Section 1 Discrimination and Racism: Definitions and Responses
A major problem in compiling a report on the racism experienced by Roma/Gypsies/Travellers throughout Europe is the lack of reliable data and the inconsistencies in the data available. This lack of data is in line with the predominant use of assimilationist approaches in the development and implementation of policies. It also reflects what seems to have been the approach of many governments for long periods - that is, when the Gypsies and Travellers are ignored then “the problem” will go away. Consequently there is a lack of Gypsy visibility in many national and EU-level initiatives and programmes. A second problem in relation to drafting this report is the fact that addressing the issue of racism at transnational level is fraught with difficulties because of confusing and conflicting uses of terminology. Words and descriptions such as ‘race’, racism, racial discrimination, ethnicity, ethnocentrism and xenophobia; migrants, immigrants; minorities, are used in different ways in different countries1. Obviously this poses challenges in terms of communication and mutual understanding and there is need for clarity in order to overcome this.
Despite these difficulties, what emerges very clearly from the examination of the situation of Roma/Gypsies/Travellers is that they are the victims of discrimination and racism throughout Europe. While this racism towards Roma/Gypsies/Travellers is similar in many aspects to the racism experienced by other groups in society it has its own specific features. In particular the negative stereotyping and scapegoating of Roma/Gypsies/Travellers has a long history and their exclusion is associated in particular with a rejection by dominant sedentary societies of mobile peoples and nomadism and its related values and lifestyle. In the past this has involved banishment, exclusion, slavery, and even genocide. In recent years a renewed intensification of hostility towards Roma/Gypsies/Travellers has led some writers to describe them as “Outcasts of Europe” (Time, November 3, 1997), and to assert that “the Roma are the most vilified and harassed minority in Europe today. . . Roma have become the pariahs of Europe sharing a collective fate of rejection” (Brearley, 1996).
It is not surprising that the experience of Gypsies is sometimes compared to that of the Jews. The Gypsy dispersion and the Jewish Diaspora experiences have much in common, especially in relation to the type of persecutions suffered and the fact that Gypsies and Jews were targeted by the Nazi regime for extermination. Clebert draws on biblical legends to show resemblances, stating that “some researchers have not hesitated to see them [Gypsies] as the cursed descendants of Cain” (Clebert, 1961, p. 23). In the Bible story, Cain the farmer killed Abel the shepherd and this is seen as providing an explanation for the origins of nomadism: “. . . you shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on Earth” (Genesis 4:12). The Bible specifies the trades that the descendants of Cain were to pursue:
“. . . Jabod who was the ancestor of herdsmen who live in tents, and his brother’s name was Jubal; he was the ancestor of those who play the harp and pipe. . . Tubal-Cain, the master of all copper-smiths and blacksmiths” (Genesis 4:19-22). The subsequent linking of these trades to those of nomads is understandable.
Just as Jews were vilified by some people within the Christian tradition for the rejection of Jesus as Messiah and for the Crucifixion, so also Gypsies were associated with legends which linked them to the Crucifixion. Clebert recalls a legend from Macedonia about a Gypsy blacksmith being hired to forge the nails for the Crucifixion, and how this contributed to nomadism. A similar story exists in Irish Traveller folklore.
Historically, Gypsies were viewed as strange foreigners, and were often perceived as being associated with witchcraft and magic. Sedentary people were suspicious and distrustful of nomads engaged in such occupations as the following: peddlers, horse-dealers, public entertainers, smiths, exhibitors of performing animals, performers of spectacular feats, magicians and fortune-tellers. Negative images and stereotypes developed over the years and Gypsies were commonly accused of dupery and theft and were excommunicated and expelled as a result. “Roma, like the Jews, were attacked in sermons, books, drama and popular art, and thus demonised in the popular mind. Stereotypes of the Gypsy
1 Minorities may refer to regional, national, linguistic, or non-territorial groups, for instance.