01/30/2015 09:39 am ET Updated Apr 01, 2015

Roma as Consumers

As the history of segregation in the United State demonstrates, the business community can be just as racist as anyone else -- even if it undercuts their profits to refuse to serve minorities. Gradually, however, the business community began to see minorities as consumers and thus vital to their bottom line. Hollywood, for instance, realized the potential of African-American audiences in the early 1970s, a trend that later took off with Spike Lee and his successors, and the movie industry is now waking up to the reality of Latino filmgoers. In the early 1990s, writer David Rieff pointed out in a famous Harpers essay entitled "Multiculturalism's Silent Partner" that corporations were fast off the mark to embrace multiculturalism as a marketing strategy. Music companies, fast-food restaurants, clothing designers, political parties -- virtually every national brand has targeted the "minority demographic" as a way to acquire an edge in the marketplace of products and ideas.

When it comes to Roma, East-Central Europe is still in its segregation era. The business community hasn't really begun to see Roma as consumers because it's too busy worrying about how an association with Roma would adversely affect its image (much as executives from Crystal and Timberland strained their companies' relations with African Americans after they were reluctant to embrace their "urban" consumers).

Istvan Forgacs would like to change that. Businesses, he told me, "don't think of Roma as consumers. I looked at the demographics. If you're a bank and you don't offer services to Roma as clients, then in five years you'll have to close the bank branch. So the banks have to start working with Roma. But, you might say, 'Roma don't have money.' Do you know that a huge percentage of Roma get payments through the post office? In cash. Why doesn't a bank try to get more Roma clients? This is the future."

Forgacs works with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) on Roma issues. Before that he served in the Hungarian government, and before that he worked with the Open Society Institute. He has also worked on Roma issues at the European level in Strasbourg. Now he believes in working at a local level, and he has largely abandoned the more confrontational politics he'd once adopted.

"The Roma issue should be an economic issue," he told me on a car trip from Miskolc to Budapest in May 2013. "The business community should be thinking about the Roma issue. We should think about a Roma bank or financial institution. Eighty percent of Roma at the moment don't use bank services. That's 200,000 to 300,000 people. This wouldn't be such a big number in the States. But it's a huge number here in Hungary. So any bank that pays attention to Roma will suddenly have a bigger market position."

In Miskolc we met with two young Hungarian women, one Roma and one non-Roma, who had been involved in the cross-border youth exchanges set up by NDI in Slovakia and Hungary. I'd visited the Slovak Roma in Kecerovce, and the following day I traveled to the eastern Hungarian city of Miskolc to meet their Hungarian counterparts. They talked of growing tensions between Roma and non-Roma and also within the Roma community in Miskolc. The young Roma woman was studying to be a cultural anthropologist but was worried she wouldn't be able to get a job and therefore had a fallback option of becoming a customs officer. They despaired of the political situation in Hungary and thought about going abroad. Surprisingly, they were more optimistic than their Slovak counterparts that one day they might see a Roma president in their country.

Their report on tensions in Miskolc has been born out by recent news. This summer, the city government began to evict Roma from the city center, bulldozing the predominantly Roma neighborhood in order to build a sports stadium. The city is offering compensation, but only if the Roma relocate outside the city limits. Roma activist Aladar Horvath, who successfully challenged a plan to relocate Roma back in 1989, is again campaigning against these evictions, calling them ethnic cleansing.

Forgacs knows that it's an uphill struggle to get Hungarian society to recognize Roma as equal citizens. The power of Jobbik, the far-right party, has been growing. "Gabor Vona, the president of Jobbik, very often repeats this sentence from three years ago: 'The Roma father who works and sends his children to school, that Roma father is my brother.' Jobbik very often repeats this kind of thing," Forgacs told me. "It knows that many Hungarians want this from Roma -- to work and send their children to school. Jobbik says that if it rules the country, it will only give money to those Roma who are willing to change. And they will get a lot of support for that position. The society at the moment doesn't want to devote more money to Roma issues."

The city government in Miskolc indeed seems to be going along with Jobbik by offering money to Roma who are willing to change... their address.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I was in Hungary. I was a student. I was born in 1976, so in November 1989 I was 14. We were watching the news on television and reading the newspapers about everything that was happening. I felt that there was some kind of link between the events in Germany and my life. It was very strange.

