Keeping hate alive: the Roma experience in Europe

By Joel Schalit

 

In the final piece of his four-part series on race and religion in Europe, Joel Schalit looks at one of the most virulent strands of discrimination – antiziganism.

 
The apartment buildings look abandoned. As the camera draws closer, their details come into focus. Broken windows, crumbling concrete.

Young girls removing their belongings from their home before the forced eviction of an informal Roma settlement in Belgrade  (Photograph/Sanja Knežević/therighthuman.blogspot.be)
Young girls removing their belongings from their home before the forced eviction of an informal Roma settlement in Belgrade (Photograph/Sanja Knežević/therighthuman.blogspot.be)

Burn marks are visible on their walls. In between them, someone is attending to a fire, while children gather around it, as though partaking in some sort of pagan ritual. The pedestrians are dark-skinned, likely Roma.

The scene is a decrepit housing estate in Košice, Slovakia, currently Europe’s co-Capital of Culture (along with Marseille) also infamous for a recently-erected wall dividing Roma from Slovak-majority neighborhoods.

The protagonists – two gambling machine servicemen from Vienna – have come to hire the services of a prostitute.

The senior of the two stays behind, defecating behind one of the apartment buildings, in plain sight of their inhabitants, amidst piles of rubbish.

His partner reluctantly goes into one of the buildings to score.

The camera follows the Austrian encountering one Roma after another, living in the most abject poverty imaginable.

Families live in single rooms. Doors fall off hinges as he walks through them.

The young man eventually finds what he came there for, but the price turns out to be too high.

Following an altercation with her johns (clients), he runs back to his van, which in the interim, had been surrounded by little kids.

He throws game treats out the back to distract them, as he and his partner make haste to get away.

 

Plight of the Roma

The scene, from the Palm d’Or-nominated 2007 Austrian drama Import/Export, is its own moment of consciousness-raising in a film about the collision of East and West following the Cold War.

Few topics, particularly the plight of Europe’s Roma (or Gypsy) communities, have been better highlighted – cinematically – by the end of the conflict.

The Austrian’s horror is in many ways that of Europe’s, which, like him, has no solution to their problem.

He’s simply a part of its narrative, frightened by the price of its knowledge.

The scene is telling, insofar as how it presents Europe’s Roma community as living apart, in apartheid-like separation, indistinguishable from its garbage.

The Roma are similarly thrown away. They are considered of some use, albeit in the realms of sexual pleasure and criminality.

The portrait is remarkable, in terms of how it walks the line between racist stereotype and journalistic reportage.

Nonetheless, it accomplishes what it sets out to do. This is how Europe interacts with its Roma inhabitants. It has no solutions. Relations are predatory.

 

Ambivalence

As a work of fiction, Import/Export goes a long way towards capturing the ambivalence with which the plight of the Roma is dealt with.

Take, for example, the 2008 ruling by Italy’s [Supreme] Court of Cassation, which threw out a racist incitement conviction of six rightists who signed a leaflet calling for the expulsion of Verona’s Roma community, seven years prior.

Reporting the decision for The Guardian, John Hooper summarised the criteria used to absolve the defendant, Flavio Tosi of the Northern League, who is now Verona’s mayor.

According to one of the witnesses at his trial, Tosi defended himself by attributing his racism to common sense: “The Gypsies must be ordered out, because wherever they arrive, there are robberies.”

Hooper reports that this resonated with the magistrates. “The Court of Cassation decided this did not show Tosi was a racist, but that he had “a deep aversion [to Roma] that was not determined by the Gypsy nature of the people discriminated against, but by the fact that all the Gypsies were thieves.”

Tosi’s dislike of them was “not therefore based on a notion of superiority or racial hatred, but on racial prejudice.”

The fact that the defendant could be exonerated, on the basis of racist generalisations (“All Gypsies are thieves”) is of course appalling.

Yet, one can see how such statements might be excused as a statement of fact, instead of discrimination.

 

Rationalising inequality

Since the EU’s six million estimated Roma are excluded from most aspects of the workforce, they frequently engage in underground activities to survive.

It’s a tautology, certainly, which sounds plausibly innocent of bias. Still, like the scene in Import/Export, the opinion is vindicated by the reality.

Unable to pay for a situation for which they bear at least some responsibility, the Austrians flee. Tosi, on the other hand, takes a political position, albeit a reactionary one.

Though Tosi was re-convicted of incitement in 2009 (with a fine of 4,000 euros and a ban on holding political rallies for four years) the Italian’s initial acquittal is of greater interest.

This is because it takes a consequence of anti-Roma racism (theft) and uses it to justify further racism.

It’s an effective means of denying responsibility for the forces that shape the Roma economy. As though what such communities are forced to do has no place in the division of labour, in any given society.

Prostitution, as in the film’s example is one such activity.

The idea that we might rationalise inequality on such a basis ought to frighten, as it’s a standard of judgement that could be applied to any minority community.

Yet, it’s what allows Europe to live with the Roma situation, and its horrific racism, without providing the Roma with any opportunities to overcome or engage in more ‘acceptable’ forms of labour.

With antiziganism (anti-Roma discrimination) on the rise, Europe would do well to recognise how it’s responsible for the plight of the Roma, before it begins similarly defending the necessity of other forms of discrimination.

 

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