Balotelli called Kyenge’s nomination ‘‘another great step forward for an Italian society that is more civil, responsible and understanding of the need for better, definitive integration.’’
The race situation is almost schizophrenic in Italy. 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.
‘‘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.’’
‘‘It will take a long time — probably there will never be a completely racism-free society — but it will take a long time for Italy to reach the sort of acceptance, multi-cultural acceptance that the rest of Europe has and North America has,’’ he said in an interview.
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 can only apply once 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 but 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.
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.’’
La Repubblica newspaper on Tuesday, meanwhile, cited the vile insults directed at her on fascist Internet groups such as www.ilduce.net. Repubblica said the antagonism was born from the League’s basic opposition to a minister who tends to favor immigrant rights. ‘‘But the racist origins had to explode. And here they are. True, they’re consigned to the stupid transience of the Web, but they’re a sign of the widespread climate of hatred’’ in the country, the paper wrote.
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.
‘‘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.
Italian news reports quoted Idem as saying she was doing so in her capacity as minister ‘‘but also as a woman.’’
Sociologist Michele Sorice at Rome’s Luiss University said Italians have long harbored racist attitudes, stemming from the nation’s colonial past in north Africa, but that they stayed hidden until the Northern League ‘‘legitimized’’ xenophobic political rhetoric after entering the government in the 1990s. The League denies it’s xenophobic and says it is merely protecting the interests of Italians.Continued...