Our initial thought was to devote this issue to
an examination of ethnic conflicts and persecution throughout the region.
But as we looked into patterns of bigotry, we quickly realized that while
the post-communist world contains any number of victimized and scorned
minorities, none of them experience discrimination and oppression so often
and with such brutal intensity as the Roma. More than a half century after
the Holocaust that devastated European Jewry and claimed as many as one
and a half million Romani lives, rampant anti-Roma sentiment persists,
disgracing Europe as the millennium lapses. It is not primarily a historical
problem, though the roots of anti-Roma prejudice run deep. It is a daily
social problem: a problem of lynchings, pogroms, abuse, discrimination,
poverty, and racism. As Dimitrina Petrova points out, hate crimes against
Roma occur with dispiriting regularity. People are killed and maimed, houses
and barns are burned, and children are taunted and intimidated. In cities
and towns, anonymous scrawls proclaim "Death to the Gypsies" and "Gypsies
to the gas." Mainstream newspapers publish signed letters from readers
calling for Roma to be expelled or confined to desolate regions, and a
Czech beauty pageant contestant promised to spend her life working for
the removal of "dark people" from her home district.
Certainly that pathology of racism has so far failed
to gain the kind of attention and international condemnation that helped
to alter oppressive patterns of bigotry in places like South Africa and
the United States. In Europe, there may be as many as ten million Roma
between Paris and Moscow; in some countries, they represent 10 percent
of the population. Their life expectancy, their educational levels, and
their employment rates lag far behind national and regional averages. Their
access to job training, acceptable housing, and in some cases to citizenship
in the countries of their birth has been circumscribed. While both hateful
and romantic stereotypes of Roma abound, no consensus on Romani history
has made its way into any secondary school texts in the region. There are
very few monuments to those who were deported and killed by the Nazis and
virtually no Romani survivors have received reparations. Vital statistics
and demographic data on the Romani population also tend to be sparse, either,
as some experts contend, because of the indifference of government agencies
or because Roma know from experience that no good is likely to come from
volunteering information to gadje authorities.
There is no division among experts and Romani intellectuals
about the scale of the problems their people face and the need to bring
them to public attention. But such unanimity quickly dissolves when it
comes to discussing strategy or apportioning blame. In their essays for
Transitions, Romani activists Rudko Kawczynski, Ian Hancock, and Orhan
Galjus poignantly reveal the torments of engaged social scientists, struggling
to balance passionate empathy with professional rigors. As Romani activism
grows and intensifies, they and their colleagues consider whether the emphasis
should be on confronting and challenging non-Romani power structures or
on organizing Roma to build strong and exclusive institutions. Should,
as Kawczynski suggests, Roma prepare to engage in a full-fledged civil-rights
movement using the Gandhian threat of non-participation in broader societies?
Should they shun non-Romani benefactors? Should the idea of regional autonomy
or a homeland, as mentioned by Galjus, be pursued, at least as a mobilizing
concept? Is it proper for Romani intellectuals to lead in a political struggle?
Why have they failed to date? What can be done to defend against pernicious
stereotyping? Can the growth of Romani media and standardization of the
language on a 19th-century model of nation-building relieve some problems?
The questions raised in this issue far outnumber the answers, but perhaps
that is a good way to begin.
Michael T. Kaufman
Executive Editor, Transitions