Emmanuel was a 36-year-old Nigerian who came to Italy last year with his wife after both their parents were killed when Boko Haram bombed their church. Emmanuel survived terrorism at home, violence in Libya, and the dangerous sea crossing to Italy. But last week he was beaten to death on the streets of Fermo, a mid-sized town in eastern Italy, in a fight that began when an Italian man called Emmanuel’s wife an “African monkey.”
Emmanuel’s senseless death and his wife’s suffering have prompted a debate about xenophobia and racism in Italy, a country with established immigrant communities that is also among the top five EU countries for asylum applications. The debate is hobbled in part by platitudes – “Italy is not a racist country” – and in part by a lack of reliable data on racist violence.
Yet Italy has a history of failing to respond adequately to hate crimes. Offensive racist language is also commonplace, including by elected officials. Everyone in Italy remembers the terrible occasion in 2013 when then vice president of the Italian senate, Roberto Calderoli, compared Cecile Kyenge, then Italy’s first (and to date, only) black minister, to an orangutan. The lawyer defending the man who fatally attacked Emmanuel complained that parliamentarians throw around the word ‘monkey’. “Surely if these politicians used more restrained language, people without much education wouldn’t feel free to use it”, he remarked.
Language matters because it is a powerful tool for manipulating and influencing perceptions, regardless of the facts. Italians tend to estimate that immigrants constitute about 30 percent of the population, when in fact it’s 8 percent. A recent survey found that 47 percent of Italians believe refugees are “more to blame for crime” than other groups, even though the limited data that does exist shows that between 2004 and 2013, criminal charges against Italians went up while charges against immigrants went down, at a time when the immigrant population more than doubled.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi spoke out quickly after Emmanuel’s murder to condemn xenophobia, and senior members of his government joined the vice president of the European Parliament at Emmanuel’s funeral. Laura Boldrini, president of the lower house of parliament, created a committee “on intolerance, xenophobia, racism and hate” in May with representatives from all political parties plus experts and inter-governmental and civil society groups – including Human Rights Watch – to study the phenomenon and produce policy recommendations.
Consistency from Italian’s leaders is now needed to firmly and repeatedly denounce the language of intolerance and hate, to promote policies that support diversity and integration, and to make clear that racially-motivated attacks – verbal and physical – have no place in Italian society.