Other Voices, v.2, n.1 (February 2000)
Reprint of a text delivered to the Joint Seminar on Roma (Gypsies) in Europe, Warsaw, September 20-23, 1994. Originally published in The Belgrade Circle, no.1-2, 1995.
Copyright © 2000, Ian Hancock, all rights reserved
Honored Ambassador, Mister Chairman, respected fellow delegates. I have chosen as the topic of my address before this meeting the issue of racism. Specifically, the nature and consequences of racism in eastern Europe directed at the Romani population.
Racism must be recognized as a cancer which, if not checked, will lead us surely and inevitably into a catastrophic situation which has the potential to destroy Europe in a 2lst century chaos. I don't wish to be charged with hyperbole. But I believe that the points I wish to raise here cannot be made too forcefully.
The eastern European nations have, since 1989, joined the West in establishing democratic systems of government. This ongoing change is not an easy one, for it must incorporate adjustments in many areas. Its slowness alone frustrates many people who, rather than make an effort over time to adjust, express their desire for a return to the older regime—the Communist system of government which places responsibility and decision-making with the State rather than with the people. We have already seen one success for the Communist Party this past year in Hungary.
Communism also placed the State above the individual, and regarded any expression of ethnic, rather than national, identity as anti-social. A consequence of this was that demonstrations of ethnic and racial resentment were suppressed. This did not mean that they didn't exist—merely that they were more or less contained. With collapse of Communism, ethnic tensions and hatreds have been able to surface, with the disastrous consequences we are witnessing in parts of Europe today. A sad repercussion of this is that those groups who have little defensive power, and who are being particularly harshly victimized—and I refer here to the Roma—are especially anxious to return to that earlier political system which offered them a measure of protection, and which also provided them with jobs.
The move to Democracy, if it is to be successful, must incorporate all aspects of the democratic system. If the transition in that direction is only a partial one, then the system will be incomplete, and will never function properly. Frustration and resentment will remain. One part of the democratic ideal which must be given priority is the granting of basic human rights. Since 1989, the human rights record in parts of eastern Europe has been abysmal. Eastern European nations cannot simply pick and choose, selecting those aspects of democracy which appeal to them and ignoring those which don't; if the post-communist nations are to embrace democracy fully and successfully, the recognition of the equal worth of all human beings must become fundamental. The alternative can only be disaster.
As the only American member of the Romani Advisory Council of the Project on Ethnic Relations, and one of the two Roma in the U.S. delegation, I want to draw a parallel between the Roma in eastern Europe and the situation of African-Americans in the United States. There is a lesson to be learned here, and one which must be heeded at all costs.
No system is perfect in practice. The United States is the leading democratic republic in the world, but it, too, has problems. Not because of discrimination in the law, but because of difficulties resulting from social attitudes which have become ingrained into the society. We are trying to cope with a racist legacy instituted long before America became a nation. We recognize the origins of racism in our country's past, and we also recognize how fundamentally wrong and destructive racism is, and our system of government is constantly trying to demonstrate this to the public through our educational system and by means of workshops, public service announcements in the media and so on. Thus, to understand the roots of the racial problems in the United States, we must look to history. The African American population was held in slavery for nearly four centuries, and during that time was systematically dehumanized as a people. Following abolition, extra-legal forms of peonage, as well as segregation in education, transport, health care and so on have existed well into the 20th century. A recent public opinion poll indicated that three-quarters of the white population in the United States continue to harbor racist attitudes towards Black people. Any population which has been devalued to the point of losing its identity as human beings over a period of centuries will not automatically be seen as equals simply by passing a law. Generations of prejudices must be eradicated, and this is not easily achieved.
Racism is defined as "the belief in the superiority of a particular race." This tends to reinforce particular patterns of the behavior of the majority over the minority, the dominant over the weak. Racism is prejudice plus power, and no one can deny the existence of racism in all areas of administration. It is legitimized in society by its very institutional nature. It ensures that in a racist society some citizens automatically have opportunities for success and security in life which are available to them in a routine way, while other citizens must struggle for those same opportunities or else not have access to them at all. A dominant, racist population sets up so many barriers in race relations, that those excluded from full participation in the system come to feel like a surplus population, worthless and frustrated.
