In many discussions on the Roma issue in East-Central Europe, someone will inevitably say, with a mixture of wistfulness and bewilderment, "Where is the Martin Luther King of the Roma?" There are indeed some parallels between the experience of Roma and African-Americans. But a galvanizing civil rights leader with broad appeal like Martin Luther King has not yet emerged in the region.
There are a number of problems with this approach, however. It fixes on the figure of a single leader and obscures the roles played by numerous other civil rights leaders that preceded, accompanied, and often challenged King. It also assumes that the kind of leadership that King provided, which liberal whites found non-threatening, is what would most benefit Roma in East-Central Europe today.
Aladar Horvath has been a Roma civil rights activist for more than two decades. He created one of the most important Roma organizations -- Phralipe -- and served in the Hungarian parliament in the early 1990s. He has also studied the experience of African Americans. When I asked him whether he'd changed his thinking over the last 20 years since we'd last met in 1995, he said, "my thinking hasn't changed. But I would be braver and more courageous. I didn't have enough faith in myself to go up against this system. I should have been less Martin Luther King and more Malcolm X."
Part of this realization comes from a frustration at seeing how little has changed for the majority of Roma in Hungarian society. "I wanted Roma to have a choice to integrate into Hungarian society or live separately," he told me in an interview last August in a Budapest restaurant. "But they're not allowing us to integrate."
The lack of integration is particularly clear in the realm of education. "In 1997, there were 128 segregated schools," Horvath reports. "Now there are over 300. On top of that, there are classes that are segregated within non-segregated schools. This is all connected with the geographic segregation... There are geographic areas of 30 square kilometers where a child might not meet a non-Roma person. Micro-regions and ghetto schools were created. We can clearly say that the school system in Hungary is an apartheid system."
If he were appointed education minister, Horvath would move immediately to dismantle this segregated system. "I would take measures to stop this pushing of Roma from the cities," he told me. "Those in the towns and villages should remain there. This is affecting 1.2 million people. I would create a fund from the EU stabilization money that would be dedicated to head start programs for towns and schools. In the budget, it should be reflected that this affects 12 percent of the population."
Of course Roma in Hungary do not just face the frustrations of systemic exclusion. The last 25 years have seen an explosive growth in far-right anti-Roma organizations, attacks on Roma villages, and several murders.
"When the Hungarian Guard was formed, the paramilitary organization, I was organizing a boxing league for kids," Horvath remembers. "The head of this league, a Roma boxer, said, 'Tell those paramilitary people that 28 of us will go there, and we'll have a fight, with bare hands. If we lose, they can form their Guard. But if we win, they should stop the organization.' I thought about it, but we didn't do it. Now I think we should have come face to face with them. I don't think there's a way to practice non-violence against fascism."
We talked about his early years as a teacher and activist in Miskolc, his views on the "talented tenth" strategy, and the prospects for a Roma political party.
What do you think about the status of education today for Roma? Has there been any improvement since you were a teacher?
The statistics as well as my experience demonstrate that things have gotten worse. In 1997, there were 128 segregated schools. Now there are over 300. On top of that, there are classes that are segregated within non-segregated schools. This is all connected with the geographic segregation. After the democratic changes and the economy collapsed, hundreds of thousands of Roma lost their jobs. With different methods, they were pushed out of the cities or to the edges of towns. In 1990, we knew of only three villages that were only Roma. Now there are over 300. There are 110 Roma-majority towns and another 200 towns that are over 30 percent Roma population.
A settlement ghettoization has been going on. Two Hungarian researchers are following this trend. It's coupled with a permanent unemployment that is now in its third generation. It's not as if there is a Hungarian village with a Roma settlement. Instead, the village has been Romanized and there might be a settlement as well connected to it. There are geographic areas of 30 square kilometers where a child might not meet a non-Roma person. Micro-regions and ghetto schools were created. We can clearly say that the school system in Hungary is an apartheid system.
If you became education minister tomorrow, what would you do?
I would take measures to stop this pushing of Roma from the cities. Those in the towns and villages should remain there. This is affecting 1.2 million people. I would create a fund from the EU stabilization money that would be dedicated to head start programs for towns and schools. In the budget, it should be reflected that this affects 12 percent of the population.
What's the overall Roma population in Hungary?
In 2011, the census said that 315,000 Hungarian declared themselves of Romany descent. That's 60 percent more than 10 years before, when 194,000 people declared themselves of Roma descent. That doesn't mean that there are 60 percent more Roma. But more people are living in Roma ghettos, so they can't say that they're of non-Roma descent. In 1990, we were saying 5-600,000 people were of Roma descent. Now we are saying 800,000 to a million.
As education minister, I would target money to the most disadvantaged settlements, and I would create a three-tiered development program that would target the poorest in terms of social services, income, and minority status. We would have to make sure that the Roma people in these poverty pockets get this money. I know that this part was included in the Roma EU development strategy because some professionals in the Civil Rights Foundation wrote it up and gave it to the Fidesz member of the EU. She fed it into the Roma EU strategy. But nothing happened.
The whole program would be based on the spontaneous cooperation of these settlements. The program would bring government employment and industries into these areas by giving incentives to businesses to create employment in these areas. Until the industry gets there, the people would be helped to create self-supporting communities. EU money would go toward building up the infrastructure.
I have lots of ideas, but they don't even let me come close to the gate.
What was it like when you were inside the gate -- in parliament -- and what did you accomplish?
To read the rest of the interview, click here.