None Dare Call It Racism

One of the aspects of Italy’s “dark heart,” which not even Tobias Jones managed to cover in his 2003 exposé, The Dark Heart of Italy, is this country’s vexing and deep-seated racism.

When I first visited Italy in 1990, I happened to be in Florence in time for a multimedia exhibit called “Bianco su Nero/Nero su Bianco,” whose title was a pun on several levels: black and white as racial categories, obviously, but meaning also “in black and white” in the sense of “in print” or “written down on paper”; many of the works were cartoon panels and comics, ink drawings, posters, and the like. The exhibit had been inspired, so to speak, by an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment in Florence and, in particular, by harassment and beatings of African immigrants by police. All around Florence during that visit I saw the graffito: “Giù le mani dai fratelli neri” (Hands Off Our Black Brothers).

Eighteen years later, not only haven’t the problems of racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant hatred resolved themselves, they have—in the wake of the re-election of a Berlusconi government that proudly contains some of the most extreme right-wing and nationalist freaks elements in Italian politics—gotten considerably worse.

In recent days, as part of a new “security” policy, the newly (re-)elected Berlusconi government has presided over a roundup of Rom and other “nomadi,” resulting in nearly 400 arrests (and numerous charges of beatings by police). The newly elected mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno (of the conservative nationalist party, Alleanza Nazionale), in fact, had announced that one of his first goals would be to send bulldozers into the Rom encampments.

Of course, a good number of the so-called “gypsies” or nomadi living in these camps aren’t actually Rom at all (they’re Bosnians, Kosovars, Slavs, and others who, ethnically Rom or not, are homeless and live in makeshift camps on the periphery of major city centers), but that is evidently a trifling distinction.

Outside Naples, meanwhile, the government’s police actions, and the rhetoric regarding the “new policies” that support them, have inspired marauding bands of what the press calls “teppisti” (thugs) to arm themselves with knives, guns, clubs, and Molotov cocktails and raid the homeless encampments. They drive the terrorized occupants away and torch what remains.

In normal circumstances, the press would report on these events and there would be an outcry—as has taken place following the appalling violence against Zimbabwean, Mozambican, and Malawian immigrants in Johannesburg, South Africa that has continued unchecked since May 16th and has (as of this morning) left twenty-two people dead. The BBC’s reporting includes articles entitled “South Africa’s Xenophobia” and which do not hesitate to use the word “attacks.” The New York Times describes a “spasm of xenophobia, with poor South Africans taking out their rage on the poor foreigners living in their midst” and speaks of the “nationalistic sense of jubilation” that has resulted in areas where immigrants have been “dislodged” (Barry Bearak and Celia W. Dugger, “South Africans Take Out Rage on Immigrants,” NYT, May 20, 2008). In Johannesburg, the leader of the African National Congress promptly condemned the attacks, and the country’s president promised an investigation.

But this is Italy, and here there is silence. No one in Berlusconi’s majority coalition has uttered a word in public to condemn the unofficial raids on immigrant encampments; nor has there been the slightest indication that his government frowns on such behavior on the part of its “lawful” citizens. In other words, there is tacit permission.

Indeed, the only official word from the new government’s ministers is that they are simply “doing what the people elected us to do” (Gianfranco Fini, President of the House of Deputies) and that there would be “niente sanatoria” (amnesty) for illegal immigrants (Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni). That fiat, however, excludes caretakers for children, the disabled, and the elderly, approximately 100% of whom are non-Italian at this point; Berlusconi’s clones all lined up to agree: Domestic assistants and home aides “are a national resource” (Gianfranco Rotondi) and “Without them, the social consequences for Italy would be dramatic” (Mara Carfagna).

Which, as an aside, may explain why a Filipina maid can pretty much pop out on her lunch break and come back with a work visa and a permesso di soggiorno (stay permit) in her pocket while a translator (just to take a random example) can wait years for his.

In Florence, meanwhile, a special 600-member strong mixed police/military force has been sweeping the city to “crack down” on the vendors (almost all of whom are African) who sell fake Fendi and pirated CDs on the sidewalks.

The strongest criticism of all this has come from Spain’s Zapatero government, which immediately condemned Italian violence and “xenophobia”; the Spanish Minister of Labor and Immigration, Celestino Corbacho, accused Italy of trying to “criminalize those who are different, while I consider it my responsibility to manage this situation.”

