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Kyenge sent suspicious powder as racism row escalates

League says feud with first black minister strictly political

15 January, 16:19
Kyenge sent suspicious powder as racism row escalates (By Christopher Livesay) (ANSA) - Rome, January 15 - Suspicious powder was mailed to Italy's first black minister on Wednesday, sparking alarm in the capital and fomenting an ongoing debate over the role that race plays in political discourse as politicians battle over the country's immigration policies. Firefighters were called to the premier's office when the mail-processing center intercepted a letter leaking suspicious powder addressed to Congolese-born Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge. Police later confirmed the powder to be baking soda, concealed inside an envelope mailed from Palermo with no return address. Members of the anti-immigrant Northern League have often been behind non-violent, verbal abuse against Kyenge, with one leader likening her to an orangutan last year. On Tuesday the party's newspaper La Padania published her daily schedule as Italy's parliament debated abolishing a League-sponsored law criminalizing illegal immigration. Kyenge, once an undocumented immigrant herself, has been at the forefront of the drive to repeal that law.

"Kyenge is in favor of Negritude like in France, but we can do without it," Northern League Senate whip Massimo Bitonci said during the debate on the floor Tuesday. The center-left Democratic Party (PD), which is in the majority of Italy's left-right coalition, promptly blasted the League and Bitonci's statement as racist and subversive.

On Wednesday the League defended the term 'Negritude', a movement founded by blacks in France in the 1930s that embraced their African heritage and rejected French colonial racism. "Negritude is not a racist term," said La Padania Editor-in-Chief Aurora Lussana. "Ours is a political attack on Kyenge for her absence of government action. She needs to put an end to this victimization. We've also gone after Development Minister Flavio Zanonato. I'd like to hear the chorus of indignation also for someone from the Veneto region". Lombardy Governor Roberto Maroni, the former leader of the Northern League, defended the paper's decision to publish Kyenge's schedule, which she said was tantamount to "a threat against democracy".

"Her appointments were on the ministry website. I don't understand why opposing her must be considered racist while opposing me is considered democracy," he said.

But some center-left analysts say certain statements by League members and other politicians suggest their differences with Kyenge are not strictly political. "Black people? They have the good fortune not to need to wear make-up like us," said Jole Santelli, an MP from three-time premier Silvio Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia party. "They're lucky," she added during an immigration debate on the public RAI television network that included Minister Kyenge.

In addition to an outpouring of solidarity from fellow center-left politicians, Kyenge was bolstered by fellow cabinet member Angelino Alfano, the deputy premier and interior minister from the New Center Right party. "We have guaranteed full support for the minister, and we're against every form of racism," he said on Italian radio. "Then we can differ over immigration policy".