At the time, it was a big story. A local police chief had been killed and nine immigrants rounded up. The newspapers denounced the suspects as “lazy beggars” and “violent criminals.” Amid the public outrage, a frenzied mob broke into the prison, found 11 members of the same ethnic minority as the alleged perpetrators, and lynched them all.
All the victims were Italian. The year was 1891, the place was New Orleans, and the United States was in the grip of a wave of vicious racism directed at a newly arrived wave of immigrants from Italy. In a sign of the depth of the hostility, a New York Times editorial praised the lynching as a warning to other Italian “criminals”; Theodore Roosevelt, later to become president, described it as a “rather good thing.”
Now, let’s ask ourselves, who do we in Europe most commonly denounce today as “lazy beggars” and criminals? Who are singled out for racist beatings and even murder? My people. The Roma.
In Italy today, the Roma face a level of racism and bigotry that would seem familiar to Italian immigrants to the United States over a century ago. Consider the media coverage, dominated by reports of crime rings handling stolen goods and even smuggling arms. It would be a mistake to say that there are no criminals of Romani origin; there are, just as there are criminals of every other ethnic descent. Despite this, many in Italy now support and vote for politicians who dehumanize and demonize the Roma as part of their policy.
But consider official policy too: If you fit the Italian state’s image of “nomad”—the official term used to describe Roma and Sinti people—you could find yourself trapped with the thousands of people now living in taxpayer-funded, apartheid-like camps, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by police or private security guards. In Europe, there is no worse example to be found of forced segregation enshrined in state policy.
This hatred towards the Roma—that same racist hate endured by Italians in 1891—expands beyond Italy’s borders. A recent report documents that in Europe around one in three Roma had experienced a criminal act of hate in the previous year.
This is a threat for everyone. It does not depend on what your ethnic background or cultural identity is, but how others perceive, imagine, or define you. And this is not completely in your control. The behavior of certain Italians and their leaders towards Roma has nothing to do with Roma culture or behavior. The problem does not lie with the Roma, but with those Italians and Italian institutions who see Roma only through the lens of their own prejudices and their mistaken ideas of Roma culture.
I am not talking only about respect for diversity or the protection of minorities but something much deeper, something that concerns all of us. It is about who we are as Europeans—or “civilized” Europeans as we like to proudly imagine ourselves—and how we define ourselves as humans who either have suffered hate in the past or could suffer hate in the future, and what our humanity actually means. European leaders will have more moral high-ground to speak about and acting upon hate crimes outside of Europe if they do their job at home as their “civilized” nations deserve.
Those who have suffered injustice in the past are best placed to denounce it in the present. The memory of past prejudice should make Italians able to understand Roma and others who suffer hateful acts—Africans, Muslims, Jews, gays, Central or Eastern Europeans, Russians. Just as it took many American leaders to transform American society, it is the responsibility of Italian leaders to transform Italy, and European leaders to transform Europe.
They now have a chance to do that for Europe. The forthcoming Italian presidency of the European Union, the EU elections for a new European Parliament in May, the naming of a new European Commission, and the passage of a new budget are all big moments for Italy. Italy should use this opportunity to lead Europeans away from hate. The Le Pens, Wilders, or Vonas of Europe cannot be an excuse for doing less, but a reason for doing more. Italy should start by abandoning its own apartheid-like policy of putting Roma and Sinti in special camps, an approach that has proved morally repugnant and economically nonsensical.
If Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister, decides to seize this opportunity, he and his government will strengthen Italy and Europe in the most profound way. It is time for Italy, conscious of its own past, to take a lead in building a Europe where no one faces humiliation or persecution because of their identity.