The President of the Italian Senate, Maurizio Gasparri, lost no time in shooting back with the rhetoric typical of Berlusconi’s minions:

Zapatero needs to learn how to keep his ministers quiet, if they’re going to make offensive comments. I find it odd that the minister of a foreign country … would allow himself to question Italy’s respect for human rights. Italy is the cradle of law, but it’s also a country where the new government has been charged with guaranteeing the safety of its citizens. Certainly, we’re not going to do what they do in Spain—take cheap shots at other country’s governments.

Piergiorgio Stiffoni, the senator from the Lega Nord (Northern League—the group that wants to expel foreigners from several northern regions and create a separate country called Padania)—added that Corbacho ought to “attend to his own house before criticizing others.”

Tanto fumo, but still niente arrosto.


A pause to—as they say in postmodern lit crit—identify my subjectivities:

As an American, talking about the racism, clannishness, and determined resistance to multiculturalism that I have always observed in Italy exposes me to the charge of criticizing others for sins that the United States is still committing.

But I don’t write as someone who comes from a country that has shown great leadership in dealing with racism and immigration or that has “fixed” (or even honestly addressed) its problems. Far from it. Rather, I write as someone who comes from a country deeply schizophrenic about race, “foreignness,” multiculturalism, and national identity. In other words, the Italian situation is clear to me precisely because, as an American, I know racism when I see it.

That said, I consider it no coincidence that some of the most entrenched racism in the US has come out of Italian-American communities. One thinks immediately of the city of Yonkers, New York, in the 1990s and the opposition of much of the city’s large, working-class Italian-American population (20% overall, but much higher in certain neighborhoods) to a plan to build subsidized low-income housing.

The issues were obviously complex, and social-class-related fissures ran perhaps as deeply as racial ones. Still, there was no escaping either the rhetoric of “real Americans” (i.e., well established descendants of voluntary immigrants) vs. “outsiders” (i.e., poor blacks) that was employed by Italian-American residents and opposition leaders in Yonkers.

I am aware, at the same time, that the location of racism (particularly anti-black racism) among Italian-Americans sparks heated and visceral denial, even if the most passionate expression of such sentiments tends to appear in the wake of media events such as Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do the Right Thing (inspired by the 1989 murder of Yusuf Hawkins, a young black man, by a group of Italian-American youths in Bensonhurst), and his 1991 Jungle Fever, or the success of the television series, The Sopranos, which Norman Markowitz termed a “racist minstrel show” in Political Affairs in 2007.

Frankly, I don’t know what to do about all that other than to acknowledge it. The difficulty, in this terrible age of Identity Politics that we can’t seem to find our way out of, is that one is immediately thrust into a zero-sum game: “So you’re saying all Italian-Americans are racist?”

Well, of course not. But between 0% and 100% we might benefit from reflecting on a point or two. For what it’s worth, I think Barack Obama was right when he said, speaking of the depressed economies of working-class towns, that “it’s not surprising then [that residents] get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

I don’t think he should have had to apologize for it, either. When the economy is screwed, when jobs are scarce and the future looks grim–and when the government demonstrates that it cannot or will not provide relief–what you get is scapegoating. But that doesn’t mean it’s not racism.


But to get back to Italy….

On May 15th, the investigative-news show, AnnoZero, dedicated an episode to the Italian government’s crackdown and to the general wave of anti-immigrant feeling that is sweeping the country. Its interviewees included a group of northern Italians who were, in many ways, no more than the “usual suspects.” They willingly provided the requisite sound bytes about the ways in which immigrants are dirty, commit disproportionately more crime, rape and harass women, steal jobs from Italians, destroy the neighborhoods where they live, demand schooling and health care but don’t pay taxes, etc. In short, the “little picture” anti-immigrant spiel that one hears the world over.

What was interesting about AnnoZero’s transmission was not so much the show, but the following day’s citizen comments in the media and on the Italian listservs I’m subscribed to. With very few exceptions, there was a widespread attempt to explain away the interviewees’ comments (“They’re not really racist, they’re just scared”; “Not everyone is like that”; “It’s not racism, it’s just that people are fed up with the negative conditions they see around them”).

