Italian black lives should matter in Italy but don’t

Being of African descent in Italy means facing systemic racism, irrespective of whether one is a recently arrived refugee or migrant, or was born and raised in the country.

Willy Monteiro Duarte was a 21-year-old black Italian whose family came from Cape Verde and are now living in Paliano, a small municipality about an hour from Rome. He was killed in the early hours of 6 September during a fight while attempting to rescue a friend who was being beaten by four white Italian men outside a club in Colleferro on the outskirts of Rome. 

It is still unclear whether Monteiro Duarte’s killing was racially motivated. But even if his family doesn’t agree with this interpretation, his death caused a spate of antiracist protests throughout Italy as he was the first black person to be killed in the country after George Floyd’s death in the United States.

After a few weeks of social protests, both online and in the streets, public interest in what led to Monteiro Duarte’s death seems to have gradually faded. Essentially, his murder once again brought back a tearing hypocrisy that Italian society tries to constantly sweep under the carpet: black lives matter only when they come to an end as far away as possible outside the country. 

The tragedy occurred just when it looked as if the murder of Floyd had awakened the conscience of many white Italians, who joined the worldwide protests. Meanwhile, many black people have been wondering why there isn’t the same reaction when a black person dies or suffers physical and psychological violence in Italy. 

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This is the same question Angelica Pesarini, a black Italian professor who teaches sociology at the New York University in Florence, asked herself in an article published on 6 June on the website She concluded that “many black asylum seekers, migrants from Africa or ‘illegal immigrants’ [are] those who, perhaps, can be tolerated at the exit of a supermarket while they ask you for a coin, but who would [be looked at] with suspicion and distrust if they were behind you in line to withdraw [money] from the ATM”. 

Black people in Italy, both Italians and migrants, still experience such discrimination often. This is probably the reason that the antiracist groups, no matter the motivation behind Monteiro Duarte’s murder, seem to have taken his death as a pretext to talk about the living conditions of black people in Italy and raise their voice against the discrimination and violence they suffer every day.

Italy’s list of shame

The killing of Monteiro Duarte is the latest in a considerable list of black people slaughtered and forgotten in Italy. It started with the death of South African Jerry Essan Masslo on 24 August 1989. The case of the Mthatha-born refugee’s killing received huge media coverage at the time. Italy was just beginning to deal with migration flows from the African continent, and his murder led to the first antiracist demonstrations in the country as well as to reforms of the laws recognising refugee status, which was previously denied to African people. 

The so-called Martelli law of 1990 was the first attempt to address issues of immigration in a country that had discovered it was no longer a land of emigration, but a place to which thousands of migrants – at the time exceeding well over half a million – decided to move in order to improve their living conditions.

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Since then little has changed, and many other black people in Italy have been murdered or suffered physical assaults. On 14 September 2008, Abdul William Guibre, originally from Burkina Faso, was murdered with a lead pipe by a father and son, café owners who accused “Abba” of having stolen some biscuits. On 13 December 2011, Diop Mor and Samb Modou, both Senegalese, were shot dead in Florence by a far-right extremist who also severely injured three more Senegalese while escaping from the police. 

On 3 February 2018, another far-right extremist tried to carry out a mass killing of black people in the province of Macerata, injuring six sub-Saharan migrants with his gun. On 5 March 2018, another Senegalese man, the street vendor Idy Diene, was killed in Florence because of his skin colour. On 2 June 2018, the Malian farmhand and trade unionist Soumaila Sacko was shot dead while he was accompanying two friends to collect some scrap metal for their shack in the Calabria region. And on 16 June 2018, Assane Diallo, a Senegalese bouncer, was gunned down in Milan by a man who claimed he was Mussolini’s nephew before shooting. The list is long, and who knows how many are missing.

19 September 2020: An Afro-Italian rapper performs at an antiracism demonstration that took place in Bologna, northern Italy. (Photographs by Alex Čizmić)

Second-class citizens

Since Masslo’s death so little has truly changed, especially from a cultural point of view, and it has pushed many black people to think about leaving Italy. Law reforms have never taken into account the current reality in which thousands of second-generation migrants are and feel Italian. The country still refuses to come to terms with its colonial past, and white Italians still refuse to question their privilege. Black people are still seen as outsiders, even if they were born and raised in Italy. The reform of citizenship law is still not central on the political agenda – about a million people now have been waiting for years to get citizenship.

