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April 5, 2020
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Commentary: Czech anger and the Roma

Prague, 10.1.2015 21:34, (ROMEA)
About 200 people from all over the Czech Republic gathered for a pro-Romani action in the park on Husova Street in Vítkov on 3 August 2013. Several artists supported the event. Gejza Horváth (pictured here) gave a brilliant performance and rappers from Krupka performed, as did other musicians. (Photo:   František Kostlán)
About 200 people from all over the Czech Republic gathered for a pro-Romani action in the park on Husova Street in Vítkov on 3 August 2013. Several artists supported the event. Gejza Horváth (pictured here) gave a brilliant performance and rappers from Krupka performed, as did other musicians. (Photo: František Kostlán)

The most recent survey of Czech public opinion and trust in political institutions shows falling voter preferences for the ultra-right DSSS party, confirming the good feeling shared by many people, including this author, that our society is rebounding after hitting rock bottom. However, that is no reason to be rocked into complacency.

This piece is an attempt to describe the anatomy of a particular Czech hatred and will do its best to elucidate why we must be vigilant about it. A significant turning point in the trends of our sociometric data in this respect took place during the second half of 2013.  

Those results seemed to compensate and then some for what had been a long-term trend of deteriorating relationships. Right now no one will probably be able to say whether the current "better numbers" are just a deviation from an unfortunate trend or whether we are finally getting our heads above water.

Time will tell. That, and the state of the economy.

During our recent slight decline in economic performance, the favorite target for the frustration of Czech society became the impoverished Czech Roma who are labeled our "inadaptable fellow-citizens" and who represent to Czech society a largely homogeneous group overlapping with criminal elements, "moochers", "parasites" and other ascribed other dehumanizing attributes. The Roma serve the function of a screen onto which citizens project their own unacknowledged personal and societal failures, and this is well-documented by an interesting phenomenon.  

When, during public opinion surveys, you ask people what they believe society's biggest problems are and allow them to answer spontaneously, you receive the expected responses of the economic situation, unemployment, interpersonal relationships, etc., but Romani people, as a problem, are mentioned by somewhere between 2 - 3 % of  respondents only. If, however, you include Romani people as a choice on a list of possible responses, they suddenly become Problem Number One (or Two).

The shadow mechanism

I do not want to deny the problems experienced by those who live near the apartment buildings and housing estates occupied by the impoverished. Their complaints about disorder, noise, thefts and other misdemeanors against civil coexistence are justified and understandable.

In many places a single family making a living through criminal activity can turn life upside down in what was once a peaceful neighborhood and begin drawing others into their misfortunes. However, those problems are supposed to be addressed by police, social workers, schools, and the responsible municipal and regional bureaucrats and politicians.  

I want to focus this piece on that part of society that learns of the problems described above from the media at second or third-hand, i.e., most of the population of the Czech Republic, those whom some politicians have gotten used to calling "decent citizens". I apologize to everyone who is offended to be called so by them.

When we compare the Czech notion of tolerance with that of other European countries, we must adjust the picture a bit. Even though 87 % of respondents in the Czech Republic (i.e., the highest number in the EU) told the EU Fundamental Rights Agency that there is almost absolute religious tolerance here, we also still believe that the roughly 3 000 Muslims living in this country pose the greatest threat to us (the highest such response in the EU, even compared to countries where millions of people are followers of Islam).

We have a very positive relationship toward Jewish people, but most of the population would not like it if a gay person became a politician in the Czech Republic, which places us in the less tolerant half of EU countries when it comes to our relationship toward sexual minorities. In comparison with the rest of the EU, we lead the field, without competition, in having the worst relationship to Romani people.  

Symptomatically, our country is also home to the lowest number of people who believe the Roma are discriminated against. Moreover, in a longitudinal study done by the CVVM agency asking about assessments of coexistence between the non-Romani and Romani populations in the Czech Republic, rising numbers of people are choosing the response "bad".

This year only 84 % of respondents chose that answer, "reverting" the long-term deteriorating trend by three percentage points. From a more detailed analysis of these results, of course, it paradoxically follows that people with Roman neighbors assessed coexistence as "good" three times more often than those who do not have Romani neighbors.

It is probably no surprise that Czech Roma lead the rankings when it comes to their subjective assessment as to whether they feel discriminated against, with 62 % of them stating they had faced discrimination because of their Romani origin during the past year (the second-worst score, after Italy). In Czech towns, local regulations banning sitting on public lawns continue to be adopted only by municipal departments with Romani populations, and since 2012, a misdemeanor law has been in effect that facilitates banning residency on a town's territory for persons who commit multiple misdemeanors.

