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Correction: Italy's Race Problem story

Friday - 5/3/2013, 11:10am  ET

ROME (AP) -- In a May 1 story about racism in Italy, datelined Rome, The Associated Press incorrectly reported that a current French minister is from the French region of Guyana. The minister is from French Guiana, an overseas region of France in South America. Guyana is a separate country in South America.

A corrected version of the story is below:

Italy race problems seen with black gov't minister

Racist taunts greet appointment of Italy's 1st black gov't minister, highlighting race problem

By NICOLE WINFIELD

Associated Press

ROME (AP) -- It was hailed as a giant step forward for racial integration in a country that has long been ill at ease with its growing immigrant classes. But Cecile Kyenge's appointment as Italy's first black Cabinet minister has instead exposed the nation's ugly race problem, a blight that flares regularly on the soccer pitch with racist taunts and in the diatribes of xenophobic politicians -- but has now raised its head at the center of political life.

One politician from a party that not long ago ruled in a coalition derided what he called Italy's new "bonga bonga government." On Wednesday, amid increasing revulsion over the reaction, the government authorized an investigation into neo-fascist websites whose members called Kyenge "Congolese monkey" and other epithets.

Kyenge, 48, was born in Congo and moved to Italy three decades ago to study medicine. An eye surgeon, she lives in Modena with her Italian husband and two children. She was active in local center-left politics before winning a seat in the lower Chamber of Deputies in February elections.

Premier Enrico Letta tapped Kyenge to be minister of integration in his hybrid center-left and center-right government that won its second vote of confidence Tuesday. In his introductory speech to Parliament, Letta touted Kyenge's appointment as a "new concept about the confines of barriers giving way to hope, of unsurpassable limits giving way to a bridge between diverse communities."

His praise and that of others has been almost drowned out by the racist slurs directed at Kyenge by politicians of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, an on-again, off-again ally of long-serving ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi, and members of neo-fascist Internet groups.

In addition to his "bonga bonga" slur, Mario Borghezio, a European parliamentarian for the League, warned in an interview with Radio 24 that Kyenge would try to "impose tribal traditions" from her native Congo on Italy.

Kyenge on Tuesday responded to the insults, thanking those who had come to her defense and taking a veiled jab at the vulgarity of her critics. "I believe even criticism can inform if it's done with respect," she tweeted.

Unlike France, Germany or Britain, where second and third generations of immigrants have settled albeit uneasily, Italy is a relative newcomer to the phenomenon. France has several high-ranking government ministers with immigrant roots, and few French had a problem with the appointments: Former President Nicolas Sarkozy named a justice minister and urban policy minister, both born in France to North African parents, to his cabinet, while his minister for human rights was born in Senegal. Francois Hollande's government spokeswoman was born in Morocco and raised in France, and his interior minister was born in Spain. He also has two black ministers from French overseas regions -- one from French Guiana and one from Guadeloupe.

Italy is another story. Once a country of emigration to North and South America at the turn of the last century, Italy saw the first waves of migrants from Eastern Europe and Africa coming to its shores only in the 1980s. In the last decade or two, their numbers have increased exponentially, and with them anti-immigrant sentiment: Surveys show Italians blame immigrants for crime and overtaxing the already burdened public health system. Foreigners made up about 2 percent of Italy's population in 1990; currently the figure stands at 7.5 percent, according to official statistics bureau Istat.

Some of the most blatant manifestations of racism occur in the realm of Italy's favorite sport, soccer -- which for Italians and others has shown itself to be a perfect venue for displays of pent-up emotions. In the case of a handful of Italian teams, soccer is a way for right-wing fan clubs to vent.

Mario Balotelli, the AC Milan striker born in Palermo to Ghanaian immigrants and raised by an Italian adoptive family, knows all about it. Perhaps Italy's best player today, he has long been the subject of racist taunts on and off the field: Rival fans once hung a banner during a match saying "Black Italians don't exist" while the vice-president of his own club once called him the household's "little black boy."

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