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When a newspaper began publishing a government minister’s schedule every day, it might have passed unobserved or even been seen as a public service. But this is Italy, the newspaper is the official organ of the xenophobic Northern League, and the public official is Integration Minister Cécile Kyenge, the country’s first black cabinet minister.  

The resulting scandal has a lot to do with timing and politics. La Padania began publishing the minister’s schedule only days after she was harangued by a crowd of Northern League and far-right Forza Nuova supporters in the northern town of Brescia, so many people saw the move as an effort at intimidation. Also, the senate was examining a bill that would, among other things, abrogate the crime of irregular entry and stay in Italy, a trophy of the previous government and a line in the sand for the Northern League.

But this latest episode in the party’s relentless campaign against Kyenge reflects a deeper issue: Italy’s reluctance to come to terms with the fact that it has become a country of immigration with an increasingly diverse, multicultural society. That has consequences for law and policy in a variety of areas affecting undocumented migrants, long-term residents and second-generation Italians, as well as asylum seekers. It also translates into shockingly commonplace racist rhetoric and points up the country’s failure to confront racist violence.

Not too long ago, a man next to me muttered “shitty Chinese” when a group of Asians got on an elevator in front of us. A taxi driver wondered why I was going to a neighborhood full of Muslims. The mother of my son’s classmate complained about too many foreigners in Italian schools. Unapologetic intolerance in private conversations is bad enough, but racist or biased statements by public officials and opinion leaders are particularly worrisome.

The list of ghastly gestures by Northern League representatives is long— last July, the vice-president of the Senate, Roberto Calderoli, compared Minister Kyenge  to an orang-utan; another League senator put on “blackface” make-up in the senate last week as he intoned that the only way to get by in Italy nowadays is to be a “bit darker.” But the Northern League has no monopoly on prejudice. A Forza Italia parliament member said recently on a television show, with Kyenge as a fellow guest, that blacks are fortunate because they don’t have to use make-up. A respected political analyst argued in an opinion piece in Corriere della Sera  on January 13 that Italy’s immigration policies should favor Christians over Muslims because the former can integrate better and have fewer children.

Freedom of speech is a hallmark of a democratic society, and even hateful and offensive speech should not be restricted unless it directly incites violence. Yet public figures have a special responsibility to uphold the equally fundamental values of equality and non-discrimination. Despicable expressions of prejudice should be consistently and robustly condemned at the highest level of government.

Countering intolerance in society also requires recognizing and punishing hate violence. In recent years, immigrants, Italians of foreign origin, and Roma have been assaulted, stabbed, shot at, and murdered. Yet officials have tended to play down racist violence. Few attacks are prosecuted as hate crimes even though Italian criminal law allows for harsher prison sentences for crimes aggravated by racist motivation. In part this is because courts often rely on a narrow interpretation of the statute that limits its use to crimes for which racism is the sole motive for an attack.

Four years after the harrowing mob violence against African seasonal migrant workers in Rosarno, it’s sobering to realize that only one person  was convicted for an attack on the migrants, and that the prosecutor and judge excluded from consideration the possibility that the violence was motivated by racism. Two other Italians were convicted of attacking law enforcement officers, but one of them  was acquitted of the charge of driving a bulldozer into a group of migrants. The Rosarno violence led to greater attention to the exploitation of seasonal migrant workers, and roughly two dozen people are standing trial for labor abuses that contributed to the unrest.  Yet there’s no doubt that there has been little justice for those who were viciously attacked, and seasonal workers continue to face exploitation, abuse, and appalling living conditions.

Over the past few years, Italian authorities have taken important steps to improve recording of hate crimes and training of law enforcement officers to recognize and investigate these crimes, and jurisprudence appears to be evolving. But much more is needed, including legal reform, to acknowledge that people behind hate crimes often have mixed motives.

Racism exists in virtually every country; what counts is how governments and society respond. Ensuring that a black minister can do her job without having to run a gauntlet of racist slurs would be a good start.

Judith Sunderland is a senior European researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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