Roma, hate speech and the political failure of Europe

Over the past decade there have been many changes in the political and social situation for Roma, some of which might even qualify as progress, but we have also witnessed the re-emergence of violent prejudices one might have hoped were extinct, or at least regulated.

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We might turn our attention first to a village in Bulgaria where, in April, a local man brutally beat a Romani boy, filmed the beating (along with an accompanying racist rant) on his phone and then posted the video on Facebook.

The victim of this attack, Mitko Yonkov, was accosted on the street by 24-year-old Angel Kaleev, who ‘accused’ the boy of saying that they were equals, which meant to him that he had been accused of being a ‘gypsy’. He struck Mitko in the face, then forced him to the ground and kicked him, all the time shouting racist insults and threats.

To add further outrage, the local court released Kaleev from custody on less than €300 (US$335) bond, charging him with ‘hooliganism’ rather than a racially motivated crime, for which the penalties are much higher. The more positive outcome of this event was its rapid spread across social media and the demonstrations of solidarity under the #RomaAreEqual hashtag.

There is nothing novel about Bulgarian, and other European, men beating up, and degrading, their Romani neighbours. This has been everyday stuff for a millennium. Nor is there anything new about the police turning a blind eye to violent crimes against Roma, or even perpetrating such violence themselves. But over the past decade, such attacks have become more common and protection from the police and the courts has become even less reliable.

This increases the overall sense of insecurity for Romani people, fuels migration away from the post-communist countries where ‘rule of law’ is inconsistent, where educational and employment opportunities are not available to Roma and where right-wing parties have taken political power.

Roma coming to nations like France, Germany and Sweden have been confronted with the growing negative sentiment that greets all migrants and refugees. Romanian Roma migrants in France, for instance, are ostracised by the public and the government, live in makeshift camps lacking basic services and are subject to police raids and the threat and reality of deportation.

’Unfit for co-existence’

Violence against Roma in these contexts is always connected to more general political developments and to the expression of nationalist animus toward other traditional minority populations and toward all kinds of newcomers.

The case of Hungary and Slovakia is illustrative, where conflict about the rights and identities of Slovakia’s large Hungarian minority has been ongoing since World War II.

While Roma’s social and educational integration is high on the national agendas of both countries – due primarily to pressure from the European Union and other European entities – leading Hungarian and Slovak political parties routinely employ virulent anti-Roma slogans in their campaigns, tacitly support anti-Roma marches and do little or nothing to make the police or courts responsive to violence against Romani people and property.

One of the founders of the Hungarian ruling party wrote in a conservative daily paper that "a significant part of the Roma are unfit for co-existence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals and they behave like animals".

In Slovakia, the nationalist party – which was until recently part of the ruling coalition – posted billboards asking voters: “How long will we pay for Gypsies?” , urging them to “stop supporting parasites”. It is not coincidental that both Hungary and Slovakia refused to accept Syrian refugees.

Education reform

Current, ongoing efforts to reform education for Roma, even when carried out in good faith in many quarters, are severely compromised in this climate where basic safety is always in question and many Roma live with the trauma of persistent racist violence in its many forms.

An additional element is the seeming indifference to anti-Roma rhetoric and violence demonstrated daily by most of the population in these countries. This resonates with the historical memories of the genocides perpetrated by the Nazis and their followers across Central and Southern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, a history that is largely unknown to local inhabitants, as it is absent from school and university curricula.

It may seem sensationalist to bring up this ‘old’ genocide in the context of a new ‘civilised’ Europe, but the proliferation of hate speech and hate crimes, along with a lack of political will or social concern to effectively address these breakdowns in civil society and government, should give all of us cause to remember.

Colleges and universities can play several roles in ameliorating or exacerbating the problems for Roma, particularly for Romani youth. There are many initiatives – like the Central European University’s 'Roma Access Program' – to increase enrolment in higher education, but still so few Romani students find their way through secondary schools with the skills necessary for university that these efforts are severely limited.

Another, more immediate, task for higher education is to teach understanding and tolerance to its non-Roma students, but anti-racism as a pedagogical and-or curricular imperative is much less established in European universities than in American universities.

In the same places where the police do not enforce the laws against anti-Roma violence, it is still not uncommon, unfortunately, for faculty also to express overtly anti-Roma prejudice in classrooms, matching exactly the sentiments of their students.

On the other hand, some faculty are now more likely to challenge the racist attitudes expressed by students, though (in my experience) faculty rarely challenge each other and never challenge administrators. The more acute the ‘Roma problem’ is perceived to be, the less anyone speaks about it openly.

Increased contact between faculty in less-developed countries with faculty from England or the United States, who are more likely to hold and express anti-racist views, is changing attitudes, though slowly.

Other universities and faculty, individually and through larger-scale projects, are making concerted efforts to bring knowledge to bear that can shape public policy, to disseminate information about the Roma and about the historical challenges the Roma have faced and continue to face, and to form partnerships with organisations that provide direct services to Roma.

There has been, over the past decade, an explosion of scholarly publications on Roma issues, especially on issues of education, and there is a growing sense that Romani voices must be included in this knowledge production and that the maxim, ‘Nothing about us without us’, must be taken more seriously. There are, though, too many young scholars who seem intent on making a career out of Romani studies, without much real concern for Roma themselves.

One notable example of a university making a positive impact is the University of Hertfordshire, which has for 20 years published books about the Roma, and additionally has been the chief outlet of a whole generation of Romani authors/scholars. Especially notable in their catalogue are the many volumes on the Roma genocide, which really opened up this field to study when nobody was interested.

Another example is the University of Manchester, which is sponsoring a multi-university project investigating the Romanian Roma migration to western European countries, with the purpose of both increasing knowledge and influencing policy. The University of Manchester also hosts an online archive of Romani linguistic and educational resources.

Lack of critical mass

Many universities have hosted 'Romani Studies' conferences over the past decade and there is growing recognition of Romani Studies as an interdisciplinary academic field, but there is very little institutionalisation to date. One might contrast this with the many African American Studies, Black Studies, Chicano Studies, Critical Identity Studies et al programmes that have existed at American and Canadian universities since the 1960s.

Besides the different organisational principles and disciplinary loyalties which militate against interdisciplinarity in European higher education, the main obstacle to teaching and learning about Roma in university is a critical mass of Romani students and faculty that demand an education that includes them.

The second obstacle is the attitude of non-Roma students and faculty for whom studying the Roma – or perhaps any other stigmatised group – is not perceived as an important part of the educational experience.

Perhaps if more of them were to watch the movie of a grown man, Angel Kaleev, assaulting and dehumanising 15-year old Mitko Yonkov because this Romani boy had the temerity to suggest that Roma were equal, minds might begin to change.

William New is chair and professor in the department of education and youth studies at Beloit College, Beloit, USA.