cecile_kyenge.jpgROME — It was hailed as a giant step forward for racial integration in a country that has long been ill at ease with its growing immigrant classes. But Cecile Kyenge’s appointment as Italy’s first black Cabinet minister has instead exposed the nation’s ugly race problem, a blight that flares regularly on the soccer pitch with racist taunts and in the diatribes of xenophobic politicians but has now raised its head at the center of political life.

One politician from a party that not long ago ruled in a coalition derided what he called Italy’s new “bonga bonga government.” On May 1, amid increasing revulsion over the reaction, the government authorized an investigation into neo-fascist websites whose members called Kyenge “Congolese monkey” and other epithets.

Kyenge, 48, was born in Congo and moved to Italy three decades ago to study medicine. An eye surgeon, she lives in Modena with her Italian husband and two children. She was active in local center-left politics before winning a seat in the lower Chamber of Deputies in February elections.

Premier Enrico Letta tapped Kyenge to be minister of integration in his hybrid center-left and center-right government that won its second vote of confidence April 30.

In his introductory speech to Parliament, Letta touted Kyenge’s appointment as a “new concept about the confines of barriers giving way to hope, of unsurpassable limits giving way to a bridge between diverse communities.”

Tribal Traditions

His praise, and that of others, has been almost drowned out by the racist slurs directed at Kyenge by politicians of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, an on-again, off-again ally of long-serving ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi, and members of neo-fascist Internet groups.

In addition to his “bonga bonga” slur, Mario Borghezio, a European parliamentarian for the League, claimed in an interview with Radio 24 that Kyenge would try to “impose tribal traditions” from her native Congo on Italy.

Kyenge on April 30 responded to the insults, thanking those who had come to her defense and taking a veiled jab at the vulgarity of her critics.

“I believe even criticism can inform if it’s done with respect,” she tweeted.

Immigrant roots

Unlike France, Germany or Britain, where second and third generations of immigrants have settled, albeit uneasily, Italy is a relative newcomer to the phenomenon. France has several high-ranking government ministers with immigrant roots and few French had a problem with the appointments. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy named a justice minister and urban policy minister, both born in France to North African parents, to his cabinet, while his minister for human rights was born in Senegal. Francois Hollande’s government spokeswoman was born in Morocco and raised in France and his interior minister was born in Spain. He also has two black ministers from French overseas territories — one from French Guiana and one from Guadeloupe.

Italy is another story. Once a country of emigration to North America and South America at the turn of the last century, Italy saw the first waves of migrants from Eastern Europe and Africa coming to its shores only in the 1980s. In the last decade or two, their numbers have increased exponentially and, with them, anti-immigrant sentiment. Surveys show Italians blame immigrants for crime and overtaxing the already burdened public health system. Foreigners made up about 2 percent of Italy’s population in 1990; currently the figure stands at 7.5 percent, according to official statistics bureau Istat.

Soccer racism

Some of the most blatant manifestations of racism occur in the realm of Italy’s favorite sport, soccer, which, for Italians and others, has shown itself to be a perfect venue for displays of pent-up emotions. In the case of a handful of Italian teams, soccer is a way for right-wing fan clubs to vent.

Mario Balotelli, the AC Milan striker born in Palermo to Ghanaian immigrants and raised by an Italian adoptive family, knows all about it. Perhaps Italy’s best player today, he has long been the subject of racist taunts on and off the field. Rival fans once hung a banner during a match with the words, “Black Italians don’t exist,” while the vice-president of his own club once called him the household’s “little black boy.”

The race situation is almost schizophrenic. In the same week Kyenge was made a government minister and Balotelli was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, AC Milan’s rival Juventus was fined 30,000 euro for fans’ racist taunts during a game against Milan in which Balotelli wasn’t even playing.

Real impact

“There was no racism 40 years ago because there were no non-white Italians,” said James Walston, a political science professor at American University of Rome. “You need the other in order to hate the other.”

Kyenge got off to a rocky start with the Northern League, when, on the day she was named minister, she said one of her top priorities would be to make it easier for children of immigrants born in Italy to obtain Italian citizenship. Currently, such children may apply only after they turn 18.

The issue has vexed Italy for years and previous center-left governments have failed to change the law, even though most Italians — 72 percent, according to a 2012 Istat-aided study — favor it.

It’s not just a matter of a passport; it has real impact on the ability of an immigrant family to integrate into Italian society. Children of non-EU immigrants born in Italy, for example, can’t take advantage of the EU citizen discounts at the Colosseum and other cultural treasures, having to pay full admission prices to get in to learn the heritage of the nation where they were born. If they were Italian citizens, they’d get in free until they were 18.

Political transition

But raising an issue that so riles the Northern League — during an already tense political transition — was enough to set off Roberto Maroni, the interior minister in Berlusconi’s last center-right government and a top League official. Maroni immediately demanded that his successor as interior minister make clear his position on the law.

Other members of Maroni’s party were more blunt. Italian newspapers quoted the head of the League in Italy’s northern Lombardy region, Matteo Salvini, as saying that Kyenge was a “symbol of a hypocritical and do-gooding left that wants to cancel out the crime of illegal immigration and thinks only about immigrants’ rights and not their duties.”

Coming to Kyenge’s defense was Laura

Boldrini, the president of parliament’s lower chamber, who, for years, was the chief spokeswoman in Italy for the U.N. refugee agency. In that role, she frequently defended the rights of immigrants — and squared off with Northern League leaders after they pushed through a controversial 2009 policy to send back would-be Libyan migrants without screening them first for asylum.

Step forward

“It is indecent that in a civil society there can be a series of insults — on websites but not only there — that are being hurled against the neo-minister Cecile Kyenge,” Boldrini said. “Like many people, watching her take her oath of office I felt that Italy was taking an important step forward, and not just for ‘new Italians.’”

Also defending Kyenge was the other foreign-born minister in Letta’s government, Josefa Idem, a German-born Italian who won five Olympic kayaking medals before retiring after the London Games. Idem is Italy’s new equal opportunities minister — one of seven women in Letta’s government — and in that role authorized an investigation by Italy’s national anti-discrimination office into the racist online slurs directed against Kyenge.

Tricia Thomas in Rome and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.