That law, of course, targets Romani "slobs who don't want to address their situations", as its proposer, Ivana Řápková, said in an interview for the Česká pozice media outlet. And those looking at the Czech Republic from the outside must find it hard to understand why the Czech schools persist in keeping Romani children in the hypertrophied system of what were once called the "special" and today are called the "practical schools".

The Czech Republic exceeds all European countries when it comes to differences in educational outcomes for non-Romani and Romani children, including Hungary, Romania or Slovakia (which takes first place when it comes to differences in high school education between non-Roma and Roma). Indeed, the psychological shadow mechanism, which means we do not see the most shameful parts of our own egos (or that we might even consider those very parts to be virtues) is best illustrated by a recent statement from Education Ombud Eduard Zeman, who said that "special schools... are, let's say, our specialty, but I don't believe they are totally bad."

The problem is that this "specialty" is generating thousands of children every year who will later end up on welfare. It must be added that a real education would be their greatest hope for exiting the cycle of poverty.

The media cultivates this self-perpetuating frame of reference with respect to the justification of our relationship toward Romani people by publicizing the ethnicity of Romani crime suspects (as well as Vietnamese ones), by spreading fear about "inadaptables" moving into neighborhoods, by working with unverified information, and by describing local problems as tense disputes between the majority and the minority, whether they refer to them as Roma (as Czech Television prefers to call them) or report such disputes as battles in a smoldering race war (as TV Nova prefers to frame this). In defense of some media outlets, however, it must be said that a visible improvement can be seen since the fabricated attack was reported from Břeclav in 2012.

Of course, especially in regional media coverage, that improvement has been compensated for by the accelerating fluctuation of editors and by the new editors' desires for sensationalism. We are all just waiting for the next actual or fabricated crime (and any crime committed by a Romani person will automatically acquire all of the signs of a specifically "Romani" crime) or for the next anti-Romani demonstration where news crews will second the right-wing radicals in creating the next episode of their ethno-reality show.

In the seasonal production of this Czech ethno-tainment, last year was the first year in quite some time to lack a larger anti-Romani demonstration. The only serious attempt at one was spoiled by an activist named Bittalová, who duped its organizer, the convicted con artist Kohout, and did not supply the sound equipment she had promised for his announced "Meeting of Dissatisfied Citizens of Ústí Region and the Town of Děčín".

Otherwise this is an annual bit of color participated in - often with great relish - by activists, extremists, local and national politicians, long-term local residents, the media, random onlookers, riot police and Romani militias, with the police adding the necessary drama to the performance. Be that as it may, in recent years a new trend has come to light which was captured by the Czech Security Information Services report on the year 2013, when these tensions came to a head:  The most significant incidents occurred after an attack was committed in the north Bohemian town of Duchcov and the subsequent demonstrations by extremists and locals there, at demonstrations by extremists and long-term residents of the Máj housing estate in České Budějovice, and during the evictions of Romani people and demonstrations by the DSSS party in the Moravská Ostrava and Přívoz neighborhood of Ostrava.

Ordinary citizens had already joined the extremists' marches in larger numbers during the attempted pogrom on the Janov housing estate in the town of Litvínov in  2008. Last year, of course, the Security Information Services warned for the first time that "the anti-Romani sentiment of part of the public could become a more significant problem to the security of the state than the more extreme, but less numerous and relatively well-mapped small groups of right-wing extremists."

A "counterbalancing" counter-trend and necessary spectacular supplement to these anti-Romani demonstrations has been comprised of the ever-growing numbers of activists involved in such work. Some of them turn out to defend the weak against the extremists by making an effort to calm the whole situation and sometimes even make light of it by entertaining other demonstrators and onlookers.

These people are recruited from the local cafes and from Green Party voters, or they arrive from other towns carrying would-be humorous signs. Another segment of these activists understands the Roma to be the new proletariat whom they have come to support as part of fighting "the system", and some are determined to take that fight to the neo-Fascists right there.

Those people turn up with signs that read "The Gypsies are not to blame for your shitty lives", a slogan that brings both angry long-term residents and extremists back down to earth. Lastly, another group of activists sees Romani problems as a result of discrimination committed by the majority society, which is preventing the Roma from flying the flag of ethnic national revival.

These activists fly Romani flags and banners reading "Black, white, let's unite". For many of them, these anti-Romani demonstrations are a welcome opportunity, just as they are for the neo-Fascists, to engage in a political conflict or in actions of nationalist revival.

Politicians provide their "official auspices" to these annual performances. The local politicians play the role of more or less gifted moderators on behalf of those who initiate these gatherings and regularly turn to the central government with the demand that it solve their "Romani" problem.

National-level politicians then visit, accompanied by television crews, and promise solutions and police reinforcements. Also symptomatic of this whole spectacle are the much less numerous representatives of the local poor, who are usually represented to the cameras by a meager Romani militia accompanied by members of a police anti-conflict team and several dozen onlookers.

