Last week in Italy, a heated and racially-charged debate about the Roma community dominated headlines. The debate was sparked by a tragic hit-and-run incident that took place in Rome on May 28. While fleeing a police checkpoint, the driver hit nine people, killing one. The driver and one of the passengers fled authorities, while another passenger was immediately detained.
When it was reported that the arrested woman was Roma, a wave of racist rhetoric swept across news outlets, the internet, and within communities across the country. Among the more extreme statements were: “We must burn all Roma people” and “Roma people are the dregs of humanity”.
Right-wing political organizations sought to exploit the tragedy for political gain. A fascist organization, CasaPound, infiltrated an anti-Roma sit-in near a Roma camp and organized a new sit-in. Members of the political party Lega Nord participated in several television broadcasts, harshly attacking Roma and even campaigning for the bulldozing of Roma camps and social centers. Local elections were one of the reasons for the harsh tone, but not the only one.
The hysteria developed as a result of a political climate that is increasingly focused on marginalizing the “other”. Main contributors to this climate include Lega Nord and CasaPound. Lega Nord was founded in the 90s to pursue the secession of the “productive North” from the “lazy South” of Italy. Recently, a series of corruption scandals linked with Lega Nord’s former leader, Umberto Bossi, and his political associates threatened to fold the party.
Lega Nord’s new leader, Matteo Salvini, changed the party’s focus from regionalist to nationalist. This calculation was made in response to the growing electoral success of racist and anti-European right-wing parties, particularly Marine Le Pen’s Front National. To create something similar on this side of the Alps, Salvini’s electoral strategy has been to capitalize on anti-austerity sentiment to push a nationalistic, anti-European agenda. Racism has always characterized Lega Nord’s approach. Initially it targeted Southern Italians, but in seeking a national base, it has identified new enemies. Indeed, the party’s slogan, “Italians First”, aims to blame migrants and Roma for any and all problems with the welfare system.
In the current climate, every crime committed by foreigners, every opening of a new refugee facility and every new arrival of migrants is used to stoke hatred against these people. The far-right systematically portrays Roma and refugees as criminals who receive preferential treatment from the government, thus generating their own “social truth”. Some sociologists define a “social truth” as a position that is perceived as true without any link to reality.
The current economic landscape makes for fertile ground for this type of discourse: over 12% unemployment, 40% youth unemployment, 25% of families at risk of poverty and a policy shift toward market-based policies at the expense of the welfare system, precisely when it is most needed.
The Italian media consistently ignores facts that contradict headlines: according to the Italian road safety association ASAPS, 76% of hit-and-run drivers in 2013 were Italian; just two days after the tragedy in Rome, an off-duty police officer driving a motorcycle under the influence of alcohol and cocaine ran over a 78 year old man, killing him instantly; the woman who died in the accident in Rome came from the Philippines, so she too was a migrant.
The lack of a critical media and of a strong, opposing vision by the Italian left enables the far-right to dominate the debate about the economy, welfare and rights. Without opposing views and ideas, the notion of societal-membership as a nationalistic construct will continue to grow in Italy, further strengthening Lega Nord and CasaPound along lines already seen in other parts of Europe. Another vision of society is strongly needed. It is the only effective antidote to racism.
Written by Giansandro Merli