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Copyright SAIS Review of International Affairs

Summer/Fall 2005


Dena Ringold, Mitchell A. Orenstein and Erika Wilkens
Roma in an Expanding Europe: Breaking the Poverty Cycle
Washington: The World Bank 2005


Ian Hancock

This is an excellent book.

Following an introductory Overview (pp. xiii-xxviii), the book’s authors examine in its seven chapters the situation of Romani populations in four European countries, the last chapter being a discussion of “The Road Ahead.”  Each is accompanied by highlighted boxes inset throughout–-twenty-six altogether—providing quick-reference encapsulated summaries of specific points raised in the main text.  In addition, the book includes copious tables and figures.

The Overview stresses the point that Roma have been particularly negatively affected by the transition away from socialism that began in 1989, calling the collapse of their living conditions “unprecedented.”  Poverty rates for Roma now reach as much as ten times that of the majority population, and the increasing birthrate for Roma contrasts with the decreasing birthrate among the majority populations. In one of the new EU countries, one in three school-age children is Romani; in Hungary, the ratio matches that between African American and non-African American children in the United States entering school for the first time.

The surprisingly short section entitled “Who are the Roma” however is weak, and in light of our current knowledge, outdated in its statements; It is not true that “Roma have no historical homeland” – we do: India.  The problem is that Roma have no present-day homeland, in a Europe preoccupied with issues of national territory. Nor is it true that Roma “live in nearly all the countries in . . . Central Asia”.  The only Asian country with a substantial Romani population is Turkey—“Gypsy” peoples in central Asia such as the Nawar or the Luli have quite separate histories, and are not Roma.  On the other hand between a quarter and a third of the entire world Romani population does live in North and South America, though this fact is not acknowledged.  There is no evidence that the ancestor populations moved out of India in a succession of “waves” as the book claims, nor did they leave there as early as the 9th century.  Vagueness about (and often outright ignorance of) who and what Romani people actually are is extremely widespread, and a more detailed examination of this would have been welcomed, particularly in a book designed to serve as a practical resource for teachers and administrators.  Unfamiliarity with the facts of Romani history and identity underlies much of the negative attitude towards Roma evident in administration and in the media.

The subheadings immediately following are “Roma poverty” and “Why are the Roma poor?” The authors attribute this specifically to poverty being “rooted in [the Romas’] unfavorable starting point at the outset of the transition from planned to market economies” (p. xiv).  While this is undeniably true in the short term, the reasons go far deeper into history, but these are not addressed.  Nor are the reasons dealt with for the intensity and pervasiveness of antigypsyism, major factors contributing to poverty today. They do mention that “stubborn stereotypes of Roma and non-Roma breed mistrust and reinforce preconceptions on both sides,” stating later in the book that “the roots of such sentiments are difficult to trace” (p. 13), but they aren’t at all, and have been dealt with in numerous published works—and they need to be overcome before Roma will ever be able to function on a level playing field.

Because the book acknowledges the pan-European presence and identity of the Roma, it was a very good idea to include a chapter on a western European country (Spain) by way of contrast.  I would have liked to have seen a section dealing with those post-1989 Roma who have come West to the United States and Canada to escape poverty and racism.  They are here in considerable (and growing) numbers, and their presence has led North America into the center of the European forum. All the moreso, since much of the impetus in human rights activity in Europe originates with US-based agencies.  The authors themselves live in Washington and Syracuse.

While the situation of those refugees and asylum seekers is not examined, the authors do argue that the United States’ own experience as a multi-ethnic society dealing with poverty-related issues of its own, has much to offer the New Europe.  I agree wholeheartedly with this, and have stressed the point myself that American techniques of bilingual and bicultural education and teacher-training, as well as the instilling of the concepts of basic human rights through the classroom, would be very usefully applied in the new EU countries.  In my own fact-finding visit to The Slovak and Czech Republics for the Department of State in 2005, I saw a massive need for training in these areas.

During the period of communism especially, Roma were regarded—and were dealt with administratively—as a socially defined people rather than as an ethnically defined one.  To a large extent, this book continues to support this perspective.  This is understandable, but unless the ethnic dimension is also considered, the situation will never be fully resolved. The authors do in fact mention the presence of “social and cultural factors [ . . . and] language barriers” (p. xv) as contributing to the overall problem, but do not go into detail.  Romani identity for them would appear to be an ancestry traceable to India, combined with an existence in poverty.  There are no other factors discussed anywhere that would justify the distinctive identity of those they call Roma.  Use of that word in the title makes it clear that it is regarded as one population but, as the individual chapters demonstrate, “Roma” differ considerably from place to place, and what applies to one group may not necessarily apply to another. I must query too, as I have done repeatedly elsewhere, the use of the word Roma to apply to all populations of Romani descent.  I realize that this is a losing battle, and I am using it myself for the purposes of this review, but it does reflect (once again) the widespread vagueness among non-Romanies, even the specialists, about our identity.  In terms of self-ascription, very many Romani populations do not call themselves “Roma,” and object to being called it.  And quite simply Roma (as it is pronounced in English, with the stress on the first syllable) means “oh man!;” with the stress on the second syllable, it means “men.”  So to speak of a Romani woman as a “Roma” makes no sense to Romani ears, nor does it make sense to refer to the “Roma language” as the book does—this would be like calling English the “oh English man! language.” 

The authors introduce a new spelling in Chapter Four for the descendants of those Roma who were enslaved in the Romanian principalities, viz. “Wallach”; this word is properly spelt Vlax or Vlach.  The statement in the same chapter that there was a Romani presence in Romania before 1100 AD is also incorrect (see Hancock, 1985 and 2002, neither listed in the bibliography).

