early 2000s, when she founded an intercultural group called DAWA, Swahili for “medicine,” to smooth tensions associated with African immigration to Italy. She first ran for local office in 2004 and entered the Italian Parliament representing the center-left Democratic Party in 2013. That year, she was named minister of integration by Prime Minister Enrico Letta. The day she entered government, Kyenge said, she began receiving racist attacks.

Among the issues she championed was allowing Italian-born children of immigrants to gain citizenship by dint of birth rather than blood, a long-debated proposal that did not get a vote before the March election, in which more than half of Italians who voted backed populist parties.

Now, Kyenge said she is thinking of leaving her post in the European Parliament to pursue legal advocacy related to racial discrimination.

“If I can do this for myself, I can do this for others,” she said. “Racism is a crime. Racism must be erased.”

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