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.”