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Why is discrimination against American Roma ignored?

A community of one million people has been left out of the US’s belated national reckoning with racism. It’s time to change that.

Margareta Matache
Margareta Matache Jacqueline Bhabha
13 January 2021, 3.52pm
American Roma are often overlooked in conversations about racism in the US
Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/PA Images

Last year brought a dramatic and belated national reckoning with racism in the United States. But with conversations focused on the major targets of American racism – African American, indigenous and Latino populations – many have overlooked discrimination against a much smaller minority in the US: American Roma.

Many Romani people arrived in the US between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, amid a wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe. The prominent Romani scholar, Ian Hancock, argues that many Romani Americans are descendants of Romania’s enslaved Romani people, who were freed in 1856. But there is evidence that Romani people had been in the US for centuries beforehand, with early records documenting Roma people being shipped to British plantations in Virginia in the 17th century, following a 1661 act of parliament permitting their deportation.

Today, there are close to a million Romani people in the US, with the largest clusters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Seattle and Portland. The community continues to experience acute prejudice today, as it has done for decades.

A racial slur

For the past 106 years, Northern State University (NSU) in Aberdeen, South Dakota, has organised an annual week-long event that ends with a ‘G*psy Days Parade’, reportedly the largest annual parade in South Dakota. The term “G*psy” can be used as a racial slur referring to Romani people.

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As a result of the parade’s name and its history of racist mockery of Roma – satirised customs, blackfaces, performing skits of child abduction – Romani American activists, scholars and their allies have been sharply critical of the event, demanding an apology and a name change through email and online petitions. Since starting their email campaign on 4 August 2020, their concerns have not dignified with an answer. Yet the NSU website seems to have acknowledged the critique in part, having to some extent replaced the word ‘G*psy’ with ‘Homecoming’.

Romani Americans are rated as having the lowest “social standing” among ethnic groups in the US

The situation at NSU is not unique. Other offensive, anti-Roma conduct is experienced across the United States. Romani Americans have long been rated as having the lowest “social standing” among ethnic groups in the US. In two polls conducted in 1964 and 1989 on the social standing of ethnic groups in the United States, Americans rated Romani people, along with Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, as having a lower social standing than a fabricated ethnic group, the “Wisians”. Clearly, centuries of racism against Roma in Europe have infected attitudes to transatlantic Roma immigrants and their American offspring.

A 2020 study entitled ‘Romani Realities in the United States’, by the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University and Voice of Roma (an American non-profit organisation), documents widespread anti-Roma discrimination. Almost 80% of the 363 Romani Americans who took part in the study reported that Americans discriminate against people of Romani heritage.

Of the participants, 14% experienced discrimination in their interactions with social service offices, and more than half felt discriminated against while being served in restaurants, stores and other service encounters. Even at Romani events, insulting behaviour towards Romani Americans is common. “Look at this black cow,” someone attending a Bulgarian Romani concert said to one of the participants.

Racial profiling by police

Media personalities replicate this conduct. On a recent episode of his eponymous talk show, Bill Maher, the American comedian and political commentator, said: “Trump is about as welcome at a funeral as the G*psy woman who wanders into restaurants and sells you roses.”

Such racial slurs levelled at Romani Americans are common. Some 68% of those interviewed by the FXB Center said they had been called names that made them uncomfortable, listing 108 slurs including: “sweet-potato [N-word]”, “dirty g*psy”, “Chicken thieves! Where’s your crystal ball? Where’s your wagon?”, “Dirty blooded, half breed”, “g*psy scum vagabond”, “g*psy trash”, “monkey, dirty g*psy”, and “the g*psies are here; hide your kids”. The extent of everyday discrimination and anti-Roma hatred in the US is alarming.

And yet the extent to which anti-Roma discrimination pervades education, employment, housing and, most of all, policing, is as noteworthy as it is unreported. Four out of ten people interviewed for the study said they had experienced racial profiling by the police. Unsurprisingly, three-quarters of the interviewees reported that they frequently hide their Romani identity to avoid being stigmatised, stereotyped and discriminated against. Being compelled to conceal one’s identity to feel safe or respected contradicts the much-vaunted American self-image as a melting pot.

Romani Americans are only a small population of one million people, yet their exposure to daily discrimination should disturb us as much as the larger-scale phenomena generating public soul searching. Public figures such as Bill Maher should recognise the deeply traumatic history of oppression and exploitation that precedes present-day anti-Roma racism and Roma impoverishment, and NSU should not only rename its signature events but also apologise for and remedy past insults. Tradition is no excuse for public displays of racism – whatever the demographic size of the target.

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