By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
It was an unusual setting in Italy, or at least so I thought. My wife and I sat at a meeting there of the directorate (national leadership) of an immigrant association known as “Prendiamo La Parola.” Looking around the room, it felt more like we were attending a leadership meeting of a Pan African Congress. The African World was represented in the room. Actually, not just represented; it was the entire room.
Hailing from the Dominican Republic, Peru, Tunisia, Algeria, Ethiopia, the Cameroon and Nigeria were leaders of a developing movement in Italy of migrants. Like migrants around the world, they left their home countries for an assortment of individual reasons. Taken together, it represented the response by millions of people to the legacy of colonialism, the slave trade, wars, environmental devastation, and economic underdevelopment, all largely imposed on the global South by the global North. The slogan that summarizes this movement, not just in Italy but in much of the world, was coined in Britain: “We are here because you were there!” In other words, migration from the global South is the direct result of the assault on the global South by the global North over hundreds of years.
There are migrants from other parts of the world in Italy, for sure. The Philippines has a large contingent that is especially centered in domestic service. Eastern Europe has sent waves, especially from Albania and more recently Rumania. Yet, it is the migration from the African World that has especially become the site of controversy in Italy since it has been seized upon by right-wing groups as a way of scaring non-migrants with the fear of a racial takeover of the country by the ‘hordes’ from the South. Most recently the Italian Minister for Integration—a woman of African descent—has come under assault, literally and figuratively, by right-wingers, including being satirized as an orangutan. It is this sort of right-wing racism that has brought groups like Prendiamo La Parola together, and focused them on building alliances with other parts of Italian society to fight not only against such racist attacks, but for an expansion of Italian democracy.
One feature of the plight of African migrants to Italy—a plight suffered by many migrants to the USA—that struck me was the near irrelevance of the skills that they had gained in their home countries once they have arrived in Italy. Individuals who gained advanced degrees from credible institutions and/or practiced in respectable professions in their home countries, have found themselves relegated to janitorial positions, tour guides, personal service, or dangerous manufacturing once they migrate. It may be around this matter that these and other migrants begin to push the envelope, i.e., to pose the question as to why is that their prior skills and achievements should be cast aside?
Sitting in a room with people from Africa and those of African descent was sobering. It placed the issue of migration and immigration in a very different light. I would like to have captured that experience and the countless discussions on film and shown them to African American audiences in the USA. It would become, to borrow the cliché, a teachable moment.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him on Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.