Ever since becoming Italy’s first black government minister, Cécile Kyenge has faced a shocking barrage of abuse from politicians in the far-right Lega party, including being publicly compared to an orangutan.
Now Lega, currently the most popular party in Italy, is suing Kyenge for defamation over accusing the party of racism. In response, Kyenge said that Lega’s racism is self-evident — and that she intends to waive her legal immunity as a politician to defend the case to put the party’s racism on the stand. Lega made two previous attempts to launch defamation suits against Kyenge.
“I am not the first who says that Lega is racist, and I would say it again,” Kyenge, a center-left politician who served as Italy’s minister of integration from 2013-14, told VICE News Thursday. “They once published a picture of a monkey, saying that it looked like me. If this is not racism, what is it then?"
Since coming to power as part of a coalition government in June, Lega has been accused of unleashing a wave of anti-black racism through the relentless anti-immigration campaign of its leader, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. But the party insists that it’s innocent of racism and has launched proceedings against Kyenge in a court in the northern city of Piacenza over comments she made during a debate in the town of Fontevivo in August 2014.
At the time, Kyenge accused Fabio Rainieri, then Lega’s regional party secretary in Emilia-Romagna, of racism for having posted a photoshopped image on Facebook that depicted her as an orangutan.
The post wasn’t the first time that Kyenge has faced such open racism from a Lega politician. In 2013, Lega veteran Roberto Calderoli said: “When I see Ms. Kyenge, I cannot but think of the features of an orangutan.” The same year, Lega’s Mario Borghezio described the cabinet she belonged to as a “bongo-bongo” government.
An attendee at a political rally also threw bananas at her on stage in July 2013.
In response, Kyenge has pursued her own legal cases against Italian politicians for their slurs. Last year, Borghezio was ordered to pay €50,000 ($58,900) over his remarks.
Kyenge told VICE News it was important that the racial attacks did not go unchallenged. As a politician, she has legal immunity against defamation proceedings, but she has opted to voluntarily waive that to defend the suit — and see the matter put to trial.
“The racial resentment is the only political recipe of the right-wingers,” she said. “They would have nothing to talk about if it wasn’t for race, because they do not have any valid proposals when it comes to our economy, to jobs, and to Italy’s international role.”
Lega’s hardline stance against illegal immigration in Italy, on the frontlines of human trafficking routes into Europe across the Mediterranean, has helped propel the party to record levels of popularity – 32 percent in the latest poll of polls. Salvini has vowed to close Italy’s borders to illegal immigrants, and deport up to 500,000 of those who are already in the country.
But critics say his near-daily tirades against illegal immigrants — most of them black Africans — has unleashed a wave of hostility toward people of African descent, regardless of immigration status, and triggered a spike in racist violence. Government hate crime statistics show 24 potentially racially-motivated violent attacks in the year to early August, two of them fatal, compared with 13 in all of 2017 and 19 in 2016; other counts by NGO groups are even higher.
“I think that the case will put Lega’s racism in the spotlight,” said Udo Enwereuzor, a senior adviser for Cospe, a Florence-based nonprofit that advocates for migrants’ rights.
But with Lega’s support soaring, the party has brushed aside any criticism and pushed ahead unapologetically with its populist anti-immigration campaign.
Salvini has seen little need to tone down his rhetoric; on Wednesday, he knocked back a demand from the African Union for an apology after he likened African immigrants to “new slaves” last week, prompting criticism from Luxembourg that he was acting like “the fascists from the '30s.”
“There is nothing to apologize for,” Salvini told a press conference in Rome.
Cover image: Italian Integration Minister Cécile Kashetu Kyenge speaks at a press conference in Rome, Friday, May 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)