Minority Report

By Wang, Stephanie | Harvard International Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Minority Report


Wang, Stephanie, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

Popular stereotypes of Gypsies as sultry dancers, inscrutable fortune-tellers, and carefree wanderers have surrounded the Gypsies with a romantic mystique. In reality, Eastern European Gypsies, or Roma, have had a bleak existence characterized by persecution and suffering ever since they emigrated from India between 500 and 1,000 years ago. The growing international attention that has accompanied Eastern Europe's gradual shift toward democracy could provide a much-needed forum where the Roma's persecution and neglect can finally be addressed.

Text:

Roma and Eastern Europe

Popular stereotypes of Gypsies as sultry dancers, inscrutable fortune-tellers, and carefree wanderers have surrounded the Gypsies with a romantic mystique.

In reality, Eastern European Gypsies, or Roma, as they prefer to be called, have had a bleak existence characterized by persecution and suffering ever since they emigrated from India between 500 to 1000 years ago. Under the Nazi regime, a staggering 98 percent of the 140,000 Czech Roma were murdered. Fifty years later, the transition to democratic societies in Eastern Europe has generated growing racial discrimination against the five to nine million Roma in Eastern Europe. Still, the growing international attention that has accompanied Eastern Europe's gradual shift toward democracy could provide a much-needed forum where the Roma's persecution and neglect can finally be addressed.

The Roma's refusal to be assimilated into European cultures has made them the target of relentless persecution for centuries. Besides speaking a non-European language related to Hindi, the Roma also isolate themselves by referring to non-Roma as gadjo (meaning "foreigner" or "stranger") and by frowning on marriage outside their ethnic group. Furthermore, the Roma's unique cultural practices and distinctive physical attributes, such as dark skin, have made them easy to single out.

Persecution has become an even more severe problem for the Roma in recent years. Suppressed under the Communist regime, racial discrimination now operates under the auspices of "freedom of speech" and "self-determination." Mob attacks, lynchings, and other assaults against the Roma have soared; in 1997, over 160 racial crimes against the Roma were reported in the Czech Republic alone, as opposed to only nine cases in 1990. Serbs and Kosovar Albanians killed Roma and destroyed their property during the most recent Kosovo crisis.

Aspects of daily living are also being threatened by recent economic developments. Since the majority of Romany adults are uneducated, unskilled workers, the shift to market economies has meant poverty for a people who had enjoyed full employment under the former Communist regimes. In 1995, for example,the unemployment rate was only three percent among non-Roma in the Czech Republic; Czech Roma, on the other hand, suffered from 50 to 90 percent unemployment. Both discrimination and economic disparity have resulted in the segregation of the Romany population. Most live in isolated rural areas or in impoverished ghettos, further limiting opportunities for improving their own lives.

Some Eastern Europeans explain the Roma's poverty by claiming that the stereotype of Roma as shifty criminals and lazy workers is true. An estimated 70 percent of the Romany population do in fact have criminal records, and a large majority of them also rely on welfare. …

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