The Pariah Syndrome
XVI. Afterword

In the preceding chapters, an attempt has been made to describe the prejudicial treatment of the Rom in non-Romani societies, both in North America and throughout Europe, and to propose an explanation for the origin of anti-Gypsyism in history and its perpetuation in the present day.

That such bigotry exists at all levels is clearly evident; the very people appointed at the official level to deal with this ethnic minority work from the assumption that there is no such thing as a decent Gypsy: "To Jose Alcantara, one of two officers permanently assigned to the so-called Gypsy detail [in Los Angeles], there is no such thing as an honest Gypsy fortune-teller. Or an honest Gypsy, for that matter" (Stumbo, 1984:1). Gypsies are routinely blamed for their own condition; a Czechoslovakian spokesman defended his government's program of taking Romani children from their families and placing them in foster homes, by saying that it was "the Gypsies' fault for refusing to let their children be civilized" (Rosenblum, 1984:6C).

The two attributes seen to be lacking here are honesty and civilization, and in such arguments, both are perceived of as corollaries to the "nomadic" way of life of the Gypsy people. Individuals who are here today and gone tomorrow, are potentially prime suspects in cases of theft, for example - especially if they already have a reputation as thieves, and if they can be accused with little likelihood of that accusation's being challenged.

I have also discussed the various arguments, such as those of Cohn, Sibley and Crawford, which in one way or another maintain that non-Gypsy societies need an outsider group such as the Rom upon whom to project their fantasies, or else to serve as scapegoats, or to help maintain the boundaries of their own cultural perception. All of these, I believe, have some merit; the extent to which such rationales are reflected in the folklore and the popular culture of the countries dealt with here testifies to this.

Although it has been demonstrated that the mobility of the Romani population has been the result of historical circumstance, which in most countries left no option other than torture or death, and which forced such mobile families into a way of life and livelihood compatible with a stop-and-start existence, this mobility has been romanticized in fiction and has become a mainstay of the Gypsy stereotype. Much of Europe's Romani population was held in slavery until the middle of the last century, and never left the estates at all, except perhaps to be driven to the slave auctions to be exhibited for sale. Those in northern and western Europe, paying the price for having been confused with the "Tatars" and "heathens" who threatened Christianity and the whole of the western economy, were subjected to the extremes of oppression dealt with in earlier chapters.

Most of the American Rom descend from the Gypsies freed from slavery in south-eastern Europe between 1855 and 1864. As Acton has pointed out, this places the modern population only four or five generations from a sedentary existence which stretches back to the Middle Ages, and which hardly qualifies that population as "nomadic." An FBI crime squad investigating an alleged case of racketeering by a group of Rom in Virginia was designated "Operation Nomade", however, indicative of the kind of preconception most commonly held about Gypsies (The Seattle Times for September 27th, 1986). During the time of emancipation and arrival in North America, Gypsies, like many other immigrant groups, came fleeing persecution, but met anti-Gypsy laws which were designed, as in Europe, to keep them on the move and out of the way. American Gypsies have learned to hide their identity in order to avoid discrimination, and since the end of the Second World War in particular, as Gropper (1975) has shown, the American Romani population has become increasingly urban and increasingly settled, though living invisibly in order to be able to do so free of harassment.

This gradual integration has not been easy; integration leads in time to assimilation and the loss of one's traditional language, culture and identity, and among the Rom this is strenuously resisted. At the Romani tribunals, or krisa Romane, the continuance of tradition and the Romani language frequently become serious issues, as are discussions of dress, marriage and territorial jurisdiction.

Such fierce adherence to the ethnic identity seems to annoy some non-Gypsies. Jews have experienced the same kind of resentment, as though this exclusivity were a threat to the outside world. People who have been traditionally uncommunicative are perceived as secretive, and if they are secretive, they cannot be trusted. And if they remain on the move, never mind why, they must have something to hide. Another common reaction is that such groups must feel themselves to be superior and aloof from the rest of the world - and this, too, does little to enhance their image.

