10 min read

Racism, reparations, and the Roma.

A brief note on Afghanistan:

I know we've all been watching the heartbreaking scenes from Afghanistan, where desperate people are scrambling to board the last flights out of the country after the Taliban took over in the capital Kabul last Sunday.

Many people are trying to reach Kabul airport, and there are mixed reports about whether they can do so.

I know we're all thinking about the women whose rights could disappear overnight and the people whose lives are now at risk. Congressman Andy Kim of New Jersey is asking Afghans trying to leave the country to email him. The Center for Government and Markets has a team of volunteers working to connect Afghans who worked for U.S. entities with their former employers so they can apply for visas. Many others are working on getting Afghans to safety.

Please share these messages if you know people from Afghanistan who need help.

Racism, reparations, and police violence against the Roma  

A statue of acclaimed Roma musician Bakija Bakić, in the Roma quarters in Vranje, Serbia.

Margareta Matache is from a Roma family in Romania. In the early 1990s, following the fall of communism in Romania, her father began working as an activist in the local Roma movement. Activists gathered in her home near Romania's capital Bucharest and listened to stories of the violence and discrimination the Roma people experienced.

Roma people's houses were burned. They were attacked and killed. Margareta's father tried to work as a mediator in the community.

"I got to be a part of this in a very natural way," Margareta told me about the activism of her youth.

Over the years, Margareta grew up to become a student activist working for Roma rights in her country. She later rose to become the director of a Roma's rights organization in Bucharest and documented cases of discrimination and abuse against the Roma people.  

After completing her Ph.D., she helped launch Harvard University's Roma program using participatory action research methods.

We discussed structural racism against Roma people in Europe, the current research into Roma communities worldwide, and the main issues facing the Roma today.  

Cristina: What is your current assessment of the academic literature about Roma people and research in the field?

Margareta: There is a growing critical Romani studies field. Many of us look critically at what has been written about us. From methods to interpreting data, there are a lot of racist conclusions and assumptions.

One example was a survey, and one of the questions asked if Roma parents value education. The answer was overwhelming 'yes.' But out of all of the questions asked, the researchers assumed that the parents were lying and giving the response the researchers wanted to hear. So why assume that Roma lied about only that one question?

Many things are not overtly racist but include unconscious bias. There is so much to say about research and objectivity.

Cristina: Can you tell me more about the work you're doing now?

I've been at Harvard for 9 years, and we try to conduct Roma-related research. We collect data, but we are also trying to place Roma in current conversations about race and racism, enslavement, reparations, and so on.

We started work on reparations six or seven years ago with the idea that Roma enslavement in Romania, for example, hasn't been included in the literature on slavery or reparations. The Roma victims of the Holocaust have not been acknowledged as much as they should have.

So we started this global conversation with the idea of creating a joint advocacy movement for reparations. We will publish a volume called Time for Reparations with the University of Pennsylvania in September. It takes a global perspective on reparations, and it includes two chapters on the Roma.

We're also trying to work with the Roma global diaspora, so reaching out to Romani Americans.

Cristina: How many Roma people are in the United States?

Margareta: It's hard to say. Estimates put the number at somewhere between 1 million and 1.5 million. But there is no suitable method to count because many identified with their country of origin. Many who have been here for one generation or two or three maintain the Roma language at home, but they don't identify as Roma when they go outside of the home.

Some go to the same churches that preach in the Romani language. There are many in California. In addition, Texas, New York, and Connecticut have communities.

Cristina: If you could pinpoint the main issues in the Roma community that are being addressed by activism and research, what would they be?

Margareta: Anti-Roma racism is the main umbrella issue. But my goal is to unpack and deconstruct the many manifestations and pillars of anti-Roma racism.

By looking at manifestations and pillars, we can place the experiences of oppression that the Roma faces within the larger conversations on race and racism.  

For instance, a lot of our work looks at segregation in education. It's a reality across many countries in Europe.

