Italian lawmaker compares black politician to orangutan, causes uproar

Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge at the foreign press association in Rome on June 19.

Story highlights

  • Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge is a Congolese-born Italian citizen
  • Sen. Roberto Calderoli is a member of the anti-immigration Northern League
  • Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta deplores the rhetoric

The United States isn't the only Western country dealing with racial tension. Racism is alive and well in Europe, as shown by an ugly, explosive remark at a high political level in Italy that surfaced this weekend.

Roberto Calderoli, an Italian senator, compared Cecile Kyenge, the country's first black Cabinet minister, to an orangutan. He also is quoted as saying that Kyenge's success has encouraged illegal immigration to Italy and that she should be a minister "in her own country."

There's been an uproar since he uttered the words, and there are calls for him to resign -- one news channel poll said more than 80% of viewers believe he should. An online petition calling for his resignation has been started. Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said the talk is "unacceptable beyond any limit."

It is the latest in a string of racial slurs and insults directed at Kyenge, a Congolese-born member of the Democratic Party. She assumed her integration minister post last April in the country's coalition government.

Calderoli, a member of the anti-immigration Northern League party, made the remarks this weekend at a political rally.

"I love animals -- bears and wolves, as everyone knows -- but when I see the pictures of Kyenge, I cannot but think of, even if I'm not saying she is one, the features of an orangutan," he was quoted as saying.

"If I've offended her," Calderoli said after his remarks were publicized, "I apologize."

"It was a joke, a comment in a joking way. There was nothing particularly against her. It was just my impression. ... It is all very well that she be a minister, but in her own country. Given that this government needs to govern Italy, I hope that it is done by Italians," he said.

Kyenge responded diplomatically, saying Calderoli "does not need to ask forgiveness to me, but he should rather reflect on the political and institutional role that he carries. It is on this that he needs to make a profound reflection also to then apologize.

"Also, he must go beyond putting everything on a personal level. I think the time has come for us to study the problem of communication," she said.

Kyenge moved to Italy in the 1980s to study medicine. She became an Italian citizen and is an ophthalmologist in Modena. Her ascent to a top position reflects the success of immigrants but also has fanned the flames of nativism.

She received death threats before visiting an area where the Northern League is powerful, and the reports of slurs have emerged persistently.

A local politician recently said on Facebook that Kyenge should be raped so she can understand the pain felt by victims of crime, which some politicians blame on immigrants.

She's been called a "Congolese monkey," "Zulu" and "the black anti-Italian." One Northern League official said "she seems like a great housekeeper," but "not a government minister."

Letta, who called the episode "shameful" and "intolerable," made an appeal to Northern League leader Roberto Maroni to "close this chapter right away."

If he doesn't, "we will enter a logic of complete confrontation which I don't believe he needs, no one needs it," Letta said. "Neither does the country need it."