Skip to main content

Italian lawmaker compares black politician to orangutan, causes uproar

By Hada Messia and Joe Sterling, CNN
updated 8:27 PM EDT, Mon July 15, 2013
Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge at the foreign press association in Rome on June 19.
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

(CNN) -- 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."

CNN's Hada Messia reported from Rome. CNN's Joe Sterling reported from Atlanta.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:04 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
Branded an "extremist" by China's state-run media, Joshua Wong isn't even old enough to drive.
updated 1:07 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised political pundits with his rapid rise to power. CNN meets the man behind the enigma.
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
British journalist John Cantlie hadn't been seen in nearly two years. Now, he's the latest hostage to be paraded out by ISIS.
updated 6:49 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
British PM David Cameron has had the narrowest of political escapes.
The burial leader. The hospital gatekeeper. The disease detective. All telling powerful, stories from West Africa.
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Alibaba's IPO is unlike anything investors have ever seen and could threaten other online retailers. Maggie Lake reports.
updated 9:30 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
Indian PM Narendra Modi has said al Qaeda will fail if it seeks to spread its terror network into his country.
updated 8:01 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Put yourself in the shoes (and sixth-century black robes) of ISIS' Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the mysterious boss of the terror group.
updated 10:44 AM EDT, Sat September 20, 2014
 Tennis Player Li Na attends the WTA Pre-Wimbledon Party as guests enjoy Ciroc Vodka presented by Dubai Duty Free at Kensington Roof Gardens on June 19, 2014 in London,
Asia's first grand slam singles champion Li Na has called time on her 15-year tennis career.
updated 10:09 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Even death couldn't part two skeletons excavated from a lost chapel in an English county, found with their fingers entwined.
updated 6:07 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT