A fortnight ago, Pope Benedict held a timely audience with 2,000 representatives of the Roma – arguably the most vulnerable ethnic minority in Europe – at which he spoke frankly about their “complex and sometimes painful” recent history. Inviting them to take up “a dignified place in Europe’s civil fabric” Pope Benedict emphasized the importance of sustaining efforts to integrate the group despite “often difficult relations” with their host nations.
The European Union adopted a Directive for Racial Equality in 2000, but this seems to have done little to ease the local hatreds directed at the approximately 10 million Roma scattered throughout Europe (mainly in the East). Wherever there is an economic downturn, or high unemployment, the Roma usually get blamed first. Only in the last few years have their main host nations made genuine efforts to desegregate housing and education. Evidence of the siege mentality produced by this exclusion is not hard to find. When the EU recently relaxed its visa requirements, Macedonia and Serbia were seriously embarrassed by a surge in emigration produced by their Roma populations fleeing local discrimination to seek a better life elsewhere. Similar discrimination, and discontent, has been widely reported throughout Europe. During the last few months, for instance, right wing parties in Hungary have staged confrontational marches against the Roma and brazenly advocated violence against them. Within Hungary at least nine Roma have been killed in the last three years, and dozens more injured in public violence.
The difficulties of integration have been particularly noticeable in efforts to relocate Roma children (most of whom have been traditionally segregated from ‘white’ children in special schools) into mainstream education. One prominent advocate of these efforts is the Columbia law professor Jack Greenberg, a former legal counsel to the NAACP and one of the lawyers whoargued the landmark case Brown v Board of Education, which led to the desegregation of America’s public schools. In 2004, while visiting Bulgaria to observe the government’s efforts at desegregation, Greenberg was not surprised by the slow progress of the reforms. (Only 5 per cent of Roma graduate from high school and a mere 0.3 per cent show any interest in higher education.) In fact he was so heartened by what he saw that he wrote: “Although in most of Eastern Europe there has been a slow movement, even inertia, with regard to desegregation, there has been nothing like the massive resistance that obstructed desegregation in the United States.”
The post-Civil Rights achievements of black America – which have included the appointment of secretaries of state, Supreme Court justices, and the election of hundreds of mayors, congressional representatives and a president – tend to obscure memories of how difficult it was to desegregate the American South. As Greenberg recalls, “Southern officials and institutions typically treated a court decision as if it applied only to the plaintiff and defendant in that case. Bus companies did not act as if a Supreme Court decision about seating on the bus controlled terminals… Railroad companies did not treat a decision governing sleeping or dining cars as applicable to coaches… Voting officials outright evaded court orders that invalidated laws or practices that excluded by adopting fresh registration or voting criteria that once again shut them out. One case after another overturned convictions because blacks had been excluded from juries, but exclusion continued.” Europe’s discrimination, by contrast, has been far less coordinated and often surfaces only in very localized xenophobia. Nevertheless, the Roma remain on the outside of modern Europe, waiting for their turn to become full members of the society.
During their audience at the Vatican – convened for the 150th anniversary of Ceferino Gimenez Malla, a Spanish Catholic Roma beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1997 – some Roma recalled their experiences in Nazi death camps (their elimination was a priority in the Final Solution). Others hoped their children might live in peace within Europe. One of the younger audience members, an 18-year-old boy born in Italy to a family from the former Yugoslavia, summed up the contradictions of his group’s recent history in two sentences. “I am a Roma,” said Carlo Mikic, “and a fully European citizen. We are not a people to be isolated and to be afraid of.”
The Roma’s campaign for recognition, integration and some form of belated reparation is not just a transposed version of the US Civil rights struggle, it is essentially the same struggle for a dignified existence with which Canada’s First Nations and Australia’s Aborigines have been engaged, with equally mixed results, for decades. The dauntingly slow pace of their acceptance in Europe is a timely reminder of how difficult it is for any society to come to terms with the traumas of its recent past. Pope Benedict’s vision of the Roma becoming dignified citizens of the new Europe is significant, especially in light of the Supreme Pontiff’s childhood memories of Nazi Germany, but the fact remains that at least a generation will pass before Benedict’s hopes for the Roma have any reasonable chance of being realized.