The Racial Economies of Criminalization, Immigration, and Policing in Italy

By Angel-Ajani, Asale | Social Justice, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Racial Economies of Criminalization, Immigration, and Policing in Italy


Angel-Ajani, Asale, Social Justice


OVER THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS, EUROPE HAS MOVED TOWARD MORE REPRESSIVE immigration laws and strict enforcement measures. The intensifying policing of national borders has created state-sanctioned practices of targeting particular immigrant groups, especially women from South America, sub-Saharan African countries, and nonimmigrant groups such as the Roma community, as potential "criminals." Additionally, in Italy and the rest of Europe (much like the United States), discourses on immigration are joined with the rhetoric of crime and prevention in such a way that migrant populations are popularly viewed as clandestine or "illegal" and therefore prone to criminal behavior.

Not surprisingly, then, discourses on crime and on who commits it are saturated with the language of citizenship, social class, gender, and race. Issues of immigration, like those of crime and criminals, are viewed as public policy dilemmas in which themes of immigrant criminality are salient to the point that the criminalization of migrant minorities is now "relatively uncontroversial" (Keith, 1993: 198). Likewise, Biko Agozino (1996: 103) argues that the societal imagination already regards immigrants as criminals because "spatial mobility is expected to imply anomie." The climate of anti-immigrant rhetoric relies on the dual discourses of criminalization and cultural difference. In Italy, immigrants of color are very visible and their numbers are few (roughly 2.2% of the population), thus making them easy targets of criminalization. In this essay, I will explore the discourse on criminality as it affects the lives of migrant African women in Italy. I demonstrate how law enforcement agencies and policymakers in Italy resorted to targeting particular immigrant groups, based on race, gender, and national origin. To be sure, much of this practice is informed by what W.E.B. Du Bois and others recognized as world-historic and systemic phenomena of race and gender that are globally enforced. The thrust of this essay is to illustrate how the culture of suspicion, hostility, and criminalization of African women in Italy is locally produced and understood.

African immigrants in Italy, as racially marked subjects, are affected by the discourses of race and criminalization. Rather than discuss immigrants in Italy's social landscape generally, my focus is on policing strategies (by the state and the populous) and forms of racism that have been on the rise as immigrant populations in Italy become more visible. To understand how the conflation of race and criminalization occurs, we must see beyond the commonsense formations of Third World migration in Italy and Europe. Conceptions of race and belonging found in traditional narratives of colonial contact can also be rooted in declining national economies. On the one hand, this recognition frees one from the fetishizing analyses of what Hall (1996) calls the "post-colonial chickens coming home to roost" scenario, which does not always speak to Italy's emerging West African population, or to migration waves in other parts of Europe. It also challenges scholars and students of immigration into Italy to address the emergence of discursive and practical notions of race and racism within Italy's borders.

Ann Laura Stoller's (1995: 60) evaluation of Michel Foucault's analysis of race and racial discourse suggests that for Foucault, "racial discourse consolidates not because of Europe's imperial ventures in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but because of its internal conquests and invasions within the borders of Europe itself." Moving away from the narratives of colonial contact allows for a reading of contemporary racial and immigration politics that does not rely on the dominant trope of the race and ethnic typologies that began there. Rather, in the case of Italy, we are challenged to look both internally and externally at Italian views on race. These views are shaped by the history of the miscegenation and "race" laws of 1938 (Sbacchi, 1985), notions of the perceived cultural and racial differences of Southern Italians, and the experiences of discrimination faced by Italian immigrants around the world. …

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