I often find myself wondering in this country whether the statement “Italians are racist” is, in itself, something of a racist, or at least prejudiced statement. It is definitely fair to say, however, that racist attitudes are much more socially and politically acceptable here than in the UK or France. Not only is the Lega Nord, which has policies that are so racist they don't even like Italians from the wrong part of the country, one of the major political parties, but politicians from the so-called “centrist” parties make openly racist statements too.
Yesterday, with a whole day entirely by myself to fill, I spent some time reading the back issues of the newspapers which I tend to buy, read the magazine section and fail to finish the news and I came across an article where Berlusconi and other politicians were claiming that Milan is in danger of becoming “an African city” and criticising the fact that there are so many black faces on its street. It's hard to imagine mainstream politicians in the UK getting away with making that kind of statement, but even the Corriere della Sera, which is one of the more enlightened Italian papers, could only manage a tone of mild criticism of their attitudes. To put the statement into perspective, around 13% of the population of Milan is made up of “foreigners”. That includes the fashion designers who create the clothes of the rich and famous, and the international footballers that Berlusconi himself pays a fortune to import for his team. It includes people like me, who come to give Italian children the education in English that their parents covet and the Filippinos that they trust to look after these children while they go out to more attractive employment.
Where the anti-immigrant voices of Italy often go wrong, deliberately or otherwise, is in failing to make a distinction between immigrants and illegal immigrants, which makes it easier for them to make the presence of foreigners seem like a threat and therefore makes all racism seem more acceptable. “Of course that black man is not to be trusted,” the thinking goes, “because he is almost certainly cheating the system and stealing my country's resources.” (Never mind that the best people at cheating the system in Italy are the Italians themselves.) And perhaps what makes these foreign faces so supposedly prevalent on the streets of Milan is the fact that these racist attitudes make it very difficult for the “wrong” kind of foreigner to get a job that will take them off the streets and into a job that is more profitable than selling crummy plastic toys in the metro station.