In other words, a generalized effort to excise the word “racism” from the discussion and to redefine anti-immigrant views in some other terms or as a function of some other problem: it’s not racism, it’s the fact that crime is out of control; it’s not xenophobia, it’s that those people don’t pay taxes; we don’t have anything against immigrants, but there are already too many students in our children’s classrooms who can’t speak Italian.

There’s a word for this very Italian rhetorical strategy, which renders most political arguments both moot and tedious: benaltrismo. In other words, whatever you’re proposing, the problem isben altro”; that is, it’s something else entirely, it lies elsewhere, you’re focusing on the wrong issue.

Each of the above problems, meanwhile, is real (crime, tax evasion, and the inability of the Italian school system to provide consistent and effective second-language education). But whether one phenomenon implicates another is simply not clear. (With regard to the fine Italian tradition of income-tax evasion, illegal immigrants couldn’t even begin to compete.)

Part of the difficulty in talking about racism in Italy, of course, is embedded in the language itself. Italians use words like “marocchino” or “beduino” as general purpose insults; they’re unlikely to be intended as a specific reference to either Moroccans or nomadic Arab desert tribes.

Similarly, “racism” is often deployed the way we use “discrimination” in English. Thus, someone who displays sexism or homophobia might well be called a “razzista” (in the sense that s/he practices bigotry). Similarly, when Italians from Sicily or from the country’s south move to northern urban centers and are discriminated against by other Italians, that phenomenon may also be referred to as “racism.”

To make matters more complicated, the political right wing and, to a large extent, the right-controlled media, increasingly blur the distinction between words like “immigrant,” “clandestino” (that is, an immigrant who has entered the country illegally; an “illegal alien”), and “extracomunitario,” the word that comes in for the most abuse.

Originally speaking, an extracomunitario was simply someone who was not a citizen of a country that belonged to the European Union which, from 1958 to 1981, included only ten members (Germany, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, the UK, Ireland, Denmark, and Greece).

Spain and Portugal were admitted to the EC in 1986, and Austria, Finland, and Sweden in 1995. An interesting thing happened between 2004 and 2007, however, and during that period Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania became European Community states. Nonetheless, it was and remains true that one could be a legal immigrant and an extracomunitario at the same time.

But it is equally true that many of those historically called extracomunitari really weren’t (consider, too, that some people call Neapolitans in Milan extracomunitari); moreover, as the press and politicians continue to use and redefine the words today, they all begin to mean roughly the same thing: every extracomunitario is a clandestino; every immigrant is an extracomunitario.

You can see this deliberate blurring in the comments of the Lega Nord senator, Roberto Castelli: “The extracomunitari are a cost, not a resource.” But who is he talking about? Who is costing the Italian state? All those from non-EU countries, even if they pay their taxes, or only those who don’t? The comunitari who don’t pay their taxes? Immigrants generally?

Evidently, the main groups intended to be caught in Castelli’s linguistic net are the Rom and Africans—and here it gets complicated. The Rom who are Romanian citizens are not extracomunitari—Romania has been a member of the EC since 2007. As such, they can’t be clandestini either, though they may not be earning money legally (which is a different issue). Africans, of course, are not comunitari, but they are among the most visible clandestini—at least a few times a month the TV news broadcasts images of the interception of yet another boatload of dark-skinned, barefoot, and generally wretched individuals who’ve tried to make the crossing to Lampedusa from Libya.

But Castelli’s reference should technically encompass Albanians as well, who have all but replaced Italian labor in the construction and allied trades and many of whom work legally, though they nonetheless bear the stigma of “stealing” the jobs that Italians are no longer interested in doing; Ukrainians and other ex-Soviets (the classic badante, or nanny, the disabled, and the elderly), many of whom also work legally thanks to their status as a “national resource”; and the Chinese, a large number of whom are legal residents. The term should include U.S. citizens, too, though no one would ever think of calling me an extracomunitario.

In short, it starts to be a little difficult to deny that Celestino Corbacho has a point when he talks about criminalizing the “different” or that Italy is engaged in a game of “good immigrants” (mostly white or white-appearing) and “bad immigrants.” And it gets really difficult not to talk about discrimination based upon race or ethnicity (or upon perceived or actual race- or ethnicity-based taxonomic distinctions, if we want to be more careful with our terminology).

