There are some disturbing realities about the world that never fail to sicken me, despite their banality. I am horrified all over again whenever they rear their insidious, unnatural heads. Recently I find myself reeling from the reality that, by and large, if you have dark skin in this world, you are subject to being viewed and treated as little more than a criminal. Your crime is out of your control, written on the parchment of DNA, and prosecuted in the cyclic trials of history.
The trouble with being guilty of darkness is that you can never be certain when the jailer will come to call. Last week, he arrived on the doorsteps of 12 million Roma people around the world, asking them the most terrifying question a parent could hear:
What right do you have to your children? And, because you're dark and probably a criminal, wouldn't the kids be better off in someone else's hands -- the state's hands, lighter hands? Yeah, we think they would.
Let us review the facts:
On Wednesday, October 16, 2013, police raided a Roma encampment in Central Greece as part of routine efforts to crack down on illegal trade of drugs and firearms. As the story goes, a member of the raid spotted a blond head peeking out from the midst and discovered a fair girl of four or five years living in the camp. The couple claiming custody of the girl (known as Maria) had darker skin and could not provide adequate documentation for her, a circumstance that raised alarm and lead to Maria's removal from the camp.
A Greek welfare organization called Smile of the Child assumed care for little Maria, while her adopted parents were taken into custody and charged with kidnapping. News outlets around the world referred to the story in similar terms, speculating on the "mystery" of the Maria's origin, highlighting the tragedy of child abduction and trafficking, and bestowing the nickname "blonde angel" to the little girl whose adorable accompanying photos were intended to highlight her innocence in contrast to the bloodshot, weathered faces of her alleged abductors.
The story ignited an international search for Maria's parentage, as well as a larger frenzy regarding child abduction and still-open missing persons cases. Many assumed Maria's features traced her origin back to the United States, Canada, France or Poland -- see the trend? The Daily Beast went so far as to report that the Smile of the Child organization would "eventually bring in anthropologists to study Maria's features to try to narrow down her roots," failing to note the hauntingly eugenicist implications of such a statement. All in all, the message was clear: Identity, origin, race, and ethnicity can be determined superficially, and they have clear associations to criminality and perceived morality.
The paranoia played out in Ireland several days after Maria's discovery, when authorities removed two blond Roma children from their families on the premise of suspected child abduction, only to return them the following day when DNA tests confirmed their parents' identities. Whoops, our mistake. Here's your kid back. Reported by the AP, Ireland's Justice Minister Alan Shatter urged authorities to keep an eye out for suspicious activity that might shed light on child abuse, but "that no group or minority community is singled out for unwarranted suspicion in relation to child protection issues." Read: stop racial profiling.
News flash: Maria is Roma. DNA tests and investigative efforts located the girl's mother, a Bulgarian Roma woman who confirmed she gave birth to Maria while working in Greece and gave the baby up for adoption due to poverty. Sometimes darker-complected people birth fairer-complected people, sometimes vice versa. Sometimes parents assume custody of abandoned or neglected children. Sometimes, tragically, children are sold and forced into slavery or worse. Fortunately, it appears Maria's case is not one of the latter.
Even as it approaches what some might view an ersatz conclusion, Maria's story leaves echoes that reverberate in our discursive arena. Who was the first to speculate the girl must have come from American or Canadian parents? No one raises a hand. Which news outlet was the first to label her the "blond angel"? Reporters shift uncomfortably in their seats. What, exactly, seemed so "odd" to the prosecutor who first noticed Maria -- her blondness in contrast to brown and black hair, or... something else? As far as I know, having children of lighter complexions than yourself is no more a crime than Walking While Black. But now, as The New York Times reports, Roma people around the world are forced to "live in fear -- of having their children snatched for no reason other than their cultural identity or skin color."
Now we come to face our demons. From The New York Times: "Imagine if the situation were reversed and the children were brown and the parents were white, would they have ever been taken away?" said Dezideriu Gergely, the executive director of the European Roma Rights Center, based in Budapest. "The most dangerous consequence of the hysteria is that now we have to live in fear that our children can be removed from us on the basis of a wrong perception. No one should be profiled on the basis of their ethnicity."
"Profiled" is exactly how the Roma people have been treated throughout history. They have been enslaved, exiled, and forced into assimilation, sterilization, and marginalization. Two million were murdered in Nazi concentration camps, only 29 percent can be expected to graduate from secondary school, and a whopping 71 percent of the worldwide Roma community lives in poverty. For a more thorough and harrowing catalog of the horrors the Roma have faced, take a look at Ian Birrell's article for The Independent and see if it doesn't make you wonder where the global outrage is.
None of this is to say that all Roma actions and activities should be condoned on the basis of the group's disenfranchisement. To assert such a thing would be naïve and, frankly, paternalistic. Neither is this to say that kidnapping and human trafficking don't exist -- because they do. (By the way, poverty and lack of education, rather than fair skin and light hair, tend to make individuals more vulnerable to trafficking, and the people who benefit most are the ones buying clothing, food, and technology produced by slave labor.)
The backward notions of criminality and innocence implicit in Maria's case are evidence of deeper paranoia rooted in racism. I believe the ethical concerns about trafficking or any other illegal activities in which Roma communities may or may not be involved are secondary to the disturbingly cathartic, even orgiastic, enjoyment a closet racist audience has found in this excuse to revel in their prejudice.
Lindy West poignantly addresses the paradox in her recent Jezebel article:
"Exceedingly troubling here is the beatification of [Maria's] blondness -- the way it's so obviously being used as a signifier of worth, as though it's somehow more of a crime to traffic a pale child than a dark one. It's a jarring distillation of Missing White Woman Syndrome. Is anyone concerned about the parentage and safety of the other, black-haired children in these families' care -- if, as has been reported, they have other illegally adopted children? Is anyone concerned about entire communities of human beings living in poverty and squalor? "
If we want to end human trafficking and work to enfranchise the people who are most vulnerable to it, stoking the fires of racism is not going to do anything for the cause. If we want to help children, then we had better be prepared to help all children. Anything short of that would be hollow and hypocritical.
This is an old tune, arranged perhaps with new words and rhythms to suit a modern audience, but it's the same prejudice-based "judicial" system that seems to dominate our world. And outside the law, are those most guilty the ones most often held accountable? History would tell us otherwise.