Most people, of course, stay home and follow the shouting neo-Fascists, accompanied by their neighbors, from behind their curtains or as they lean from their open windows. Romani people are, in the operation of this hatred, primarily the target for various ideological concepts, passions, and political ideas.

Most of the mobs that gather on these occasions want to drive the Roma into the forest, or almost kill them, or at least seriously humiliate them. For this group what is symptomatic is their socioeconomic proximity to the people to whom they object.

Rising numbers of the local supporters of the extremists are sometimes unemployed themselves, or belong to the growing group of the working poor whose incomes are similar to those of welfare recipients. Along with complaints about civil coexistence and order, their personal sense of injustice seems to be the most important motivation for their engagement in these events.

Another important motif consists of the symbolic affirmation of one's one different status, the shoring up of one's own identity by humiliating others. While long-term residents may even know local Roma or at least encounter them regularly, that Romani-ness represents a separate category with its own essence that serves as an antithesis to their own positive collective identity.

This establishes Us against Them, the "inadaptables" versus the respectable, the indecent versus the decent. Romani-ness, in this binary vision, acquires a lower quality that characterizes and pervades those who are its bearers - the slackers and truants, the criminals, the parasites, the alcoholics and the filthy.

This attributed inferiority soaks up all those unacknowledged personal and societal failures, all our animality and desires, all the slights we endure, all the nameless things lurking in the swamp of our subconscious. This essence of Romani-ness makes it possible to explain our own failures and the main problems of contemporary life.

This is the same as it was before the Second World War, when the Jews and their allegedly amoral character were blamed for the lion's share of all the poverty in the world; today, a segment of the Czech population views Romani people as one of their main economic and social problems. And no hoax or irrational explanation is stupid enough not to contain at least a grain of truth.

Today it is believed that Romani people are ruining the welfare system, are operating within a secret system of positive discrimination, and are the bearers of moral contagion. The "constructive" part of this mechanism is the maintenance and purging of the collective ego, established as the decent majority, who are essentially good and orderly.

By excluding those who represent its antithesis, the social order renews itself. As surveys taken at various times and places since WWII have demonstrated, the relationship to these so-called outgroups deteriorates across society during periods of economic decline and is also correlated with the growth of inequality in society.  

Paradoxically, the Czech Republic's scores on the Gini index, which describes inequality, are one of the lowest in Europe, but sociologist Daniel Prokop believes several domestic processes are behind this relatively low result (economic mobility, indebtedness, inflation) that have the potential to become explosive; since 2009 these processes have begun to leave their biggest mark on low-income groups, so the Gini index results may not be fully capturing the Czech reality. Romani people have most markedly functioned in low-income groups here as a lightning rod for accumulated frustrations.  

If one compares the CVVM survey data lines on the question of people's relationship to Roma, there are significant differences between the responses of those who report the state of their own households as "bad" and those who report it as "good". "Before 2009 the attitudes of the impoverished and the wealthy who reported no personal experience of Romani people were very similar, but after the beginning of the harshest impacts of the economic crisis, those attitudes started to differentiate. While the attitudes of those who subjectively considered themselves wealthy and had no personal experience of Romani people essentially flat-lined, the attitudes of those who subjectively consider themselves poor and have no personal experience of Romani people radicalized against Roma," says Prokop, who works for the Median company.

People and essences

The stirring up of this kind of "liquid" anger during the period following the economic crisis was profusely abetted by most of the statewide media, by many politicians across all parties, and by the silent elites who have not publicly commented on these distended anti-Romani passions, with the honorable exceptions of left-wing activists and intellectuals who, of course, polarized the public even further with their aggressive rhetoric and politicization of this problem. Last year, economic growth ushered in a slight calming of the waters, but beneath the surface negative emotions are still bubbling up.  

Even though from the billboards in Prague it might seem that politicians used their municipal election campaigns to direct the people's anger at drug addicts and homeless people, "inadaptables" unequivocally led the media statistics and, roughly six weeks after the elections, doubled or tripled in mention. The long-term bad situation of the most impoverished Roma, whose number was estimated by the Gabal report from the year 2006 at between 60 000 and 80 000, makes them a too-easy target even as the emphasis on ethnicity is attributed to ghetto residents mainly from the outside - they themselves definitely do not experience it that way.

Social problems and majority prejudice comprise a tangle of relationships in which there is no clear cause or unequivocal solution. If we focus on the apparently easy "treatment of prejudices", which from the perspective of many human rights activists is the most important cause of this problem, we run into unexpected barriers that take the wind out of these activists' sails.