At the same time, Berlusconi’s busy policy-makers have couched the whole affair in a package of laws aimed at improving “security” in Italy, which skillfully lobs the question out of the ballpark (and allows them to include Muslims, regardless of whether or not they are legal immigrants). You wouldn’t want to be against security, would you? It’s a classic Big Brother move.

But charging Italians with racism (in the “perceived-race-and-ethnicity” sense of the word) means confronting not only a truly exhausting level of benaltrismo, but the by-now-widespread Tar Baby device of accusing the accuser of political correctness. I’ve never quite understood why Italians are so allergic to criticism of the Italian social pact (with its inherent sexism, homophobia, and nationalism—which shouldn’t be confused with patriotism, a vice Italians are, thankfully, nearly immune to), but they are.

Point out that it is demeaning and sexist to drape half-naked showgirls all over the stages of literally dozens of prime-time television programs, and you’re politically correct. Argue that it’s important to employ sensitive terminology in describing people with physical disabilities, and you’re politically correct. Object to calling American Indians “redskins,” and you’re politically correct, as you are also if you point out that “American” doesn’t precisely mean (solely) “resident of the United States.” Note that the constant references in Italian TV and movies to cringing sissies, lisping interior decorators, cross-dressing disco bunnies, and sharp-tongued Fashionazis (all of which stand in as euphemisms for gay men) is both insulting and very 1950s, and you’re politically correct.

By now, of course, this PC-unPC tennis game is hardly peculiar to Italy. In my experience, though, Italians have become fast and agile players. For all the talk about regional identities, Italy is remarkably resistant to anything that even vaguely resembles multiculturalism. It remains, for all intents and purposes, a monoculture. And not only a monoculture: a monoculture with its feet firmly planted in the past.

In all the bluster over illegal immigration in Italy and on making the country “safer,” meanwhile, an immense irony is being overlooked. Italians are among history’s greatest emigrants, and the Italian Diaspora (beginning in about 1870 and continuing for more than fifty years) created large and influential Italian communities in quite a few parts of the world—including, of course, in the United States.

In 1913 alone, 872,598 Italians passed through Ellis Island (renamed, by Italians, “The Isle of Tears”) and, by 1930, Italians had surpassed Germans and Irish as the largest population of immigrants entering the United States; in the 1960 and 1970s, Italians represented the largest single group of foreign-born residents in the US, a position they held until 1980. (These figures are based on US Census Bureau data.)

But it’s not as though Italian immigrants were met with open arms, particularly in the pre-WWII period. In December 1880, the New York Times ran an editorial, “Undesirable Emigrants,” that inveighed against the “promiscuous immigration [of] … filthy, wretched, lazy, criminal dregs of the meanest sections of Italy.” Italians—especially southern Italians and Sicilians—were considered dangerous, violent, and diseased; Italians weren’t permitted to rent or buy homes in many areas, and were often thus forced to live in deplorable tenements and to accept only the work that came to them through the corrupt “padrone” system. Signs proclaiming “No Entry for Dogs or Italians” appeared on storefronts. All of this history is widely available; in fact, a better-documented immigrant experience barely exists.

So how did a nation so intimately identified with its history of emigration become so nasty and fanatical with regard to immigration? Perhaps in the same way that a country that used to love to call itself the “melting pot” ended up with English-only laws and border fences.

I don’t fool myself that what’s happening in Italy is going to come to a resolution that’s either fast or pretty. As Viktoria Mohacsi, a Hungarian Rom and an elected Deputy to the European Parliament, commented on her recent visit to Italy’s nomadi encampments, “Italy needs to pay attention. There’s an extremely ugly wind blowing. Let’s keep in mind what happened in Europe in the 1930s. My report to the European Parliament regarding what I’ve seen in Italy will describe this climate, and my account will be very severe” (La Repubblica, 17 May 2008).

In her slightly veiled reference to the 1930s, Mohacsi nevertheless points to what strikes me as a bottom-line truth. The problem Italy is now facing is far from ben altro, and if you really intend to exorcise the Devil, you’ve got to call the Devil by his name.


Posted on 20 May 2008, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order) and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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