It's not segregation by law but by practice. But, unfortunately, in many ways, that's something we can also see still in the United States.

We did a study focusing on the Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria, and we looked at case law.

The European Court of Human Rights had a few cases on segregation in education, including a very famous one from the Czech Republic. The court judgment said that Roma children were placed at a high rate in special schools and misdiagnosed due to racial bias.

That's a phenomenon in various countries. The Open Society Foundations had a report on the placement of Romani children in special schools in Serbia, too.

There was an interesting study from the U.K. They looked at the experience of Roma children who came to the U.K. with their families from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. They were in special schools, but after arriving in the U.K. and being placed in an inclusive school system, they had the same level of performance as any other child in just a few years.

We look at this segregation as an overt manifestation of racism.

We also look at police abuse.

In our studies of Romani Americans, one of the clear manifestations of anti-Roma discrimination in the United States is racial profiling.

There are many experiences of that here in the U.S., but also Europe. For example, last month, a Romani man was killed by the police in the Czech Republic. A policeman nealed on his neck for six minutes. His name was Stanislav Tomáš.

There were many protests. Not at the same level that you see in the United States, but there are many cases of police abuse.

We also look at the connections between racism and health and how racism functions as a trigger for health inequities and as a stressor in itself.

Cristina: Is the experience of Roma people similar from country to country, or does it vary greatly?

Margareta: It varies greatly from continent to continent. The experiences of Romani Americans are different from those of Roma people in Europe.

The policies against Roma in Europe have always been more targeted. In Europe, we deal with structural racism. Most of the laws and policies don't even include Roma, they are very white in nature.

In the United States, the targets of structural racism are other communities, including Black Americans and Native Americans.  

Roma faces discrimination in the U.S., but there is no intentional, continuous mechanism to keep Roma under oppression. However, you will notice that in some of the laws in the United States, at the beginning of the 1900s, Roma, or "gypsies," were prohibited from entering the United States. So many people who came to the United States just claimed they were nationals of their countries.

During the Holocaust, when the Nazis took Roma to camps, the information they had was from the official census or other official channels. So many elders in the community started to tell people not to identify themselves to the authorities.  

Cristina: Does the experience of Roma differ significantly in Eastern and Western Europe?

Margareta: I think there's a difference because there are more Roma people in Eastern, Central, and southern Europe than we see in the North or the West.

In the U.K., for example, you have Roma that were born in the U.K., and they have different experiences from the Roma from Romania or Bulgaria. So you will see this tension as well between Sinti and Roma in Germany.

There are power dynamics. There is some frustration from Romani groups born in these Western countries who have a little more access to wealth and resources. When Roma come from Romania and Bulgaria and beg on the street, the Roma born in those Western countries feel like we ruin their image and cause more racism against them.

There is also some tension over the names we call ourselves. Some subgroups don't like that we use Roma as an umbrella term. There is also racialized poverty, which you see more in Eastern and Central Europe. So we can't talk about a homogenous Romani diaspora.

Even in Romania, we have at least 20 subgroups of Romani people with different dialects and some different traditions and clothes. Some get more targeted by violence than others.

Cristina: Has the evolution of the European Union altered the experience of Roma people in Europe at all? Has the ability to move across borders changed the experiences of Roma?

Margareta: When the opportunity came to travel to other European countries without a visa, that made many Roma, together with members of the dominant population, decide to move to different countries.

People traveled to the U.K. or France, or Spain. And they did much better. Some would work in construction or fruit picking, the same work that Romanians would do. However, the experiences of their children in school were much different.

But even if you only need an ID and a bus ticket, many Roma people can't afford that.

That said, France and Italy in the 2000s wanted to start fingerprinting Roma, but the European Commission disagreed.

France had a voluntary repatriation program, and they would give 300 or 400 euros to migrants to return to their countries. Many used that opportunity. They would go back home for Christmas and then come back to France in January.

