Who Counts as Italian? Second-Class Citizens and the Politics of Worthiness

Camilla Rossi
BSc Anthropology alumnus

Following the murder of history teacher Samuel Paty on the 16th of October 2020, Italian journalist and academic Ernesto Galli Della Loggia published a short piece in the national newspaper Corriere della Sera titled: “Paty’s case teaches us: pay attention to the Jus Culturae”. What the journalist is referring to is a 2015 law proposal drafted during the Renzi Cabinet (2014-2016). Its aim: to reform the procedures for the acquisition of Italian citizenship. 

The criteria currently regulating access to Italian citizenship are among the most restrictive in the European Union. Citizenship acquisition is regulated by Law no. 91/1992, according to which citizenship can only be acquired at birth through the ‘jus sanguinis’ (law of the blood), meaning nationality by descent without limitation of generation. Children born in Italy from foreign parents can become citizens after residing in the country legally and without interruptions until reaching eighteen years old, when they can declare their will to acquire Italian citizenship within the day in which they turn nineteen. In the case of third-country nationals, the minimum period of naturalisation is four years for EU-citizens and ten years for non-EU citizens, with the exception of citizenship acquired through marriage of an Italian citizen.

The jus culturae opened the possibility for minors who are born in Italy from foreign parents, or have arrived before twelve years old, to obtain Italian citizenship after regularly attending, and successfully completing, at least one educational cycle (average 5 years) in Italian schools. Although the law did not pass in 2017, and was mainly neglected during the following Conte Cabinet, it sparked a discussion which still widely engages young people, both in the media and in the streets.

Della Loggia took the French events as an occasion to warn the Italian public that we should be ‘wary’ to whom we grant the right of citizenship. With a populist and alarmist tone, he highlights the ‘scary, double-sided role’ the Muslim students played in Paty’s murder, and reflects on how one educational cycle ‘might not be enough to cleanse young people from perverted influences’. This kind of discourse is not uncommon in contemporary Italy. The notion of citizenship, sitting at the core of what it means to build a modern political community, is functioning as the political battleground through which different conceptualisations of national belonging are being contested along religious and racial lines.

Della Loggia’s words reminded me of a different case which sparked heated debates regarding the procedures for citizenship acquisition and loss. On the 20th of March 2019, in Milan, driver Ousseynou Sy seized and diverted a bus with 51 students on board. When intercepted by the police, the man set the vehicle on fire, as part of an action that he later explained as revenging the lives lost in the Mediterranean. Two of the students involved in the case, Ramy and Adam, played a fundamental role by reacting, freeing their tied hands and calling the police. The case is particularly interesting as it elucidates two intertwined narratives at play: the construction of the ‘Senegalese driver’, a naturalised Italian citizen by marriage, as a disposable, removable citizen, and, on the other side, the celebration of Ramy and Adam as the young ‘heroes’ of Egyptian and Moroccan origin to whom citizenship was promised as a reward for their courage. Both narratives deserve attention as they bring to light different ways in which the Italian State continues to maintain, reproduce and manipulate an exclusive and discriminatory understanding of national belonging.

#ItaliansWithoutCitizenship, Rome, 20th December 2017. Source

Second-Class Citizens and the Politics of Worthiness

Media representations depicted Ousseynou Sy’s case through strong reference to his country of origin, Senegal. Such targeted and racialised representations, although so normalised that they mostly go unnoticed, have concrete effects on the current state of third-country nationals in Italy. In fact, determining who ends up under the ‘securitization lens’ plays a fundamental role in the legitimisation of political discourses in modern nation-states (see Bigo: 2002). To exemplify, on the 4th of October 2018, the far-right politician Matteo Salvini, at the time Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, succeeded to enact the Security and Immigration Decree. This not only made citizenship applications longer and more troublesome, but also introduced a particular, problematic innovation: in the event that a crime is categorised as ‘terrorist’, citizenship acquired through naturalisation can be withdrawn automatically. This stance characterised Salvini’s public response to Ousseynou Sy’s case with his promise to withdraw his citizenship. 

Through this move, Salvini’s decree effectively institutionalised “first-class” (by descent) citizenships that cannot be revoked, and “second-class” citizenships (by naturalisation) over which the State exercises control. By granting notions of security greater salience than notions of equality, this point is still animatedly discussed as being unconstitutional, and therefore illegal*. Regardless whether citizenship can or cannot actually be removed, this targeted racialisation of discourse has a wide social impact. By reinstating its power through controlling openings and restrictions to citizenship access, the State effectively turns the figure of the racialised immigrant into the scapegoat of many structural questions lacking political solutions.

