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John Feffer

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Roma and the Civil Rights Movement

Posted: 10/21/2013 2:02 pm

The comparison has frequently been made between the experience of Roma in East-Central Europe and African Americans in the United States. Roma have likewise suffered from slavery, segregation, rampant discrimination, forced assimilation. They have also campaigned for their civil rights in nearly every country where they live. So far, however, these campaigns have had only limited effect. Although some Roma have achieved social, economic, or political success, the community as a whole remains on the margins.

In 1995, I participated in an exchange between Roma activists and African American veterans of the civil rights movement in Szentendre, a town outside of Budapest. The two groups shared many stories about their experiences and their respective histories. Often the stories moved in parallel though at a distance of some years. One African American participant, for instance, described the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins at Woolworth's in 1960. A Roma participant from the Czech Republic told a story about his recent efforts to organize a sit-in in his hometown where several restaurants had put up signs near the entrances barring Roma.

"When I first proposed this sit-in, many friends told me that there isn't any point in doing that," he remembered. Indeed, only 10 people showed up for the first protest to sit down at the tables and ask for service. Word spread quickly of the action. More people showed up for the second protest. "By the time of the third protest, even my father showed up," the Roma activist continued. "And some white people came out to show solidarity as well."

The organizer of the Szentendre exchange was Michael Simmons, who headed up the East-West program of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). A veteran of the U.S. civil rights movements, Simmons was also a draft resister who went to prison for his stance. There, he became acquainted with Quakers and eventually began working for the AFSC on U.S.-Soviet relations. Gradually, the scope of the program expanded to include East-Central Europe.

He was also the first person to hire me out of college, and I worked as his administrative assistant in 1987. Later, in 1990, I travelled through East-Central Europe specifically to interview people and see what the East-West program should be doing in the region. On the top of my list of recommendations was work on Roma issues. The 1995 exchange in Szentendre was only one of a series of initiatives that AFSC did to foster a civil rights approach to organizing in Roma communities.

After leaving AFSC, Michael Simmons decided to stay in Budapest and continue to do human rights work. I caught up with him in Philadelphia where he had returned to take care of various personal matters. We talked about a wide range of issues, but I was particularly interested in his views on working with Roma 20 years later. He had grown rather pessimistic over the years.

For one, the situation of Roma had not significantly improved. "The situation of Roma is worse than that of African-Americans -- not in terms of slavery or sharecropping, but in terms of the current reality," he pointed out. "There are a couple reasons. One is that in this country, African-Americans were able to build an alternative society. It was possible to go from first grade to Ph.D. in the African-American community and never really have much contact with White people. You could meet all of your needs within the African-American community. Roma have nothing like that."

For another, political organizing has not really penetrated Roma society. "People have Roma trainings, conferences and seminars, just as I was doing because I hadn't known any better. But it means nothing," he said. "And then Roma -- I don't want to say that they're opportunist, because they don't have any employment options -- their goal is to get to some NGO in Budapest, or in Brussels, or now in Poland, the OSCE, Geneva, New York, or to get a scholarship to Cambridge or whatever. But there's no indigenous organizing effort. There is no sense of a democratic community organization. There is no change on the ground. The condition of Roma today is the condition of Roma in 1989, regardless of the amount of money that's been spent."

We talked about his first visits to the Soviet Union, the rise of right-wing extremism, and why he moved to Budapest after telling me long ago that he would never live anywhere other than Philadelphia.

The Interview

One of the major programs at AFSC you worked on was Roma, and comparing the situation of Roma in Eastern Europe with the situation of African-Americans in the United States. Have you had any further thoughts about the similarities and differences?

Oh yes. The situation of Roma is worse than that of African-Americans -- not in terms of slavery or sharecropping, but in terms of the current reality. There are a couple reasons. One is that in this country, African-Americans were able to build an alternative society. It was possible to go from first grade to Ph.D. in the African-American community and never really have much contact with White people. You could meet all of your needs within the African-American community. Roma have nothing like that.

Also, throughout the African-American experience in America -- even during slavery -- there was intimate contact between Blacks and Whites. And by intimate, I don't mean sexual -- although there was that, too -- but just in terms of Black folks cooking the "master's" food, taking care of babies, nursing babies, and so on. That was the phenomenon of the "house negro" popularized by Malcolm X. After slavery, there was always the interaction of maids and chauffeurs and so on. Despite the paternalism of these relationships, it nevertheless created a level of empathy in the culture -- even if it was racist empathy -- around the treatment of African Americans or the things that one would say in a public space.

But if you're in Eastern Europe, even today, Roma are invisible. They don't clean hotel rooms. They don't carry your bags. They don't drive taxis. They aren't the orderlies at the hospital. They don't even have what I call the "colored jobs" in the United States. The result is that they don't have those dysfunctional "positive" relationships with the majority culture that are so common in the United States.

So, all people know about Roma are pathologies. People in Eastern Europe only have negative points of contact with Roma, and in the vast majority of cases they don't even have direct negative contact but they just heard that somebody else knew somebody who had. Even in the most enlightened venues -- both informally and socially -- when it comes to Roma, people just say anything. They'll say that Roma steal, they steal babies, they're lazy, the women are promiscuous, and they don't want to be educated. All that stuff! And some of these people are making a living advocating for Roma! There is no check in the culture. Even the most progressive people often express these views.

They express racist attitudes that people in the United States might hold but would never say except in the most trusted circumstances. But in Eastern Europe, it's cool and nobody is shocked. I can't tell you how many times I've been in events in Eastern Europe where human right activists will say something xenophobic about Roma. That creates a set of problems for Roma that African-Americans just didn't have.

And that's just how they're perceived. There's also unemployment. Just as the skinhead phenomenon went from 0 to 60, the employment situation for Roma went from 60 to 0. I read a study a while back -- I can't remember the exact numbers, but I know I'm in the ballpark -- that said that in 1990, 89 percent of Roma in Hungary were employed but two or three years later, 89 percent were unemployed. They were literally thrown out of workplaces.

Let's go back to the skinhead issue for a little bit. As you said, it seemed like it came out of nowhere, and it's still around.

Yes, though it's taking on new forms. In Eastern Europe, unlike Western Europe, you don't have a strong Islamic presence. So the skinhead movements in Eastern Europe over the last few years have really focused on gay/lesbian issues and to a lesser public degree anti-Semitism.

Because the gay/lesbian movement has become more assertive, there was more of an opportunity for skinheads to flex their homophobic muscles. As recently as 2006 the Pride parade in Budapest was a joyous affair with the spirit of New York or San Francisco. But from 2007 until now the right wing has virtually taken it off the streets, and folks are relegated to a confined area for their own safety. And Roma remain the target of skinheads throughout the region. In Hungary, the skinheads also focus on the corruptness of the socialist government, because it was really corrupt.

Why do you think that there's been this resurgence of rightwing populism, especially in Hungary? Where does this come from?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

 

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