Roma provide clean test case for racism

Irish Roma, better known as Gypsies

Irish Roma, better known as Gypsies

On Friday we linked to a weird slideshow about wealthy Roma, pejoratively known as Gypsies—an Indo-European ethnic group that is the target of surprisingly open prejudice in Europe. America doesn’t really have a visible Roma population, so it’s hard to understand how hated they are overseas. How hated are they? When the European Union declared this the Decade of Roma Inclusion and gave Slovakia a billion Euros to fund Roma education and employment programs, popular opinion held that it was a ploy to get them out of western Europe by turning Slovakia into a Roma ghetto. See, by helping them you encourage them. That and other weirdly familiar tropes of racism applied to an instructively neutral ethnic group can be found in this long, uneven but ultimately rad Vice article by Aaron Lake Smith.

You have to get past the first sentence, which makes Smith sound like he is a junior writing for honors English. Beyond it lies a treasure trove of chicken-egg scenarios that are perfectly explicable according to Slovak theories of racial determination and completely baffling to an American. For example, there’s this quote from Julius Beluscsak, mayor of Vel’ka Ida:

I’m envious of those mayors who have no Roma in their municipalities. The Roma settlement out here in Vel’ká Ida is probably one of the worst in all of Slovakia. The women are having children starting from age 13 to 33. We have a case of a 33-year-old woman who has 11 kids. They’re having children to get social benefits. They have no obligations or duties. The children don’t get vaccinated.

Beluscsak had recently built a six-foot concrete wall between the Roma settlement and the rest of Vel’ka Ida, ostensibly to keep children from wandering into the road. The wall has a locked gate. He is virulently racist, and his claim that the Roma have kids to get welfare benefits should be recognizable to anyone who listens to American talk radio; only the ethnic group is unfamiliar.

Similarly, the narrative by which one ethnic group is exiled from desirable neighborhoods, denied jobs and systematically excluded from mainstream culture on the grounds that they are inherently dirty, poor and unfriendly is straight out of the histories of blacks, Italians, Jews and Mexicans in America. The only difference is the word “Roma,” and the fact that most Americans can’t picture anybody when they hear it.

And oh, what a difference that makes. When pretty much everything you know about the Roma comes from this article—and not from, say, your baba ordering you to take in the laundry when she sees one outside—the explanation for their persistent poverty is obvious. It’s because everyone in Slovakia hates them. When you are Slovakian, on the other hand, the explanation is equally clear: the Roma are poor because they’re genetically lazy and unhygienic.

The same contradictory arguments lurk behind pretty much any discussion of race in the United States, albeit in less explicit terms. As contemporary Americans, we have inherited a documented system of de jure racism. If an inordinate number of poor Americans are black, it is probably because 150 years ago white people could legally purchase black people as slaves. Yet we also inherited what John Jackson calls “de cardio” racism. In addition to a documented history of material forces arrayed against African-Americans, our forebears also gave us the suspicion that maybe black people are just lazy, or less intelligent, or better at dancing or whatever.

These ideas aren’t well supported, particularly in comparison with more specific and documented explanations for black poverty like, say, Bull Connor. But when everyone from your grandpa to the WB has subtly implied that black people are fundamentally different from white people, black poverty shifts in your mind from being the phenomenon requiring explanation to being evidence for one particular explanation. Of course black people are inherently shiftless. Just look at how they live.

Replace “black people” with “Roma” in that sentence and A) the speaker becomes every elected official in Slovakia, as near as I can tell, and B) the absurdity becomes obvious. A culture that has encountered the scientific method cannot conclude that the Roma are genetically unhygienic because their walled ghetto doesn’t have plumbing. That reasoning only makes sense when it originates in an earlier, dumber time. You have to bring it with you for it to do any convincing at all. I like reading about the Roma because they are basically fictional to me, and the realities of their situation remind me how much made-up stuff we subconsciously take for the truth.

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  1. I have a problem with rendering a judgment on the rightness/wrongness of Slovakian actors merely by drawing parallels to American racism–just because blacks aren’t lazy doesn’t mean Roma aren’t. I know there’s an urge deep inside to immediately assume otherwise, that’s what makes us liberal. But logically speaking, there is nothing wrong with the skepticism in the statement.

    If the statement is logically sound, how can we go further to assess its truth? Information. Unfortunately the article doesn’t provide any evidence about Roma behavior or culture which might help us be in any way informed. The only thing it does is document the actions of Whites against Roma. This isn’t to suggest bias, but it does mean if we don’t know more about Roma from other sources, we’re jumping to conclusions about the situation and plausible solutions for it in the same manor we would criticize Slovakian whites for doing.

    As American liberals, we’re inclined to use our existing framework for understanding this divisive policy problem, and sympathize immediately with the minority being oppressed. Unfortuantely , it seems like the everyday Slovakian is using their own existing framework to understand and advocate for particular solutions to this divisive policy problem too. What’s the way around this tendency we all have of interpreting new situations in view of old ones? Information. There’s a lot more to helping Roma out of poverty / helping Roma out of Slovakia this article is deliberately leaving out. But what Vice reader would want to have quantitative figures about Roma birth rates, anthropological study of their attitudes toward hygiene, budget impact analysis on Roma spending, etc? Americans want racism.

  2. Mistreatment of Roma is an almost entirely different beast from American racism. Roma have separate cultures; black Americans have (at most) a separate sub-culture. Not only that, Roma cultures are quite different from place to place in Europe, and Roma relationships with the larger population — while pretty bad no matter where — can vary quite a bit too.

    American racism tends to be about race. Racism against Roma tends to be mixed with all kinds of other questions (culture, lifestyle, poverty, crime, health, education, legal status, rights to temporary dwellings, the desirability or not of separateness, etc., etc. etc.)

    The attempt to paste an American paradigm over these issues is pretty ham-fisted and obtuse.

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