In the United States, the long-term consequence of the racism directed at the black American people has resulted in a deep-rooted bitterness within that population, a sense of having been cheated, a resentment and an anger which has robbed the present generation of any sense of hope or self-worth. This manifests itself in many ways above all anger, and in a desire to strike out at anybody and anything. Recent studies of this phenomenon routinely conclude that the majority of young black Americans feel an overwhelming hopelessness about their prospects for the future. Unemployment among this section of the population is the highest in the country. The despair this generates translates into violence and escape into drugs and alcohol. When questioned, such young people say that they don't expect to live long in the present system, and that there are no positive prospects for them, but they will go out protesting. This protest is tragically turned back onto the same African-American population, a population devoid of a sense of dignity, angry at its own powerlessness. Fanon, describing European oppression in Africa, writes2 of police who "beat the African, insult him and make him crawl" without fear of a hostile reaction, while at the same time the same African will "reach for his knife at the slightest hostile or aggressive glance cast at him by another African, for his last resort is to defend his personality vis-á-vis his brother." One consequence of this kind of racism is the evidence of widespread psychological problems: depression, self-hatred, rage, despair, and the lack of means to seek the kind of mental health care available to the middle classes. Another is evidence of crime and sabotage of the system. Over a hundred years ago, Fredric Angels said that "those members of the 'surplus populationí who, goaded by their misery, summon up enough courage to revolt openly against society, become thieves and murderers. They wage open warfare against those who have for so long waged secret warfare against them."
There are other consequences, too. If racist attitudes among some individuals prevent any feeling of concern for the population thus targeted, then consider four more widely relevant consequences of hate:
Racism as directed at Roma in Europe has many origins. Color prejudice is just one of them. But color was not the reason for the initial enslavement of Roma in the 14th century. Unlike the enslavement of Africans, Romani slavery grew out of the desire for a large and unpaid labor force. In order to keep that force from leaving the Balkans&8212;which, by the 15th century, it was beginning to do—laws came into effect which turned those same workers into property. The dehumanizing process began only after this event, as I have documented in my book, The Pariah Syndrome. In Romania, antigypsism is simply a continuation of discriminatory practices which whites started in the 1300s. Elsewhere, it is a legacy of similar repressive policies in effect over centuries. A Romanian woman, asked about the recent murders in Hidareni, claimed that killing Gypsies wasn't murder, because murder was committed when one killed human beings. And if you think this kind of thinking is restricted to eastern Europe, I remind you of the member of the British government who declared publicly a few years ago that Roma were "not human beings in the normal sense." In America too, a member of an Illinois police unit, detective Dennis Marlock, told the nation on public television that American Gypsies had not yet developed genetically "like other people" to the point of being able to distinguish right from wrong. This month, his book on the same subject has just been published, on the cover of which is the warning that "no one is safe" from my people. How do you imagine that I, as a university professor and a Roma, feel when I hear myself being described in this way? What do I tell my children?
Another book which has relevance here is Sheldon Ekland-Olson's treatment of capital punishment in the U.S. legal system. 3 Dr. Ekland-Olson, who happens to be dean of my college at the University of Texas, found that racism towards black Americans, and the rate of arrest and convictions, was consistently higher today in those state that were slave states in the 19th century. His point, and the point I am emphasizing here, is that the oppressive treatment of a population over an extended period of time will create discriminatory attitudes, the effects of which will continue to assert themselves in the actual population long after laws have been changed. It is no coincidence that we are hearing about the most overt examples of antigypsism from Romania, Europe's one-time slave-holding nation.
I have been interested for some years now in the parallels between the experience of Africans and Roma in the western world. Some of those similarities perceived by the larger population are documented in my book4, and turn up in factual accounts as well as in fictional literature. In this last connection, I should mention that the literary tradition has helped weave antigypsism into the fabric of Western culture, where novels, folk tales, proverbs, songs, jokes, cartoons, nursery rhymes and so on have helped create an unreal and damaging image of the Gypsy in the minds of people who have never met one.
I am particularly interested in the parallels evident in the development of political awareness in both populations. I believed for a long time that we were running perhaps forty years behind the African-Americans in our attempts at political self-determination, but in terms of outward expression of anger, I think we are maybe only five years behind— within five years, if we do not address the problem now, we will surely see race riots and destruction on a massive scale here in Europe as the pressure cooker can contain itself no longer. Already, one Romani political party in Slovakia is advising its members to arm itself in preparation for a conflict which it sees as inevitable. "An increase in acts of retaliation and self-defense" among Roma has been reported from the towns of Pardubice, Brno, Jihlava, Budejovice and Ostrava in the Czech Republic, following a wave of murders and drownings by so-called "death squads" organized mainly by skinheads. Roma in Bulgaria and Romania are physically resisting organized hate groups in both countries which call themselves the "Anti-Roma Ku Klux Klan." How long do we have?