That was the impetus for the European Union to create the basis for the European strategy for Roma inclusion. It wasn't because they cared about Roma. It was because these powerful countries were angry and thought there was a problem.

Many of the projects for Roma inclusion weren't written together with the Roma, so you had these white organizations saying they were going to fix the Roma community, and then nothing happened.

Most EU states agreed to write a strategy for Roma inclusion, but when it comes to implementation they didn't put any money into it.

Part of the work I do at Harvard is to say the problem is not how to fix the Roma. The question is how to fix policies and practices that are racist in nature.


Thanks to Margareta for sharing her time!

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What I'm reading:

• While the U.S. pulls diplomatic staff out of Afghanistan, China’s propaganda machine has started laying the groundwork for the country's population to accept that Beijing might recognize the Taliban, the Guardian reports.

• U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned countries against unilaterally recognizing the Taliban, Reuters reports. Johnson is one of the two foreign leaders U.S. President Joe Biden has spoken to thus far. The other is German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

• The Taliban has responded to public protests against their rule with violence and force, Reuters and the New York Times report.  LA Times photographer Marcus Yam has photos of the Taliban beating and killing people trying to reach the airport.

• A confidential U.N. document says the Taliban is hunting for all people who worked and collaborated with NATO and U.S. forces and conducted advance mapping of individuals before its take-over of major cities, the BBC reports.

• Taliban militants searching for a journalist with the German publication Deutsche Welle shot dead a member of his family and seriously injured another, DW reports.

• Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai met for talks with a senior leader of the Haqqani Network militant group, an influential faction of the Taliban, amid efforts to form a government in Afghanistan, Reuters reports.

Canada promised to resettle over 20,000 Afghan citizens whom the Taliban is likely to target, including female leaders, rights workers, and LGBTQ people, the New York Times reports.

•  Spain’s new Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said Madrid would help employees of the EU mission in Afghanistan with "an orderly departure of European and local personnel.” Around 50 Afghans have already arrived in Madrid.

• Ukraine's Foreign Minister said Ukrainian aircraft stationed in Afghanistan took citizens of Ukraine, the Netherlands, Croatia, Belarus, and Afghanistan out of Kabul.

• The Taliban, which controls the world's largest opium operation, earns about $460 million a year from taxes on the sale of heroin, the Wall Street Journal reports.

• European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson released a video this week warning that “instability in Afghanistan is likely to lead to increased migratory pressure." She said the EU is preparing for all scenarios.

• Balkan Insight has a good piece on the fate of the migrants being used in Belarus's hybrid war against the European Union.

• Slovenia’s Interior Minister Aleš Hojs announced that “Lithuania needs additional assistance, as do Latvia and Poland," to deal with the influx of migrants due to Belarus's "aggression."

Poland sent more than 900 soldiers to its border with Belarus to stop migrants from entering the country, Politico Europe reports.

• After Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a controversial law to restrict reparations for Holocaust victims, Israel recalled its top diplomat from Warsaw. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid slammed Poland as a country “that does not honor the greatest tragedy in human history," Politico Europe reports.

• Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro released Freddy Guevara, an opposition leader jailed for over a month, to act as a negotiator in political talks set to start next month in Mexico, Bloomberg reports.

• The former Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan argued before an appeals court this week in Cambodia that his genocide conviction should be overturned, the New York Times reports.

• The Biden administration might be reviving the Trump administration's controversial 'Remain in Mexico' policy for migrants, VICE reports. Yahoo News reports that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the Biden administration’s attempt to prevent a federal court judge in Texas from requiring the administration to restart the program.

• A young Chinese woman claims there is a secret prison holding Uyghur Muslims in Dubai, the Associated Press reports.

Algeria declared Morocco a hostile country after accusing its neighbor of backing a separatist group accused of criminal activity in the Kabylie region, the BBC reports.  

• USAID chief Samantha Power warned that emergency food in Ethiopia’s Tigray region would run out this week, Reuters reports.

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