Surveys by anthropologists and social psychologists on the favorite question of whether the Czechs are racists not only produce a positive response, but demonstrate that basically everyone, from a very early age, is racist. The classic sociological research on relationships toward minorities, as it has been performed here up to now, consists of categorizing such feelings onto a predetermined scale.  

Of course, some respondents can "game" such tests by influencing the positioning of a chosen response, perhaps because they have cultivated a certain self-image, while in their regular life they might actually unconsciously apply prejudicial considerations. Social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University has now developed testing methods for working with involuntary factors.

In these tests, she uses, for example, reaction time, which is always shorter for associations linked to a predetermined opinion. In one experiment, for example, she projected adjectives with negative and positive meanings next to names that were either typically African-American or white and asked the subjects to say whether the adjectives were negative or positive.

Subjects responded faster when the adjective was projected next to a name with which the subjects had a positive association. Many other such tests working with involuntary reactions have been performed, and all of them have discovered that absolutely everyone suffers from prejudices against others, which naturally is most surprising to those who were of the opinion that they harbor no prejudice at all.

Hundreds of research studies of how we conceptualize ethnic groups, gender and race from various perspectives have shown that we have a tendency to view groups of other people characterized by some common feature as a special species endowed with a unified essence that shapes their individual members. Research by Katze Kofkin has demonstrated that the nonverbal categorization of people of another race or sex is performed by infants, and Lawrence Hirschfeld has published many studies showing that children between the ages of three and five create their own judgments about the specific characteristics of members of another "race", judgments that frequently differ from the prejudices held by their parents and others around them.  

This research does not prove the truthfulness of racial theories and does not refute anthropological facts. The search for ideal Aryan, Jewish or other prototypes has always proven erroneous.

Rather, this research merely claims that people have a natural tendency to find some sort of hidden essence  in groups endowed with common characteristics, an essence they believe determines, in a significant way, who an individual is. If we take these findings seriously, then we must abandon the notion that we can rapidly and simply refute the prejudices that people cultivate about homeless people, men, Muslims, Roma or women through rational argumentation.

This does not mean capitulating, but fending off prejudice with patience and more carefully considering how to work with it. Evaluations of anti-racist campaigns, for example, have shown that a large portion of them surprisingly result in enhancing already-formed prejudices.

The bull in the china shop

During an experiment at a university in Toronto in 2011, researchers asked people to read different editions of a brochure on the topic of racism. One edition 

emphasized the need to eliminate racism as an unacceptable attitude in violation of the law and called for combating discrimination and hatred.

The second brochure made more frequent mention of common values, diversity, an effort at understanding, mutual enrichment and openness. You can probably guess that in the subsequent tests, those who read the second brochure showed more positive attitudes to minorities overall, while those who read the first brochure showed an increased sense of foreigners as threatening and untrustworthy.

The creators of Czech campaigns with titles like "Stomp out prejudce!". "Liquidate the Czech ghettos!" and the "Slave of Race Initiative" must not have suspected this. In this context, of course, it is necessary to self-critically acknowledge that this article, too, is a textbook example of bad work on the topics of hatred, prejudice and racism - but how can we discuss hatred and stereotypes in a more conciliatory fashion, or even, God forbid, with love?

Impoverished Romani people now occupy the social niche of the "underclass" here, one which is generated by every social group from classrooms to whole civilizations. One of the messiest problems with the less privileged classes, whether they are American Indians destroyed by alcohol or Eskimos in Russia, is of course that society is unable to view social problems as separate from ethnicity.

We perceive the Romani-ness of Romani people as a special quality, and we just cannot imagine that they are the same as we are. We separate ourselves into us and them.

On the basis of skin color and the way people behave, we attribute unique characteristics to them. We can't help it.

This is natural, but it is also just as stupid as when children divide themselves into the "blues" and the "reds" and start comparing each other and defining themselves in such terms. Culture certainly plays a role here as well.

Most Czech Roma were murdered during the war in concentration camps and less than a thousand remained here after the war. The predecessors of today's Roma came here from the settlements of Slovakia.

Much of their traditional culture has crumbled to dust, but what remains of it has actually enhanced their tendency to continue in the roles of the excluded and impoverished. It also suits the rest of us very well to point the finger at them.

After all, on the one hand this makes us feel better about ourselves, and on the other hand it gives us someone to blame for our own failures. People love to take their frustrations out on those Arabs, druggies, drunks, gooks, Gypsies and niggers.

First published in Czech on 27 December 2014 in  Lidové noviny's "Orientace" insert and republished with the consent of the editors.

The opinions published in our COMMENTARY section do not necessarily express the opinions and standpoints of the editors of news server, Romano voďi magazine or ROMEA, o.p.s.

Tomáš Urban, Media Department manager at People in Need, o. p. s., translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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