American Gypsies make a distinction between themselves and more recently arrived immigrant groups and maintain, rightly or wrongly, that it is the criminal activity of these people which gives them a bad name. Despite the situation in the United States, it is a much better place to live for Gypsies than any European country, and given that the Vlax Romani population arrived here illiterate and legislated against, many have done remarkably well. But some groups who came here, from Poland, or Czechoslovakia, say, left incredibly oppressive environments where schooling, or access to shops or even churches has been denied them, and where any means possible to survive were necessary. Part of a letter smuggled out of Rumania to the West and received in November, 1986, describes the situation of Rom in that country today:

Every time we request our rights as citizens, and the rights of our minority, we are arrested by the police and detained for many days without food, violently beaten, interrogated and threatened with expulsion from the town. Because of all these reasons, we crossed the Rumanian border illegally, but were sent back to Rumania where we were sentenced and imprisoned for one year. Since our release, we have found that the social and political situation of our minority is worse ...

Like such behavior among other older immigrant populations, who shun more newly-arrived members of their own group, little is done either on the part of the established Romani community to help the themenge Roma or "foreign" Gypsies coming here, although it is widely known that the situation in Europe is a drastic one. Among third- and fourth-generation American Romani families, the lessons of history have ensured that the plight of those in trouble with the law, or elsewhere in the world, or even in the Holocaust, be regarded with fatalism. Perpetuation of a family has meant breaking up into smaller groups, each one for itself, either to escape and survive, or else to be tracked down and destroyed or transported.

Although the distinction between American and foreign-born Gypsies is an important one within the Romani population itself, it is not one recognized by the larger society, which remains unaware, in fact, that there even exist wide differences of ethnic type within the overall American-born Gypsy population. The word "gypsy" is often applied to any people who conform to the perceived image, whether they are ethnic Romanies or not. It is paradoxical that while this great land was settled by men and women crossing its vast expanses with horse and wagon, and American society remains the most mobile in the world today, the inherent distrust of the non-sedentary population, of which Gypsies are believed to be the archtypical members, is everywhere in evidence. An out of town checking account or an out of state driver's license invite suspicion, and they can certainly hamper one's daily interactions outside of one's own settled community. Populations on the move suffer especially from being subject to laws designed for static communities; the history of the American Indian has similarly been one of violating the laws of another people and paying the price as a result.

While the situation for Gypsies in the world today is crucial, and according to reports may be getting worse (Rosenblum, 1984), we have moved into a new phase of Romani history. As the true facts of that history become more widely known, and the mystique which clouds the real issues gradually disappears, positive changes are for the first time being brought about. Romani spokesmen are becoming more vocal and more evident as confidence, and the educational ability to be so confident, grow. This is not a trend which is likely to change, but its progress is uneven. We have come a long way from slavery, but while Pope John Paul asked Africans to forgive Christians for their past role in the enslavement of that people (The Easton Express for August 14th, 1984, p.C12), the Romani population has yet to receive the same acknowledgment. The Holocaust is nearly half a century behind us, but the Romani population still waits for the world to recognize its fate under the Nazis, and for a place on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, where it remains (as of November, 1986) an often unnamed category within that Council's "ethnic outreach" program. The Congressional Caucus on Human Rights sent a petition to the Czechoslovak government in October, 1986, protesting its treatment of Gypsies, yet the coverage by CBS of the kidnapped Gypsy children being trained as thieves in Italy and France by criminals, themselves Gypsies (on 60 Minutes, November 9th, 1986) was needlessly trivial, succeeding only in reinforcing the stereotype of the Gypsy as Thief. The same situation is being exploited in the form of an entire movie, called "Gypsy Caravan", being made by London-based Saltzman Lowndes Productions, and scheduled to appear in August, 1987. Since the completion of this manuscript, with Congressional intervention, the U.S. office of the Romani Union has been instrumental in bringing about the complete removal of all anti-Gypsy laws in the state of Pennsylvania. It has also begun working with the British legal firm of Bindman and Partners, who have been retained by the Commission for Racial Equality to bring legal proceedings against the businesses in Britain which discriminate against Gypsies and which carry signs outside their premises indicating that Gypsies will not be served.

Pariah status means not belonging; the syndrome, or multiplicity of factors, which underlies this status as outcast as described in this volume has led to Gypsies' having become locked into a cycle of anti-social behavior which is the result of a continuum of centuries of oppression, but which has ensured the perpetuation of that oppression.  More and more, Gypsies themselves are initiating, and participating in, moves to end this situation, and to challenge discrimination in the news and in the media. The cycle is at last being broken.


Throughout, except in quotes from other works, the spelling Rumania(n), rather than the more widely-accepted Romania(n) has been preferred in order to distinguish it more readily from Romani.

Chapter XVII
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