Alessandra, 68, was born in Rome and has lived through several waves of immigration in Italy.
She supports Kyenge, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo but is an Italian citizen, and says the slurs against her are “despicable” and those responsible should be punished.
“They are made by the ‘stupid’ few, who say and do these things every now and then,” she tells The Local. “It doesn’t reflect what most Italians think.”
A crippling economic crisis, alongside ‘uncontrolled’ immigration, causes the issue to flare up, adds Alessandra.
“We’re not racist, we know how to integrate,” she says.
“But immigration right now is out of control and should be better coordinated - you have people arriving with no qualifications, no way of working and they don’t know the language. How are they supposed to find a job and live here properly?”
The problem is also exacerbated by Italy’s high unemployment: 3.089 million were out of work in June, according to figures released today by the Istat data agency.
Giovanni Fiorelli, who runs a newspaper stand in Rome, says the anti-immigration Northern League party constantly fans the flames of racism as a “political stunt”. Roberto Calderoli, a politician with the party, is under investigation for defamation after he likened Kyenge to an ‘orangutan’ during a political rally in July.
“Politicians like him just use racism to get votes, they also use the fact that we’re in a crisis too,” says Fiorelli.
“It’s not that Italians are racist; the country isn’t in a good position right now, both politically and economically. There’s a lot of tension. Immigration needs to be better controlled, what we don’t like is seeing people coming here to just beg on the street.”
Alessio Agostini says he felt “ashamed” by the attacks against Kyenge. However, he believes the country has bigger problems to contend with.
“I don’t think we are any more racist than anywhere else, but this crisis is sparking the problem.”
Italy’s reaction to the attacks against Kyenge is also perhaps reflected in an online petition, in which 181,658 people called for Calderoli’s dismissal. There have also been a number of anti-racism protests in Rome.
Mariete, a Romanian who has lived in Italy for 10 years, told The Local: “I work hard and live very well here, there is no racism towards me.”
Still, Italy is in a “process of maturation” when it comes to dealing with racism, Ferrucio Pastore, director of the International and European Forum for Migration Research in Turin, told The Local in June.
“We're still on a learning curve,” he said.