Why is discrimination against American Roma ignored?

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.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.