The Roma’s origins were for a long time both a mystery and an excuse for their marginalization and mistreatment. Today they are generally accepted to have originated in the Indian subcontinent, based on linguistic and genetic evidence 1. The resulting history of their contact with Europeans is almost uniformly negative.
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In most communities today, the Roma survive in a persistent condition of poverty that resists many of the usual strategies for addressing social ills. This, at least to some degree, arises from the complex, confused, and often conflicting ways they are regarded and regard themselves. They have never been seen as full-fledged members of the communities in which they reside, despite having, in some cases, lived there for centuries.
They have in many cases not regarded themselves as members of the communities where they reside, retaining their Roma identity as their primary identity2. Of these, none necessarily are congruent with the self-definition of identity of the Roma’s neighbors, who consider themselves “native” to a region or nation.
The view that the “self-identified” natives hold of the Roma has been consistently pejorative over the millennium during which they have been in contact with Europeans. It is not difficult to understand why. Differences in language, religious traditions, skin color, and customs, and a nomadic way of life all contributed to the Roma’s appearance of ‘otherness’.
Added to these disturbing features has been the threatening nature of the internal “code” attributed to the Roma.3 Is it any wonder that the insular, superstitious, monolithically Catholic or Orthodox communities of Europe and Eastern Europe, eager to recapture the civil order and peace of the golden age of the Roman Empire 4 have unfortunately regarded the “the Roma as a kind of natural disaster from which they must protect themselves”? Their response was to exclude, marginalize, isolate, exploit, or attempt to annihilate the Roma.
There seems to have been a brief remission in practical economic discrimination during the Soviet’s state-controlled universal employment. When this ended, the Roma were first fired, and ancient bigotries re-emerged. Today, measures from a de facto withholding of medical treatment from anyone without proper papers , to a literal wall, attempt to keep the Roma separate from non-Roma.
While the non-Roma often can point to specific behaviors or characteristics that they attribute to the Roma which would make them undesirable neighbors, the response of the non-Roma is so powerful and pervasive that another set of reasons needs to be invoked to explain it.
This may be the human aversion to the ‘Other’. In many human societies, there is a duality: us versus them, family versus non-family, people one marries versus people one fights with, tribe versus enemy, native versus foreign-born, and many other possible alternatives. In Bauman’s formulation, the “Other’ in the modern state is anyone that is ambiguous, or self-defining, or resisting the definition imposed by the state, and who fits in neither the category of friend or of foe .
Such individuals or groups occupy a mental space that makes people feel uncomfortable, queasy, and uncertain. They are neither one thing nor another, and resist categorization, therefore they defy expectations. The Roma are a quintessentially self-defining group, who in many respects fulfill this formulation of the ‘Other’.
Consider: They come from elsewhere, but have done so, in many cases, so long ago that the arrival is a forgotten event, and yet they remain visibly ‘not from here’. They have resisted the usual routes of assimilation into a host population.
For example, they have intermarried to some extent, but only with great resistance and disapproval by their own community. They have in some cases elected not to remain in one place, even when this was legal, and on the other hand, they have settled in places where they have no rights of tenure.
All these characteristics, and more, are in conflict with the modern state, according to Bauman. The state in modern times can be construed to be organized specifically to “eliminate ambivalence” . The Roma are the ultimate ambivalent group: to move or stay, to work or to receive the dole, for example. Thus, both individuals and communities, as well as the government, have bases for ambiguous attitudes towards the Roma, as the ‘Other’.
Then, there is the mythology of the Roma as criminal. 19th century pseudo-science, such as phrenology, suggested that they were inevitably and uniformly liable to engage in criminal behavior. On the other hand as Goodwin notes, the experience of the criminal justice system itself can cause people to become criminal in their behavior . It is also possible that attitudes towards the Roma become self-fulfilling.
Because the Roma lack an effective transnational cultural identity that can rally them to advocate for themselves, they face particular challenges. The issue of space and location is particularly important for them. Unlike more recent refugee populations, they have nowhere to return to, not even symbolically, and no welcoming organizations to care for them in Europe.
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They have chosen and/or been forced to occupy spaces historically external to communities, but which acquire visibility and value over time, causing conflict over use and control. Because they have been labeled as transient (even after centuries of residence), ownership of their homes has been unresolved, leading to every sort of problem of infrastructure, transfer of deed, risk of eviction, and other such issues.
