The structural racialized patterns of segregation and structural violence of Roma have been tacitly accepted, institutionalized, and invigorated by recent populist politics in Europe. This alarming normalization of structural race-based exclusion has become the foundation for the inferiorization and dehumanization of Roma in the public imagination.
Based on the belief of populists and their explicit political agenda to mobilize deep-rooted anti-Roma racism, Roma are now simply “inferior” and their material dispossession is deemed to be the outcome of their “cultural tradition”. Their disposable lives simply do not matter! This message is legitimized on a daily basis by politicians and extensively replicated and reproduced by individuals and organizations – police officers, bankers, teachers, doctors, local authorities, and so on – who are consciously and unconsciously endorsing this deep-rooted racialized cultural and political script.
Consequently, de facto, material deprivation, repressive legislation, micro-aggression, and routinized discrimination and violence against Roma have been encouraged, (re-)confirmed and consolidated by powerful European political leaders such as Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orbán, and lately Boris Johnson, whose repressive legislation outlined in the Queen’s Speech will criminalize a significant number of Roma, Gypsy, and Travellers in the UK. Unfortunately, these events are not isolated; rather, they are part and parcel of a growing institutionalized anti-Roma racism.
Thinking about these interrelated and mutually reinforcing phenomena against Roma, and the lack of public outrage and outcry, reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s observations at the trial of Adolf Eichmann for his role as chief organizer of the Holocaust: the systemic extermination of Jews and others, including Roma. Arendt’s remarks sparked considerable debate over guilt and the individual’s responsibility in society, which might help us understand the danger of silence and the “bystander” mentality which contributes to the decay of our societies.
The banality of evil
One of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt reported on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in April 1961 that resulted in Eichmann’s conviction and hanging for “crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, war crimes and membership in criminal associations” during the Holocaust. Arendt’s report of the trial included the term the “Banality of Evil” – a concept that perfectly resonates with the moral, ethical, political, and social effects of the calculated message regarding Roma delivered by the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, on January 9 this year at his annual press conference.
Arendt later explained two interconnected ideas in a revised edition of “A Report on the Banality of Evil”. First, Eichmann was not the most evil or satanic person, rather an ordinary man on duty who had completely interiorized the values and norms of Nazi Germany. His deeds were ordinary and banal in a totalitarian society which carried out its activities through a bureaucratic apparatus, significant outrage, and public resistance. Secondly, Arendt observed that Eichmann may have lacked the intention to think and critically reflect on his deeds, therefore he was “thoughtless”, which she defined as the “inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view”.
One of the main lessons we learn from Arendt’s philosophical contemplation is that in the atmosphere of Nazi Germany, Eichmann could not distinguish between good and evil. Arendt called Eichmann a “new type of criminal”, who commits crime “under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible to know or to feel that he is doing wrong”.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s racist comments on the segregation of Romani school students were received by fellow Hungarians without massive public outrage. The Prime Minister publicly contested the ruling by the Debrecen Court of Appeal in favour of Romani families in the town of Gyöngyöspata, whose children were forced to learn in segregated, unequal settings between 2004 and 2014. On September 18, 2019, the Court of Appeal upheld the first instance judgement and concluded that the Hungarian state must pay HUF 80 million (approx. USD 259,000) in compensation to the Roma children who were forcedly segregated for a decade from their non-Roma Hungarian peers in school.
The court case was litigated by the brave legal defense organization, the Chance for Children Foundation (CFCF). They proved in court that Romani students rarely met their non-Romani peers as they were educated in separate classes on a separate floor; they were not allowed to take part in social events; they were not taken on field-trips; and they were denied IT and swimming lessons.
They proved in court that Romani students rarely met their non-Romani peers as they were educated in separate classes on a separate floor; they were not allowed to take part in social events; they were not taken on field-trips; and they were denied IT and swimming lessons.
According to the CFCF report, a significant number of Romani students were not able to graduate due to the low quality of the education in the segregated setting, which left most of them functionally illiterate. Consequently, they are deprived of any legal well-paid meaningful jobs for the rest of their lives.
In his speech, Viktor Orbán stated: “I am not from Gyöngyöspáta, but if I were to live there, I would be asking how it is that, for some reason, members of an ethnically determined group living in a community with me, in a village, can receive significant sums of money without doing any work, while I toil every day.”
This is not the first case when he and his government have explicitly declared Roma to be an open, accessibly, and easy target for racial hatred without subsequent public outcry. The racialization/inferiorization of Roma has been normalized over centuries and supported by social structures. Instead of organizing public protest against such statements, we tacitly accept and even mainstream these violent discourses. In this sense, the racialization of Roma is not a novelty.
However, the way it is framed in illiberal political discourse excludes any other point of view, even if this comes from an independent judiciary. In this particular case, the segregation of Romani students in the educational system has become accepted and normalized by European societies. This gives local authorities, educational experts, schools, teachers, indeed anyone who has the power to influence the educational outcome of Romani children, the right to routinize these racialized tracking mechanisms (systemic intersected race and class-based segregation, and the provision of low quality of education) without any moral revulsion.
The Orbán government’s policy may be more subtle than it appears on the surface. A state-supported violent racial incitement campaign against Roma could result in a dangerous local ethnic conflict and facilitate the opportunity to declare a “state of emergency”, which could be used as a pretext to suspend the legal rights and protection that normally should be provided for everyone.
A state-supported violent racial incitement campaign against Roma could result in a dangerous local ethnic conflict and facilitate the opportunity to declare a “state of emergency”.
In her seminal text, Arendt focuses on Eichmann’s failure to think, his “thoughtless” uncritical and unreflective deeds. In fact, the banalization of evil deeds is consciously undertaken by authoritarian political leaders to attack and eliminate critical and reflexive thinking, as demonstrated by the recent attacks on academic freedom. In Nazi Germany, Eichmann was able to exterminate Jews, Roma, homosexuals, Communists and other targeted groups because killing them was valued, normalized, and routinized. Today, when I hear Orban’s political call to challenge the court decision on segregation as a violation of “the people’s sense of justice”, I have to ask: where is the conscience of Hungarian, European, American, and other elite intellectuals who have the responsibility to condemn illiberal, authoritarian political leaders for depriving Roma of their human dignity, and to hold them accountable for the consequences?