A family member of one of Monteiro Duarte’s alleged murderers declared: “What did they do? He was just an immigrant.” This inhuman justification of murder reflects the climate of intolerance and xenophobia that is present in Italy and has been exacerbated in the past few years by far-right parties such as Matteo Salvini’s Northern League. 

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Monteiro Duarte’s killing has also shown the inability of a large part of the mainstream media to deal with black people because of prejudices and stereotypes inherent in Italian culture. Many media outlets described Duarte as “well integrated”, apparently forgetting that he was born and raised in Italy and should therefore be considered an Italian who didn’t need to be integrated.

The refusal to recognise black people’s Italianness was well expressed by activist and writer Espérance Hakuzwimana Ripanti in her book E poi basta: Manifesto di una donna nera italiana (That’s enough: Manifesto of a black Italian woman). Talking about her physical differences, the writer, who was born in Rwanda and grew up in Italy, writes that when she was a child, “the Africa I had inside could not go away, it was a giant stain”. This “stain” placed Ripanti at centre stage multiple times, even if she didn’t want to be there. She couldn’t accept the situation and, in order to feel understood, she developed an imaginary relationship with a black rag doll to counter the absence of black people around her.

Black people in political life

“A real change necessarily passes by a greater representation and participation of black people in the political life, because nobody has our demands at heart,” said Abril Muvumbi, a 23-year-old politician from the northeastern city of Imola, who was a candidate in local council elections in her municipality. “I realised that it is good to have black activists, but there is also a need for black Italian politicians. Activists need to build a dialogue with politics, so if they don’t find anybody who can understand them and really care about them, they won’t succeed.” 

19 September 2020: An Italian boy of Tunisian descent stands in front of banners decrying racism at the Bologna protest.

Muvumbi inherited her passion for politics from her father, a former president of the Congolese community in Italy. She realised the importance of having black politicians after working in Brussels with Congolese-born former Minister for Integration Cécile Kyenge, who was the first black cabinet minister in Italy’s history. “It is important to be there, to be represented. We black people must join the political parties and raise our voices within them so that everybody can understand the importance of a change. 

“There are also right-wing Afro-descendants and that’s fine, because it makes it clear that we don’t all share the same vision and that we are not all leftist. Your origin doesn’t determine your political orientation. This way of thinking is itself a form of discrimination. So in the future it could absurdly happen that the League party starts accepting more Afro-descendants in their ranks and carries out the reform of the citizenship law [because it would become a priority then],” said Muvumbi.

Action over performance

In her article, Pesarini also observed that a part of the antiracist movement in Italy exists purely in a performative dimension. This particularly applies to white Italians who still struggle to question their privileges.

“She’s not wrong,” said Anthony Chima, a 30-year-old activist of Nigerian descent and member of the Italian version of the Black Lives Matter group that was founded in June last year in Bologna, the Italian city most sensitive to social justice issues. “The antiracist movement in Italy has actually been performative because it lacked representatives in the decision-making institutions. Today it is easier and more effective, because if mainstream media keep ignoring us, we can create our own channels to spread our cause.”

19 September 2020: The protest against racism drew a mixed crowd. Many Italians were quick to condemn the death of George Floyd in the United States, but killings at home hardly ever elicit the same reaction.

Chima continued: “Racism is always mixed with politics and immigration. Italy always tries to mix it with politics and procrastinate because it is unable to address this issue. It doesn’t want to address it. But the new generations are prepared on a communicative level as well, so Italy can no longer procrastinate because the people who rebel and protest are as Italian as they are and they’ll make themselves heard. Racism is systemic, so we activists need to become systemic too and penetrate those areas where racism is ignored.” 

While highlighting that the Black Lives Matter movement is first of all about a matter of life, of civic conscience and of empathy for other people, Chima said that in order to change their mentality, privileged people “should listen and study to understand why people take to the streets to protest. They should put themselves in our shoes to question their privileges and become aware that special treatment shouldn’t exist.”

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