Inequality Viewed Through The Rromani Experience

While general study can encompass a wide subject area, it does not cover every nuance of our population.  The subject of inequality touches upon almost everyone in our society and others, barring the standard bearer of privilege, the wealthy white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, but we can only discuss general aspects of that inequality within a given time frame.  It remains for us individually and collectively to research other important aspects more in depth. These include people of colour, women, the poor, and even the LGBT communities.  But there is also another that is of equal importance that receives short shrift in most societies, the Rromani, euphemistically referred to as gypsies (usually reduced to a lower-case word to emphasise their status as second-class citizens or worse as well as their unimportance.  This synthesis of readings from our study of inequality will briefly examine Rromani prejudice, state sponsored as well as those practices sanctioned by the state and perpetrated by individuals and groups viewed through those texts as well as additional texts related to the Rromani. While I will attempt to cover a wide area, this is only a brief introduction to the inequality suffered by the Rroma.

Even while violence and prejudice against the Rromani have continued for centuries, certain aspects of their culture have been embraced and absorbed by the dominant culture, including (aspects of) tango as well as flamenco dancing and music.  There are countless other influences, but it puzzles and shocks me that society, any society, could be so duplicitous to adapt certain rich cultural contributions but reject the people who introduced those contributions outright.  However, a majority of people in the United States has done the very same thing to its Black community in relation to its cultural contributions.  Witness the experience of Django Reinhardt during his tour of the United States with Duke Ellington’s orchestra.

As a Romany in France, Django suffered incidents of enduring racism against his own people and quickly perceived and rebelled against any discrimination of his fellow bandmates. . . . . Drummer Sonny Greer recalled:  “. . . .So he, a French boy, say, ‘Come on Sonny, we go have a drink.’  I say all right.  So we go in this high-class joint, se stand at the bar, cat don’t pay him no mind. . . . . And the guy says, ‘I can serve you Mister,’ but he wouldn’t serve me. (Dregni 2004: 217)

Overt racism continues today alongside the institutionalized racism perpetuated by the governments of each region and country where the Rromani live with only a few exceptions.  Stiglitz discusses similar inequalities in The Price of Inequality but only briefly and only in passing where economic instability in the US economy serves to disenfranchise the middle classes and the poor and increase the disparity in access to healthcare and the decreases in the standards of living.  He even admits that such economic instability serves to effect people around the world but he only mentions this without really discussing any specific inequality or racism.

The core documents provided by the Occupy Movement address this inherent inequality in society much better, but they offer no solutions throughout their efforts and announcements to  “occupy” specific problems or specific corporate entities to draw attention to such inequities.  And they do so without any tangible protesting.  While they feel they must draw attention to the ideas that they feel are most pressing and important, they do not seem to care about anything other than economic disparity in their own country.  They also have made no effort to draw attention to racism in the United States, so they have certainly ignored the racism and violence perpetuated against the Rroma throughout the world.  This may or may not be due to the perception of racism practice by whites (the majority of Occupy) where it is based upon internal argumentation and the intent to avoid racism by defining it away to feel ok about themselves versus the manner in which it is actually experienced by blacks, Rromani, and other minorities.  The key words here are “feel” and “experience”.  Until racism is defined honestly by all concerned this discrepancy in interpretation will continue.

bell hooks, while not mentioning the Rromani by name, understands racism as it is intended and as it is practiced.  In Where We Stand:  Class Matters, hooks’ argues that racism, inequality and their associated subjects equate to class, and class is naturally tied to money.  While the wealthy may not be intimately aware of money issues and do not consider cost when contemplating a purchase, whether expensive or not, the economic poor are intimately aware of this.  “Everyone who grows up in a household where there is a lack of material resources knows what it feels like to want things you cannot have, to want what money can buy when there is no money to spare.” (Hooks 2000: 50).  In other words, we are all equal in the eyes of society, but some are more equal than others.  The Rroma are as oppressed and amongst the poorest of peoples in most societies, but even with the centuries of racist oppression and even extermination (especially at the hands of the Nazis during World War II) that they have suffered, they have found ways to survive it.  “The sheer persistence of the Gypsies needs to be stressed. . . .  So that even if the Gypsies have to abandon larger and more spectacular forms of their way of life for a period, they are often able to invent the larger pattern from the smaller section they have been able to hang on to.” (Stewart 1997:  13).  While inequality among the Rromani is something that is being addressed in certain places like the United Nations, and the European Parliament and perpetuated in others, like France and Italy, their determination to survive and thrive in their manner and their ways is something that should be admired and ennobled.

Though the Rromani desire to retain their culture and their lives, they also want to be accepted into the wider culture as much as their contributions are (many reluctantly attributed or ignored) appreciated.  The definition and classification of race are political designations as well as cultural and individual, but race is by no means a scientific one.  “. . . Although race may have no biological meaning, as used in reference to human differences, it has an extremely important and highly contested social one.” (Omi 2001: 243).  Such a social construct has been used for centuries to exploit a political construct to oppress peoples to benefit a majority.  Even in the face of European Parliament penalties, the Italian government persists in its attempts to isolate and expel Rromani inhabitants by equating them with a criminal element, a practice that is not new and not unfamiliar to any other oppressed minority group.  The recent anti-immigrant measures in Italy, the so-called “security packet” caused the violent riots against the Rromani, “. . . the populist governing coalition . . . has systematically sought to respond to the needs of the Italian people with the security packet.  . . . [but] is not just a representation of the perceived needs of the electorate, but plays a significant role in shaping and creating those needs.” (Costi 2010:  106-107).  Ignorance and fear have fueled racism for centuries.  Until we can move beyond the social constructs that were exploited in World War II, we can hardly call the so-called civilised societies civilised.

In recent years, news articles have emphasised the emergence of a Hispanic majority in Texas and especially California.  It will be interesting to watch how government approaches what it once defined as a minority population. Governments will also have to address the growing inadequacy of ethnic and racial designations within job applications and within government censuses where only one choice is possible when multi-ethnicity and multi-raciality is the reality and has been the reality for years if not for centuries, given the migrations of peoples and the invasion of different lands before the emergence of the nation state.  “. . . in the future, race will cease to be the basis of identity and ‘special-interest power’ because of the growth in mixed-race people.” (Omi 2001:  247). When once the government actually reflects the percentage of this racial and ethnic reality, then maybe we will see a shift in the attention they pay to census questionnaires when they realise that we are all pure human beings and that should be enough for us to rise above our fears of the different.

When looking at inequality as a whole it is important to remember that individuals in the majority will reflect the practices of the majority institution, be it the government or a large local business. When racism is politically and legally “illegal” it can and will persist in enduring institutions though the rules have changed.  The redlining of desirable and undesirable areas for home purchases and the creation of the federal highway system, constructed on racially segregated lines in several cities, if not all, to avoid construction through predominantly white neighborhoods, even though such practices were declared illegal when the creation of the Federal Highway system was created in 1956, are glaring examples of this.

And while Rromani communities are stereotypically looked upon as nomadic (forced to that way of life from centuries of pogroms and violence by the larger dominant community), even though more than a few are sedentary, the de-facto racism that exists to keep the Rromani out needs to be addressed. If such laws were still in existence to keep anyone of Jewish heritage confined to a ghetto, there would be an uproar.  If such laws existed blatantly on the books to segregate blacks in the United States, there would be riots in every city of the United States, and rightfully so. Those de-facto laws still exist in “liberal Europe” barely covering themselves in blankets of protection from “widespread” immigrant crime the way the laws of the United States once did when my Italian ancestors arrived over one hundred years ago.  Even in the France of Django Reinhardt, the Rromani are being ejected from their homes.  All but the progeny of Django who was declared an “honourary” Frenchman decades ago. Small consolations.  In the twenty-first century, this must stop, and we can take the principles and practices of Occupy New York City and put them to good use rather than protesting for vague improvements in the economy.

 

Sources:

Costi, N. (2010). The spectre that haunts Italy: The systematic criminalisation of the Roma and the fears of the Heartland. Romani Studies, 20(2), 105-136.

Dregni, M. (2004). Django: the Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend. New York: Oxford University Press, USA.

Hooks, B. (2000). Where We Stand: Class Matters. New York: Routledge.

Omi, M. A. (2001). The Changing Meaning Of Race. In Smelser, N. J., Wilson, W. J., Mitchell, F., & editors, America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences (pp. 243-263).  Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Stewart, M. (1997). The Time of the Gypsies. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Stiglitz, J. E. (2012). The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (Kindle Version).  New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Wilson, W. J. (2010). More Than Just Race. New York: W.W. Norton.