This not only engenders structural hierarchies of citizenships, but also functions as a powerful disciplining strategy of the State which consolidates the tacit, but explicit, understanding that only some of those residing in Italy must prove their deservingness to acquire civil rights and benefits – an attitude that, following Ramos-Zayas (2004: 25), I think of as the ‘politics of worthiness’ (ibid: 35). Immigrants, finding themselves under a constant spotlight, can engage in this politics of worthiness by striving to prove their deserved belonging to the social community. For example, as a response to the media explaining Ousseynou Sy’s behaviour as related to Senegalese culture, a public video of apologies was shared from a representative of the Senegalese community to dissociate from the event. The structural targeting of the immigrant becomes embodied in people’s need to position themselves in relation to the event because of their skin colour or religious beliefs. But what makes this necessary in the first place, considering that Article 27 of the Italian Constitution clearly states that ‘criminal responsibility is personal’? 

“Italy is not innocent,” 7th June 2020. Source

Citizenship: a reward or a right? 

Regarding the two pupils who prevented the unfolding of a potential tragedy, politicians from different parties proclaimed their will to grant them honorary citizenship by merit. This was wittily opposed by Ramy and Adam, as well as by their parents, by arguing that ‘citizenship would be a dream’, but it should ‘also go to their classmates’ that are equally Italians de facto but not de jure. This idea was not as widely and comfortably received; the debate concluded with their citizenship ceremony being held in July 2019, with great national pride and happiness. Citizenship ceremonies seem to be made to be awaited, romanticised, and celebrated. Still, this celebratory aura can function to hide uncomfortable questions, especially when the receiving subjects, like Ramy and Adam, have been residing in Italy for their whole lives. To further this, I find particularly indicative a reflection by Oiza Obasuti, from Ancona, regarding the ceremony she experienced when 18. She writes in her column for online journal The Vision: ‘Then the mayor tells you ‘Congratulations, you became Italian’ and everything you took for granted, all the certainties you may have had about your identity, crumble down and leave you to wonder: who was I until a moment before?’

Constructing citizenship as a precious reward, as the sanctioning of one’s (deserved) entitlement within society, is problematic not only because, as Obasuyi highlights, it can have detrimental effects on the individual’s self-perception, but it also prevents understandings of citizenship as a right that one holds. Constructing citizenship as a reward normalises and justifies processes of exclusion that operate since the child’s birth, hiding the bureaucratic, economic, social and psychological efforts involved in the process of naturalisation. The restrictive situation lived by these minors reminds me of what Agamben (1998:6) defines as ‘bare life’, in opposition to ‘social existence’: as long as they inhabit a ‘state of exception’ in which normal social rules do not apply, the State can continue to ensure their survival as bare lives, rather than their development as political and social beings.

Redefining the boundaries of national belonging

In light of recent anti-racist protests taking place across the globe, it is ever more urgent to address the systemic mechanisms which continue to target and exclude certain parts of the population according to a discriminatory and outdated conception of national belonging. Della Loggia’s generalisations, as those of Salvini and many others, fuel internal divisions and act as quick diversions from the analysis of the structural drivers of inequality and discrimination. In the past months, many Italian young people from minority backgrounds have been protesting and discussing the many ways racism is endemic to Italian society. Citizenship and the jus culturae/soli stood at the core of this debate, as its implementation would constitute a significant step for third-country nationals and their offspring to establish the legal and socio-political bond with the State that the European Commission defines as ‘citizenship’. To be actively anti-racist in Italy today must therefore entail to adopt an aware, critical and vocal stance towards those discourses, legislations, and populist tales that continue to perpetuate and justify discriminatory hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion.

Title image: “Who was born and grew up in Italy is Italian.” Source

N.B. In October 2020, the Security and Immigration decrees have been partly amended, and further discussions on the matter of citizenship acquisition are taking place. Information available here.

  1. Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso books. 1-8
  2. Bigo, D. (2002). Security and immigration: Toward a critique of the governmentality of unease. Alternatives, 27(1_suppl), 63-92.
  3. Ramos-Zayas, A. Y. (2004). Delinquent citizenship, national performances: Racialization, surveillance, and the politics of “worthiness” in Puerto Rican Chicago. Latino Studies, 2(1), 26-44.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: