Last month, thousands of Roma - Gypsies - in the
Czech Republic started packing their bags and booking flights to Canada
when a television show related the unremarkable fact that, on the streets
of Toronto, people aren't routinely attacked because of the color of their
skin. Life must be pretty bad for Roma in the Czech Republic.
To be sure, some municipal officials encouraged the exodus, offering
to pay two-thirds the cost of air fare to those who would abandon their
apartments and return their licenses of tenancy. As one mayor reasoned,
since Roma can't live with other citizens, city officials should not hesitate
to "help" them leave.
Such attitudes are not uncommon. All over the former East bloc Roma
are suffering a wave of racist violence and discrimination which belies
the grand claims of budding NATO and EU aspirants to democracy and the
rule of law. Worse still, instead of condemning the misconduct, judges
and prosecutors continue to explain it away with patently absurd rationalizations.
Last November, a district court in the Czech Republic
ruled that racial hatred played no role when two white youths assaulted
and threatened to throw four Roma boys off a moving train on the grounds
that the train was "for whites only." The court said race was not involved
because "just like citizens of Czech nationality ... Roma are members of
the Indo-European race." On the basis of this tortured logic, violence
against Roma can never be ruled as racially motivated.
Roma in some areas are still struggling to overcome a legacy of slavery
as recent as the 19th century. Many Roma children in primary schools attend
segregated classes, and few go on to high school or university. Roma are
branded as "lazy," "dirty," and "untrustworthy," and blamed for their own
poverty and powerlessness.
If Europe is to overcome the curse of racial intolerance,
Roma will have to lead the way. Little by little, they are organizing politically,
drawing strength from their rich cultural heritage, and using the weapons
of the American civil rights movement - litigation, lobbying, and mass
protest - to fight back.
In July, lawyers in Hungary won a substantial fine and a public apology
from a restaurant owner who had refused entry to any "Gypsies."
Three months earlier, five skinheads were given six-year prison sentences
in Bulgaria for the racially motivated murder of a 19-year-old Romani man.
As the first success of its kind involving Roma in Bulgaria, the case demonstrates
that law enforcement organs and the judiciary can address and punish racially
Notwithstanding these gains, obstacles abound. Even good-willed lawyers
are understandably reluctant to risk economic well-being and physical security
to support a just cause. Declining a job offer from a local Roma legal-defense
organization, a Ukrainian law professor recently explained, "You don't
need a lawyer; you need a kamikaze pilot."
Western governments can help. By throwing their
prestige, economic resources, and political power behind the movement for
racial equality, they can make clear that countries that tolerate racism
won't be admitted into exclusive economic and military clubs to which many
The message? Amend laws that expressly discriminate against Roma; abolish
racially segregated schools that relegate thousands of Roma children to
second-class educational status; and prosecute skinhead and police violence
to the full extent of the law.
Then one day, perhaps Roma won't have to fly all the way to Canada to
find a decent life.