First, former prime minister Silvio, running for re-election in the upcoming February 24 and 25 vote, announced on Monday that he would initiate a massive, and widely panned as impossible, tax refund program on his first day running the cash-strapped Italian government. The Milan stock exchange promtply reacted with a precipitous 4.5 percent drop. Then, on the same day, footage of his younger brother Paolo surfaced, in which the publisher and entrepreneur is heard calling a black soccer player “our little family Negro.”
All this after Paolo’s daughter Luna caused a wave of nationwide ridicule last week, by recounting on national tv her experiences as a young office intern in the U.S., where she discovered that “making photocopies is hard (…) especially if they are double-sided.”
An observer unfamiliar with Silvio Berlusconi’s stranglehold on moderate, center-right voters in Italy could think that such a trifecta of horrors would sink his campaign. But it hasn’t. Berlusconi’s People of Freedom, or PDL in Italian, party is doing all right in the polls, consistently around 25 percent. Not bad for a leader who resigned in disgrace in 2011 amid the infamous “bunga bunga” scandal and is currently on trial, charged with paying a minor for sex.
One of the reasons he is still popular is the soccer team he owns, AC Milan. In a country where soccer is nothing short of a religion, AC Milan’s impressive winning streak in the two and a half decades since Berlusconi bought it is a political factor. And it may not be a chance that, in the middle of a heated campaign, Berlusconi announced last week that he had spent 20 million euros ($25 million) to buy Mario Balotelli, the Italian national team’s best striker, from the English team Manchester City.
Several analysts have proposed the theory that Berlusconi figured it was a small price to pay to gain political points for bringing back home the man who became a national hero by sinking the hated Germans, at last year’s European cup, with a pair of spectacular goals.
This time, though, the honor of associating the Berlusconi name to a horrible racist utterance fell to Silvio’s brother Paolo, who concluded a political convention near Milan by praising the local candidate he was there to support on behalf of his brother. Nothing strange there. But then he added an invitation to everybody present to go see Balotelli play in his debut for AC Milan, with the following words:
“Now let’s go see the little family Negro, that crazy hothead.” (Balotelli, the son of Ghanaian immigrants adopted as a child by a white Italian family, happens to be black.)
As the video below shows, posted on the Youtube channel of the Monza Brianza provincial administration, the audience laughs.
Granted, Italy does not have a history of slavery, or of a civil rights struggle by people who didn’t look like the majority of the country – and comments that would be the instant end of a public figure’s career in the U.S. are shrugged off by most Italians as little more than ill-advised humor. Dark-skinned people weren’t even a common sight in the country until immigration from Africa began in earnest in the 1980s. But making references to a black man as someone’s property is beyond the pale in Italy just as it would be anywhere else.
Then again, Berlusconi Jr. may just be an incredibly insensitive person, rather than an out-and-out racist. After all, he’s the brother of the man who, when Barack Obama was first elected president in 2008, congratulated him by calling him “young, good-looking and tan.”
In any case, Balotelli isn’t voting for Berlusconi come election time. “I’m not going to vote for him. I never go vote,” the 22-year old told Italian tv La7 on Monday.