How much did your life change as a result of the changes here in Hungary?

Very much. A lot of people found themselves in a worse situation after the changes. And that was also the case with the Roma. More than 80 percent lost their jobs at factories. But I grew up in a part of the country that was relatively well-off. The name of the town is Zalaegerszeg, near Lake Balaton and close to the Austrian border. I never faced real poverty in my community. I never experienced real tensions between Roma and non-Roma when I was growing up.

Our Roma community was 3,000 people. They had a chance after the changes to start their own businesses and establish relationships with non-Roma. One of my main credos is that economic interest is always the most important. If the economic resources are in the hands of the non-Roma, then you have to establish a relationship with them in order to gain access to some of those resources. Most of the Roma in my community had some kind of entrepreneurial relationship with the non-Roma, and that provided the basis for cohabitation. So, for them, the changes in 1990 were very important because before 1990 they had no chance for this kind of work.

Actually, I don't believe in a "Roma community" in Hungary. There are many different Roma communities in Hungary. The Roma in Miskolc are very different from Roma elsewhere. There are many different tribes. So I don't like to talk about one community.

What did you family do?

They started a business with used cars. At that time, in Hungary, there were no used-car distributors. You had to go to Austria or Germany to buy used cars. During socialism, you only had socialist cars. Then, with the changes, you could buy what you wanted to buy. So my family had a business where they went to Austria or Germany, bought used cars, imported them into Hungary, and sold them for a higher price. You had to be smart to do this kind of work, but you also had to work really hard.

How does the Hungarian majority view the Roma population?

The majority just doesn't want give any money to Roma. They don't want to give anything to Roma, because they think the Roma don't deserve it. "I work in a factory," the average Hungarian will say. "I pay my mortgage. I work two, three jobs. Why? Only to provide social benefits to Roma?" It's a very common attitude in most parts of the society.

But it's also a paradox, because never before have there been more people seeking positive changes for Roma than now. The majority is hungry for positive changes among Roma. The majority in society distinguishes between good and bad Roma. They want to see Roma who care, who can change, who can pick up their garbage. If you, as a Roma, understand how much the majority is struggling to keep this country alive and therefore create fewer problems for them, the majority will try to help you. Even if you as a Roma can't pay taxes or help repair the big hole in the Hungarian budget, at least try to create less mess. The majority will appreciate this.

At the moment the percentage of Roma in the Hungarian population is 7 to 8 percent. The official data is 3.1 percent, but many experts say that the Roma are really 7 to 8 percent. The structure of Hungarian society is changing rapidly. The number of people who lived in this county 10 years ago was 750,000. The number of people who live here now is 700,000. So 50,000 people left in the last 10 years. But the proportion of Roma is rising. As non-Roma move to other parts of the country, the general income of the county has gone down, the amount of tax revenue has gone down, and so the general level of education is also going down. How can a state function administratively without enough taxpayers? There is no chance for the taxpayers to sustain the country.

Let's say that you live here in Miskolc. You work hard. You pay your mortgage. And you see these people living in a sad situation who don't or can't contribute. Year by year the number of taxpayers declines, and the number of those dependent on government services grows. So the average Hungarian looks at a Roma and sees a person who is stealing their taxes. It's a lack of solidarity.

Voluntary segregation is taking place. The non-Roma die or move out of the village, and the Roma stay behind. So the educational system is becoming segregated in this way. There was a court case a few weeks ago involving a Roma settlement in a major city in Hungary. At the so-called Roma school in this settlement, 70 percent of students were Roma. It was closed several years by the court, which said that it was a segregated school. Last year the Greek Orthodox Church took over the school. They started to get a following from the town, and the Roma started to send their children to the school. Again, the court said that it was a segregated school. The Roma families started a petition that they wanted to keep their kids at that school. They said that it was much better to have their children studying there than to take a bus for 30 minutes to another town where they faced real anti-Roma sentiment that they'd never faced before. So that's an interesting question. Should we force an 8-year-old kid to have that experience just because of integration?

We were talking earlier about contraception. Is there sex education in school?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.