Europe faces an uphill climb, and the sooner the issue of anti-Romani racism is addressed, the better the chances will be for averting a catastrophe. For if the African-American experience is a reliable indication, this is not something which will disappear simply by providing the economic and educational means for the Romani population to aspire to the middle class. The anger caused by racism is still evident in the African American middle class—indeed, this was the cover story of the November 15th, 1993, issue of Newsweek, entitled "The Hidden Rage of the Successful Blacks". A best selling book this year is Feagin and Sikes' Living Racism: The Black Middle-class Experiences, and Grimmer & Cobs' book Black Rage has sold consistently since 1968. It is not simply the system which has to change, or opportunities to be equalized, but—we must also work to change peoples' attitudes. How can this be achieved?
Feagin and Sikes suggest that a place to start is by using the law. This makes perfect sense to me. After being fined a few times, with substantial, financially painful—I would suggest crippling—penalties, racist administrators, companies and individuals will learn that racism is expensive. While this in itself will not have any immediate effect on changing people's attitudes (a recent Times Mirror poll indicated that white Americans' support for civil rights for African Americans has declined nearly ten percent since 1992), it will give Roma the chance they need at least to show what they can do in an equal opportunity environment. People in the West, as well as in eastern Europe, want changes to come overnight, and that cannot happen—there is a danger that programs will be abandoned before their effects begin to be felt.
Thus Roma will not be able to compete in the workplace unless they have had equal access to schooling, which means that the educational systems must be monitored too. It will take time before Roma will be able to compete educationally with the rest of the population. In some of the countries whose representatives are here today, Romani children are placed in special schools for retarded children, where their failure to acquire any kind of useful education is guaranteed, even though a Swedish study in 1985 demonstrated that classroom problems for Romani children have their origins in the fact that those same children speak Romani and are not fluent in the national language. The same study demonstrated that in a balanced situation their intelligence quotient is no lower than the national average. If a population is regarded as worthless, then only minimal measures will be taken to deal with it; it is easier to separate Romani children into special classes than to develop linguistically and culturally sensitive educational curricula to accommodate their special needs.
The media too must play its part. Journalists and newscasters routinely demonstrate their own biases when they editorialize instead of straightforwardly reporting the news; does it really help to repeat the words of a Hungarian skinhead, as a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle did, without also saying something about the effort Roma in that country are making to establish schools and work programs for themselves? "There's too much of this scum; they screw their sisters and daughters and make children who are too stupid to do anything but steal." As Asante said, racist language makes the victim the criminal. The notion that a particular race is inferior to one's own carries with it an assumption of automatic incompetence on the part of members of that race, and they are then treated accordingly. Obviously Roma are not incompetent; our very survival in an environment of unrelenting hostility says something about our spirit of determination. Given an equal opportunity, which has only been possible for those people light-complexioned enough to be able to hide their ethnicity, it is clear that we are as hard-working and as diligent as anybody else. The very first female professor in the world was of the Romani descent—I'm referring to Sonja Kovalevsky who began teaching mathematics at Stockholm University in 1884. In the United States, schoolbooks and social studies classes now contain material teaching all American children about the contributions of all Americans; few Europeans are really aware of the contributions our people have made to the world—in music particularly, but in other areas as well. Together with the Association for the Advancement of Democracy through Education, a team of us are preparing educational packages on the Roma for use in European classrooms. Similar programs are being initiated in France and Czech Republic. The Project on Ethnic Relations is also preparing a handbook along similar lines. The way to combat racism is through the close monitoring of—and penalizing of—those countries which fail to take active steps to eradicate it. Democracy has brought with it capitalism, and as a consequence, advertising and boycotting of companies sponsoring programs which Roma feel are offensive must also be implemented by vigilant media-watch organizations. But if we ignore the consequences of doing nothing about it, then it will be too late to do anything at all. And whatever negative repercussions will be borne by the Romani population because of antigypsism, all European populations will be victims too.
1. In Michael Banton et al. Teaching about prejudice, London Minority Rights Group Report, No. 59, 1983, p. 52.
2. Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, New York, 1968. p. 52. For an extended discussion of this phenomenon, See Paulo Freje, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York, 1970.
3. The Rope, the Chair and the Needle: Capital Punishment. in Texas, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994
4. The Pariah Syndrome, Ann Arbor, 1988.