I should like to advance a different perspective based on my own work and on ongoing research being undertaken by a number of scholars beside myself which, I believe, provides a different way of understanding the situation.  Without going into detail (but see Marsh & Strand, 2005), in light of the particular origins of the Romani people, and their shared social history since then, certain conclusions must be drawn: First that the population has been a composite one from its very beginning, and at that time was occupationally rather than ethnically-defined; Second that while their earliest components are traceable to India, Romanies essentially constitute a population that acquired its identity and language in the West (accepting the Christian, Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire as being linguistically and culturally ‘western’), and Third that the entry into Europe from Anatolia was not as a single people, but as a number of smaller migrations over perhaps as much as a two-century span of time.  These factors have combined to create a situation that is in some sense unique, that is to say Romanies are a population of Asian origin that has spent essentially the entire period of its existence in the West, and which because of its mixed origins has been open to absorbing and assimilating various non-Romani western peoples.  Because the population was fragmenting and moving into Europe during the very period that an ethnic identity was emerging, there is no sense of having ever been a single, unified people in one place at one time.  We can speak of a “core of direct retention” consisting of genetic, linguistic and cultural factors traceable to Asia and evident to a greater or lesser extent in all populations identifying as Romani, but we must also acknowledge that all of these areas have also been augmented through contact with European peoples and cultures, and it is the latter accretions that account for the sometimes extreme differences from group to group.  The Roma in Spain discussed in Chapter Six have been separated from those in Romania (Chapter Four) for perhaps six centuries, and by 2000 km. distance.

For some groups, “core” Romani culture has been diluted practically out of existence, sometimes by deliberate government policy as in 18th Century Hungary or Spain, yet such populations are nevertheless regarded as “Gypsies” by the larger society on the basis of appearance, dress, name, occupation and neighborhood and are treated accordingly, but have no traditional ethnic community into which to find refuge. Like urbanized, detribalized Native Americans, or like Chicanos who don’t speak Spanish and who regard themselves as neither Mexican nor Anglo-American, in some respects they have become “new” ethnic groups, unable to speak the ancestral language and unfamiliar with traditional culture and behavior.  At the other extreme are Romani populations in substantial numbers, such as the Vlax or Sinti, that vigorously maintain the language and the culture and which are restrained from functioning in the European mainstream because of them.  They too must be acknowledged and have provision made for them in all areas—health care, housing, education, employment and so on.  Health care requires special consideration regarding childbirth, for example; housing developments for Roma should pay attention to the location of the kitchen and the lavatory, or whether there are families living in the floors above; education should incorporate bilingual and bicultural teaching techniques, and employers should recognize that for some Roma, some jobs are off limits—plumbing or nursing, for instance.  The point is, these issues affect some, but not all, Roma.  Roma cannot be treated as a monolithic whole, and the authors clearly realize this, but are evidently not sufficiently familiar with Romanies as individuals to have been able to address this at first hand. 

Since this book differs only in format from an earlier text circulated at the conference of the same name held in Budapest in 2003, I wonder why issues brought up at that conference didn’t find their way into this later published version. The preface to both editions, for instance, by former World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn, included the words “there is reason for optimism,” and both end with the words “Roma can look forward with real hope”—conclusions reached before the conference to discuss the situation had even begun.  Having been in all of the countries examined in the book, and having spoken to Roma there in our own language, I must say that I am a little less optimistic myself.  Problematic national and international issues not involving Roma take priority, and until those are adequately dealt with, Roma-related issues are not regarded as crucial.

Dependency on the larger society does not encourage its respect. The now-obsolete means of livelihood that for centuries provided Roma with an economic niche in European society must be replaced by new professional skills, but the opportunities to acquire these are woefully inadequate.  Some Roma still carry a dependency mindset resulting from over five centuries of enslavement in the Balkans, even though it has been abolished for a century and a half.  Some still carry the burden of the Holocaust, following which no war crimes reparations were paid to Romani survivors—money which arguably would have helped reestablish them in postwar Europe.  The psychological devastation wrought by both events is a factor in the present situation, but has not been investigated.  Another factor not directly addressed is the conflict—and again I stress that this is true for some groups more than for others—between Romani and non-Romani culture in areas of leadership and distribution of labor for example.  Democratic techniques, which are both desirable and necessary, can differ considerably from traditional Romani ones, and without obliterating the latter, a culturally-sensitive compromise must be worked out by sitting down with representatives from the Romani communities.  This has been accomplished with some success in a number of the Romani “born again” Pentecostal churches now so prevalent in the United States, where fundamentalist Christian values and traditional Romani spiritual interpretation do not always coincide.

When I saw that the first inset was entitled “In their own words” (p. xxvii) I was very pleased, hoping that such insertions would occur throughout the whole book—but there was only the one.  A book from which I learnt a great deal was Gwaltney’s Drylongso, a collection of statements and musings by African Americans in their own words, reflecting their candid feelings about being Black in America.  We need the same thing for Roma.

This is a fine book, and will serve a hugely valuable purpose.  But to be complete it must acknowledge Romani voices and Romani perspectives to a far greater extent than it does.  I’m hopeful that future editions will do so.

Books mentioned in the text

Gwaltney, John Langston, 1980.  Drylongso: A Self-Portrait of Black America.  New York: Random house.
Hancock, Ian, 1985.  The Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Persecution and Slavery.  Ann Arbor: Karoma Publishers.
Hancock, Ian, 2002.  We Are the Romani People: Ame Sam e Rromane Džene.  Hatfield: Hertfordshire UP & Paris: Interface.  Also in Hungarian, Slovak and Serbian translations.
Adrian Marsh & Elin Strand (eds.) Contextual, Constructed and Contested: Gypsies and the Problem of Identities Transactions of the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul No. 13.  Malmö and Istanbul, 2005.