Commentary by Markus Pape: Racism, social exclusion and civic responsibility
The small East Bohemian town of Nový Bydžov is seething. Mayor Pavel Louda has invited reinforcements from around the country for a joint discussion in mid-February on the "problem" of a particular ethnic minority and the need for legislative changes to address it. The invitation to the meeting, sent to the leadership of towns and villages nationwide, literally complains as follows: "Not only do we have these aliens here, they are making a mess in our towns and causing bad blood among people."
Everything started with an open letter from a town resident in mid-November. The author said his daughter had been raped by a local member of a particular minority on her way home. Police captured the suspect, charged him, and a judge ordered him taken into custody. The father of the victim, however, charged the town leadership in his letter with complicity in the crime, alleging that local politicians have been ignoring how criminals have started to dominate the entire town and have taken no action against them. "It seems to me that we are living like a herd of sheep without a shepherd while a handful of wolves do what they want with impunity," the father wrote.
Other residents expressed their support for the victim's father by circulating a petition calling on the town leadership to immediately address the issue. They all said the main cause of the problem is the allegedly known increase in the number of newcomers to town from the ranks of a particular minority and the town's unwillingness to do something about it. The petition was eventually signed by thousands of people.
In his own defense, the mayor decided to issue the desperate proclamation that "the last drop of the citizens' hatred" for members of a particular minority had overflowed: "They are spreading out around town, bothering people, shoplifting, committing rape.“ In his view, the laws do not make it possible to prevent people from moving into town. He blamed the rape on deficient legislation and on budget cuts which have made it impossible for the local police to successfully keep up with crime.
The town leadership also introduced special measures, such as monitoring gaming rooms in the town, the operations of which involve a great deal of money. He started to look for reinforcements from other towns, so that together they might prevent the national government from investing more money into minority integration.
This small-town mayor is evidently receiving support from other municipal politicians and from a neo-Nazi party. His own party (ODS) is not exactly distancing itself from him either. Other politicians, public personalities and human rights organizations have complained about the mayor's indiscriminate attacks.
Robert Pelikán, an independent Prague lawyer who is not particularly well-known, was the first person to decide to do something concrete about Mayor Louda. He recently filed criminal charges against him for inciting hatred. "When someone distinguishes between so-called 'decent' citizens and 'Gypsies', my legal opinion is that this constitutes incitement to racial hatred," Pelikán said. When asked what led him to file the charges, he replied: "My civic responsibility."
Pelikán wrote a commentary on his blog on the anniversary of Human Rights Day last year in which he analyzed the current problem of this East Bohemian town as it related to a recent public opinion poll conducted by the STEM agency, according to which "most people do not want to live in the same country with drug addicts or Roma." The agency claimed the results of its research did not demonstrate that people were basing their opinions on prejudice. "The more experience people have with Roma, the more frequently they speak of them as an inadaptable population group," the agency claimed, before going on to say such attitudes are manifestations of "anti-Gypsyism, not racism".
According to Pelikán, such reasoning is not only completely flawed from the start, it is extremely dangerous to society. People who take a negative attitude toward all Roma on the basis of their own experience are definitely proceeding based on prejudice. It is not possible to distinguish between "anti-Gypsyism" and racism. "Anti-Gypsyism" is racism. "Generalizing from an experience with a member of a race to my attitude toward that race as a whole is implicitly basing my attitude on the prejudice that a person's behavior is determined by his race. This attitude is the very essence of racism. It creates the unjustified prejudice that by virtue of membership in that race, a different member of the same race will behave in the same way as the person we previously experienced.“
Pelikán sees a basic problem in the poor naming of this problem. The "Roma question" is what is discussed in this country. Instead, he says, "this is a question of people who grow up in certain kinds of environments, irrespective of their skin color. If the question has a racial aspect to it, it is only that every 'Gypsy', no matter what sort of a person he or she is, must face social exclusion today. They do not face exclusion because of their race, but because of what most of society thinks of them - in fact, because they are being thought of at all."
Pelikán adds that "racial origin does not determine a person's behavior in society to any significant extent. Luckily, after the horrors of the Second World War, science has managed to prove this so conclusively that no one can seriously doubt it. Any attitude toward a race of people as a whole (even if it were a positive attitude) is based on an unjust lie.“
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