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Dangerous tolerance

Inaction in the face of the abuse aimed at two black ministers is legitimizing racist discourse in Europe

It is no coincidence that racist and xenophobic attacks have been escalating in several European countries over recent months. The unacceptable harassment to which Italian Integration Minister Cécile Kyenge — an ophthalmologist from Congo, who is married to an Italian and a mother of two — is being subjected by the Northern League is clearly related to its xenophobic program and its opposition to the minister’s main project: granting nationality to all children of immigrants who are born on Italian soil, a very old principle known in Latin as ius soli. But the harassment is also part of a broader strategy that is shared by extreme-right forces in several countries, aimed at increasing their own visibility in the run-up to European elections. That is the real reason for the stridency with which the Northern League is lashing out at the minister; its strategy has gone as far as to publish her diary of events so as to ensure they are boycotted. What is really worrisome about all this is how little reaction we are seeing against it. For an elected official, and none other than the vice-president of the Senate at that, to dare compare Kyenge to an orangutan, or for an MEP to calmly state that “she’d be better off as a maid than as a minister,” without these statements producing any serious consequences, conveys a dangerous message of tolerance for such attitudes. One person who did complain about the lukewarm reaction to these racist slurs was France’s Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who was born in French Guiana and is herself a constant target of racist insults.

To treat these matters as mere anecdotes is a huge mistake. To trivialize racist expressions is to help legitimize the rhetoric of hate against anyone who is different. Populist, xenophobic forces are once again resorting to the strategy of creating internal and external enemies as targets of people’s fear of the future and of the insecurity they feel in an increasingly unfair, unequal society. We cannot accept as mere opinions what are blatant crimes, nor tolerate the onslaught of racism and xenophobia as though it were nothing more than harmless rhetorical confrontation. Several parties who follow this strategy have embarked on a concerted “assault on the institutions” for the upcoming European elections, with the goal of fighting the integration process from within. A defense of the EU project requires building dams in each country against a discourse that aims to destroy the values of equality, justice and solidarity upon which the entire European project is built.

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