Emmanuel Bonsu Foster comes from Ghana. He was 13 when he settled in Italy with his parents. One sunny afternoon in late September, Foster, now 22, was sitting on a park bench in Parma waiting for his classes to begin at a nearby technical institute. Seven men–plainclothed police officers, although he didn’t know that–suddenly appeared and knocked him to the ground. They beat and kicked him, beat him some more in the police car, strip-searched him at the station, taunted him with “monkey” and “negro,” took Abu Ghraib-style photos of the cowering “criminal” and finally, after six hours, released him. His left eye was hemorrhaging, and he was carrying an envelope with his personal effects on which the cops had scrawled “Emmanuel Negro.” It seemed Foster wasn’t a pusher, after all. He was just black.

Once upon a time, this Catholic country prided itself that Italians were brava gente, good people, tolerant. No more. The right’s snarling emphasis on “security” in the run-up to last April’s elections (for “security,” read: “protecting Italians from immigrants and Gypsies”) sent a message that police have been quick to act on. Muslim immigrants should go “piss in their own mosques” was how the notorious deputy mayor of Treviso, Giancarlo Gentilini of the racist, xenophobic Northern League, put it. When Minister for Reforms Umberto Bossi remarked that Italians don’t want “the Bingo Bongos” living here, the barroom racism of the third Berlusconi government was official.

Small wonder, then, that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, during a press conference with Dmitri Medvedev in Moscow on November 6, felt emboldened to make his little barroom joke too. “He’s young, handsome and deeply tanned,” quipped Silvio of the newly elected Barack Obama. If what the Italian press reported is true, it took many days of patient diplomacy before Berlusconi could finally have his routine congratulatory phone call with Obama.

There’s an abyss in Italy these days between the many who think Berlusconi’s a riot–and those who understand that Obama’s victory means “the default mode is no longer white,” as one commentator here put it. Hundreds of Italians posted “not in my name” messages on the web against Berlusconi’s casual racism. Demographer Massimo Livi-Bacci, who has argued eloquently for the many benefits of immigration, observed that Obama’s multicultural example will surely be good for Italy, which needs, he said, that evolution “brought about by integration and the blending of different social and ethnic groups.”

“The shock waves from across the Atlantic” will change a lot of things, wrote the distinguished opinionist Barbara Spinelli in La Stampa, “and not only in politics, but in habits and public language.” The xenophobe, she added, is “a creature of Spinoza’s doleful passions: resentment, fear that voids the future, inability to hope or even to desire…. An Obama victory [is] good not only for America and not only because he is black…but because he shakes up that stasis that makes every civilization stagnate and perish.”

Nevertheless, with just one Afro-Italian in Parliament, Jean-Léonard Touadi, and very few foreign-born Italians in its political class, Italy is struggling to represent the 4 million foreigners–6.7 percent of the population–who live and work in this country. These include people like the farmworkers in the tomato fields of Puglia, who labor in virtual bondage and sometimes disappear forever. Like the six Africans gunned down on the street by Camorra mobsters in Castel Volturno north of Naples one day this past fall, just to warn blacks there was no place for them in the drug trade. All those whose lives are made precarious by the so-called Bossi-Fini immigration law (named after Northern League chief Bossi and Gianfranco Fini of the “post-Fascist” National Alliance), which instantly transforms the legal immigrant who loses a job into an illegal immigrant, subject to immediate expulsion or else to serious exploitation as a shadow worker. Now the government is planning segregated schools for the children of immigrants, so they too can be shadow Italians. When the Northern League recently thundered against building new mosques, the only authority who spoke up in favor of Muslim immigrants was Milan Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi–and he was immediately dismissed as a “communist.”

Although immigrants have little political voice, Italy does have a small but influential group of foreign-born intellectuals and public figures. These include writers like Algerian-born Amara Lakhous, author of Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, and actor-playwright Moni Ovadia, born in Bulgaria, who brings his Jewish identity to bear on Italian racism against groups like the Romany. But then there is Egyptian-born Magdi Cristiano Allam, a 2008 convert to Christianity and conservative editorialist for Corriere della Sera, who recently launched a political party, Protagonists for Christian Europe. As the party name suggests, Allam, born Muslim, is now a crusader against multiculturalism and radical Islam, a true believer in Europe’s Christian roots.

In his witty, exhilarating “what if” novel of 2008, L’inattesa piega degli eventi (An Unexpected Turn of Events), Enrico Brizzi brilliantly sums up the dusty, antiquated and ferociously reactionary attitudes of today’s right, describing an Italy of 1960 in which Mussolini, having made peace with the Allies, has reached a ripe old age along with his Fascist government and its African colonies. While the mainland is frozen in a time warp along with its senile Duce, anti-Fascist revolt is brewing among the Ethiopian underclass…

Were it not for the patient work of historian Angelo Del Boca, Italians would know little about their brutal treatment of Africans in the past. Del Boca’s 2005 book, Italiani, brava gente?, documents the mass slaughters–graves with as many as a thousand bodies have been uncovered–the use of chemical weapons and other atrocities the Italian army committed in the 1930s to subdue the tough Abyssinian and Libyan resistance. The hard questions that Germans have asked themselves about Nazism, or Americans about slavery, have never been asked here.

Yet perhaps these crimes do linger in the murky recesses of the collective unconscious. It’s at least one way to explain the knee-jerk racism of “Bingo Bongos,” the weird continued popularity of the obscenely jolly Fascist song “Faccetta Nera” (Little Black Face). But you have to wonder: does the Berlusconi government really not understand that in a world in which Barack Obama is president of the United States, a G-8 country that pursues racist policies risks becoming a pariah nation?

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Emmanuel Bonsu Foster needed an operation to save his eye. He has received many death threats and is seeing a psychologist, unable to go back to work or his studies. At least he’s alive, unlike Abdul Salam Guibre. Born in Burkina Faso, naturalized an Italian citizen, Guibre, 19, died in Milan in September. Two owners of a mobile street bar, father and son, beat him to death because they thought he had stolen a packet of biscuits.

Racism, they insisted, had nothing to do with it.