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Elle Gierre looks at what the treatment Balotelli's tells us about the deep seated racism of Italian society and the experience of the 'italiani di seconda generazione'

"There are no black Italians:” with this shameful chant, accompanied by the waving of inflatable bananas, Mario Balotelli was welcomed back in Milan by the supporters of FC Internazionale, the club for which he played in his teens. Since his return from England, the former Manchester City striker has been the victim of sickening abuse in almost every Italian stadium. The Italian football and political establishment has been at pains to underplay these shameful episodes, claiming that they have nothing to do with racism, but football only. Sunday after Sunday, however, Balotelli seemed to grow tired of being abused. After he was booed in a crucial match against Fiorentina, he eventually broke his silence and said he’d be ready to leave the pitch should he be once again targeted with racial slurs. Despite the attempts of players, managers and politicians to divert the attention away from the issue, Balotelli’s protest was a brave act, which brought two different (and yet intertwined) taboo issues in contemporary Italy firmly into the public arena: widespread racism and the difficult circumstances of the so-called “italiani di seconda generazione” – that is, the children of migrants who were born in Italy.

Italiani di seconda generazione and Italian racism

Mario Balotelli has first-hand experience of both. Balotelli was born in 1990 in Palermo (in Sicily) and spent his entire childhood in Italy, but he had to wait until he turned 18 to become an Italian citizen. In fact, according to Italy’s citizenship laws, children of migrants who were born in the country cannot apply for citizenship until they are 18 – and, once they are 18, they must do so within a year, or else they lose all of their previous rights. Many “italiani di seconda generazione” suffer the unforgiving consequences of this absurd legislation. This is the case, for example, for Giulia who was born and grew up in Italy but does not have a right to citizenship because her parents were not registered as residents by the local council; or Alex, a guy from Milan who forgot to apply for citizenship when he was 18 and now runs the risk of being expelled to Algeria, his mother’s country , a country where he has never lived. The humiliating condition of not being a citizen in the country of your birth is today experienced by dozens of thousands of young Italians: in 2012, no fewer than 14.5% of all the children born in Italy were to foreign parents. At the moment, there is much talk about a new, more inclusive citizenship law, but the only thing we know for sure is that Mario Balotelli agreed to support the campaign (while the comedian Beppe Grillo did not).

Balotelli is not only one of the best known “italiani di seconda generazione” – he is also the first Afro-Italian celebrity and thus has personally experienced the deep seated racism of Italian society. The (mostly untold) history of racism in Italy can be dated back to (at least) the late 19th century, when the country embarked on its first colonial ventures in East Africa. Racist propaganda intensified under the Fascist regime, and especially during the brutal colonial war waged against Ethiopia in 1935-36 – a war in which hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians died, and during which Italians used banned chemical weapons. After 1945 there was never a public discussion about Italy’s colonial past and its racist undertones – to the point that in 1972 the Italian conservative journalist Indro Montanelli could talk unchallenged on TV about the 12-year-old wife he had “bought” while serving as a soldier in Ethiopia. When migration to Italy took off in the late 1970s, migrant workers had to face this shameful tradition of prejudice and racism, now reinforced by the Right and never seriously confronted by the Left. The lack of improvement over the last 40 years is demonstrated by the sheer hostility with which the new (black) Minister for Integration Cecile Kashetu Kyenge was met – suffice it to say that Mario Borghezio, an MEP of the racist party the Nothern League, claimed that Kyenge’s proposal for a new citizenship law was due to "her desire to foist the tribal tradition of her country, the Congo, upon us".

Migrants, class and the Left

In order to fully understand the relevance of these issues in Italy today, we must take into account the crucial role that migrant workers play in the Italian economic system. Migrants make up a substantial share of the Italian working class: in 2012 they constituted 9.8% of the overall workforce, and a much higher proportion in the worst paid sectors (for instance, up to 25% of rural workers in Tuscany). Moreover, migrant workers have to suffer worse working conditions than Italian citizens: they not only earn on average less, even when they do the same kind of job; if they do not have an EU passport they are also practically held to ransom by their employers. In fact, non-EU workers who lose their jobs are no longer entitled to stay in the country if they do not find alternative employment within of a year. This leads to a condition of bondage which is not too dissimilar to the condition of indentured servants.

In principle, no movement claiming to fight on the side of the oppressed could ignore the peculiar position of migrants in the Italian class structure. Migrants and “italiani di seconda generazione” should be key subjects of any movement of resistance in Italy. The relationship between the Italian Left and migrants, however, has been all but easy. Whereas the “moderate” Partito Democratico has again and again supported repressive measures in the name of “legality”, far too often the radical Left had a simplistic, patronizing, almost colonial approach to the issue – migrants were seen more as an “object” that needed to be protected rather than autonomous subjects to talk to.

In the last few years a number of self-organized migrant protest movements have emerged – for example the “rete primo marzo”, a resistance network which organized the first migrants’ strike on 1 March 2010. An active, open dialogue with these networks and their “leading groups” is imperative in order to unite a resistance front of the oppressed. Of course, this is not going to be an automatic or easy process, and misunderstandings and corporatist views are likely to arise from all sides. And yet, there is a common, overarching aim – that is, social justice, a shift of balance from the ruling minority of the wealthy and powerful in favor of the diverse majority of the dispossessed. And eventually, what starts as a coalition of different subjects might even usher in the birth of a new class, if, as EP Thompson said, “class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences, feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.”

Tagged under: Class