ROME - Cecile Kyenge's appointment as Italy's first black Cabinet minister has exposed the nation's ugly race problem, a blight that flares regularly on the soccer pitch with racist taunts and in the diatribes of xenophobic politicians - but has now raised its head at the center of political life.
One politician derided what he called Italy's new "bonga bonga government." On Wednesday, amid increasing revulsion over the reaction, the government authorized an investigation into neo-fascist websites whose members called Kyenge "Congolese monkey" and other epithets.
Kyenge, 48, was born in Congo and moved to Italy three decades ago to study medicine. An eye surgeon, she lives in Modena with her Italian husband and two children. She was active in local center-left politics before winning a seat in the lower Chamber of Deputies in February elections.
Premier Enrico Letta tapped Kyenge to be minister of integration in his hybrid center-left and center-right government that won its second vote of confidence Tuesday. Letta touted Kyenge's appointment as a "new concept about the confines of barriers giving way to hope, of unsurpassable limits giving way to a bridge between diverse communities."
His praise and that of others has been almost drowned out by the racist slurs by politicians of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, an on-again, off-again ally of ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi, and members of neo-fascist Internet groups.
In addition to his "bonga bonga" slur, Mario Borghezio, a European parliamentarian for the League, warned in an interview with Radio 24 that Kyenge would try to "impose tribal traditions" from her native Congo on Italy.
Kyenge on Tuesday responded to the insults, thanking those who had come to her defense and taking a veiled jab at the vulgarity of her critics. "I believe even criticism can inform if it's done with respect," she tweeted.
Unlike France, Germany or Britain, where second and third generations of immigrants have settled albeit uneasily, Italy is a relative newcomer to the phenomenon.
Once a country of emigration to North and South America at the turn of the last century, Italy saw the first waves of migrants from Eastern Europe and Africa coming to its shores only in the 1980s.
Their numbers have increased exponentially, and with them anti-immigrant sentiment: Surveys show Italians blame immigrants for crime and overtaxing the already burdened public health system. Foreigners made up about 2 percent of Italy's population in 1990; currently the figure stands at 7.5 percent, according to official statistics bureau Istat.
"There was no racism 40 years ago because there were no non-white Italians," said James Walston, a political science professor at American University of Rome.
"It will take a long time - probably there will never be a completely racism-free society - but it will take a long time for Italy to reach the sort of acceptance, multi-cultural acceptance that the rest of Europe has and North America has," he said in an interview.