Roma families often appear to be excluding themselves from what would seem to be helpful resources such as, to take just one example, school. This may reflect complex concerns, for example, that schools impose local, non-Roma norms on their kids, and risk deracinating the Roma tradition5.
This has a knock-on effect on employment readiness, and reinforces local reluctance to hire Roma. Whenever Roma activities intersect with non-Romas’ lives, the response is to exclude; socially, legally, physically. The celebration of diversity by European communities seems honored only by exception and in isolation rather than reflexively or consistently throughout society.
These case studies highlight the complexity of addressing Roma problems and the causes, which lie in racism and ethnic bigotry, as well as insularity. “No 6 Segregation of Romani Communities” addresses land tenure issues, and a wall built to keep Roma out. “Urban Planning and the Delimitation of Diversity” describes an attempt to incorporate the differences of the Roma into a positive image of a diverse neighborhood. “Locating ‘The Gypsy Problem’” discusses the problems with political voice that the Roma camps create for the Roma themselves.
Bauman, Zygmunt. “Modernity and Ambivalence.” Theory Culture Society 7.143 (1990 ). Web.
Bilefsky, Dan. “Walls, Real and Imagined, Surround the Roma.” New York Times (April). Web.
Drangsland, Kari Anne Klovholt and Håvard Haarstad. “Urban Planning and the Delimitation: Roma as ‘In Place’ and ‘Out of Place’ in Jungbusch, Mannheim.” International Planning Studies, 14.2 (2009): 14:2, 125-140. Web.
European Roma Rights Centre. “Standards Do Not Apply: Report of the European Roma Rights Centre: Inadequate Housing in Romani Communities.” December 2012. ERRC. Web.
Goodwin, George. Criminal man. New York: G. Brazille, 1957. Web.
Gresham, David, et al. “Origins and Divergence of the Roma (Gypsies).” American Journal Human Genetics 2001: 1314–1331. Web.
Heinschink, Mozes F. and Michael Teichmann. “Taboo and shame (ladž) in Roma communities.” 2012. ROMBASE. Web.
Kemény, István and Béla Janky. “HISTORY OF ROMA IN HUNGARY.” Social Science Monographs. Ed. István Kemény. Boulder: Columbia University Press, 2012. Web.
Mondavi Center. “Gypsy Spirit: Journey of the Roma.” 2004. UC Davis. Web.
Oprea, Alexandra. Child Marriage a Cultural Problem, Educational Access a Race Issue? Deconstructing Uni-Dimensional Understanding of Romani Oppression. 2005. Web.
Sigona, Nando. “Locating ‘The Gypsy Problem’. The Roma in Italy: Stereotyping, Labelling and ‘Nomad Camps’.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 31.4 (2005): 741-756. Web.
Sikovska, Ljatifa. Breaking the chains of poverty for Roma: Sikovska, Ljatifa – Advocate for Roma rights ECCARO. 2012. Web.
1 They began appearing in the Byzantine Empire from the Indian subcontinent in the 1200s, presumably having moved to avoid the incursions of Islam. Some, at least, were from groups that were nomadic rather than settled agriculturalists .
The movement of Roma from the Balkans into Western Europe was likely accomplished by the 1500s, but their movements were in some areas limited by their enslavement by local feudal landowners. After the practice of enslavement of the Roma was outlawed in Romania at the end of the 19th century, migrations occurred again.
Roma moved out of Yugoslavia in the 1960s, and again after the fall of the Berlin wall, when, as a final indignity, their citizenship was revoked or explicitly disallowed in some countries, for example, in Macedonia, due to their not having identity cards.
2 This self-defined identity is composed of, potentially, some combination of the following: their professional occupation, possibly also an affiliation related to the caste that their group was traditionally believed to have belonged to back in India, the geographic region from which they traditionally believed themselves to originate, their degree of Romanipen (or adherence to Roma tradition), their religious affiliation, their language(s), and sometimes lastly, the nation or region in which they reside.
3 This is reputed to include the notion that harming another Roma is nearly unforgiveable, but that harming those outside the Roma community is permitted. However, it is possible that the Roma notion of shame (lads), which applied only to relations within the Roma community, may have been misunderstood to suggest that doing wrong to outsiders was permitted .
4 In fact, some groups of Roma who first appeared in Europe presented letters of safe passage purported to be from the Holy Roman Emperor, Christendom’s answer to the glory that was Rome.
5 Some communities deliberately place Roma children in schools or classes for those with disabilities, even when there is no evidence that they have any such disability .