The Roma Challenge
School desegregation was the issue that kick-started the golden age of American rights jurisprudence, with the 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education. In Europe, the rights of equality seem to be the last on the agenda. The issue is at last being forced by a group of Czech Roma children, who have produced statistics to make a Selma school superintendent blush. Their case is destined to be remembered either as Europe's Brown v. Board of Education, or—more likely—as the Brown v. Board of Education that wasn't. There's no doubt that the Roma, more commonly known as gypsies, suffer deep discrimination. But in responding, the European Court of Human Rights is hampered by a caseload crisis and a narrow mandate on equality.
Like Africans in the New World, the Roma in the Roma region of Wallachia were enslaved outright for centuries. The experience of that particular Roma community was extreme, but through much of Europe, the status of today's Roma resembles that of blacks in America before the civil rights movement. Stereotyped as criminals, they must contend with police brutality and, in some cases, state-condoned mob violence. Trapped in the region's most depressed economies, they face discrimination in jobs and housing—and segregation in schools.
The former Czechoslovakia presents a microcosm of the Roma experience, because, culturally, it straddles Eastern and Western Europe. In the industrialized Czech lands, the Roma followed the pattern of their brethren in the West, wandering from town to town, serving as horse dealers, fortune tellers, folk doctors, beggars, and petty thieves. Rural Slovakia fit the sedentary pattern of Eastern Europe, where the mass of Roma have always lived. In Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovakia, the Roma exceed