Two days after the United States Presidential Election, Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, said to the President of Russia President-elect Barack Obama “has all the qualities to get along well with you: he’s young, handsome and suntanned, so I think you can develop a good working relationship.” This statement was harshly rebuked by Italian politicians as being racist. Berlusconi’s opponent in the last Italian election, Walter Veltroni, went far enough to say that his comments “seriously damage the image and dignity of our country on the international scene.” Unfortunately for Italy, this statement is insignificant compared to the racism rampant in the Italian government and population at large. The Roma (Gypsy) are an ethnic group that emigrated from South Asia to many countries primarily in Southern and Eastern Europe almost a millennium ago. For many centuries, Europeans have been at odds with the Roma community due to their cultural differences and physical appearances. The Roma have experienced injustices for centuries including losing their children, suffering discrimination, and even being forced into labor.
Italy is no different from many European nations in that there is conflict between native Italians and Gypsies. However, today, the magnitude and scope of the conflict is uniquely Italian. Berlusconi, shoring up support from extreme-right political groups in Italy such as the openly racist Northern League and previously fascist Alleanza Nazionale, has moved to pass extremely repressive legislation that would “identify immigrants as the chief source of Italy’s economic and social problems.” This legislation included several stipulations that called for fingerprinting of all Roma to reduce crime, jailing of illegal immigrants, increasing police authority, confiscating the property of illegal immigrants, as well as the immediate expulsion of all immigrants upon possession of a criminal record. The shocking parallels Berlusconi’s government has with Hitler’s may have gone unnoticed in America but not by the rest of Europe. The EU has declared that the fingerprinting is “an act of discrimination based on race and ethnic origin” and that the Italian government should “refrain from collecting the fingerprints from Roma, including minors.”
If the quasi-fascist government of Berlusconi is scary, the behavior of some Italians has been downright appalling. Jean-Léonard Touadi, Italy’s only black Member of Parliament, recognized this saying “with an economic crisis under way, Italy has found a scapegoat to blame its woes on.” This chilling indifference to the plight of Roma was displayed this summer on a beach in Naples after the drowning of two teenage Roma girls. After a sunbather put a blanket over the two corpses, other sunbathers on the beach continued to resume their activities as if nothing had happened, some even relaxing only a matter of feet away from the corpses. De-humanizing hatred towards the Roma is not an isolated incident. Gangs burned down Roma camps in Naples due to the uncertain allegation by an Italian woman that a Roma girl tried to steal her child. In some cases this racist behavior has not just been condoned by Italian politicians, but encouraged. Northern League leader Umberto Bossi declared before the pogroms that “it is easier to destroy rats as [to] wipe out the gypsies.”
According to a recent newspaper survey, almost two-thirds of all Italians support the expulsion of all Romani, even those with Italian passports. This de-humanization of a segment of Italy’s population is indicative of a hard right government becoming fascist, and unfortunately non-binding resolutions by the European Union do little to stop these actions. Italian xenophobia is not limited to just the Romani; it extends to African immigrants as well. In soccer games it is not unusual for fans to boo every time an African touches the ball and to yell “Die!” when African players are injured. One chilling example of such sentiments comes from Giancarlo Gentilini, mayor of the Italian city of Treviso, who openly said “I don’t want to see any blacks, browns, or greys teaching our children” and “I want our streets cleansed of all the ethnics groups that are destroying our country.”
Reminiscent of America only a quarter century ago, police brutality against Africans in Italy has gone on nearly unchallenged. In the Italian city of Parma an innocent Ghanaian student was beaten by the police under false allegations that he was helping a drug deal while hurling racial slurs at him. These policemen are being investigated but hide behind Berlusconi’s legislation that has expanded the authority of the police. Interestingly enough, in another parallel to Hitler, Berlusconi’s government passed legislation that granted the Prime Minister immunity from all criminal courts. These abuses of power by Berlusconi’s government, supported by racists and fascists, have gone too far and are not likely to stop anytime soon without serious, enforceable, condemnation of these acts. With Italian discontent with the economic recession rising, and a more militant government expanding, the recipe for a twenty-first century Nazi Germany is nearing completion.
In his first term, President-elect Barack Obama should let Berlusconi know under no uncertain terms that the actions he and his government are taking are completely unacceptable. Obama should also reinforce that America will be watching and will not be afraid to publicly rebuke Italy if the government continues to sanction human rights violations. With Obama’s clout and position he could help persuade the European Union to impose sanctions on Italy similar to those placed on Austria for its extremely far-right government in 2000. This includes measures such as preventing Italian ambassadors from having meeting at an inter-governmental level with other European nations. Oh, and finally, Obama may want to help Berlusconi with that tan.