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June 28, 2022



Commentary: Ethnicity and social inclusion - some data, some Jedi Knights, and some methodological remarks

13.4.2017 12:09
Fun fact! There are more Jedi Knights in the Czech Republic than Romani people, according to the 2011 census.
Fun fact! There are more Jedi Knights in the Czech Republic than Romani people, according to the 2011 census.

Should data disaggregated by ethnicity be collected, or not? Is such data collection at all morally acceptable?

Is the approach being taken towards such data collection in the Czech Republic a pseudo-scientific one? In this piece I will respond to the methodological reservations raised by Ivan Langer, the Deputy Mayor of Liberec, about the qualified estimates of Romani children in the schools, and I will summarize some of the data available.

The formal vs. the real

If we look at the schools, we don't just need ethnic data to follow inequality, but also to increase the quality of education itself. According to Langer, the data being collected about the number of Romani pupils attending a school are meaningless.

He has also written, however that he advocates supporting minority rights and the pursuit of their self-awareness. From the position of a municipality, Regional Authority or school, how is one to support a minority without ascertaining the number of such pupils?

How, without data disaggregated by ethnicity are you to address a situation in which you want to provide a quality education to national minority pupils, but you are not allowed to count them? Here I will cite the words of a Romani boy that were quoted in Amnesty International's 2015 report on this issue.

"Don't tell me they don't know who is Romani here. All people know who is Romani, even [people] on the street... Six out of 11 pupils in this class are Romani... At least half of the pupils in the school are Romani," he said.

I think this conflict about ethnicity is a fairly comon one. Formally there is no political will to identify who is Romani, but actually all of us believe we know who is Romani and who is not.

An outdated view of science

However, is it morally acceptable for you to label another person "Romani"? When it comes ascribing ethnicity or nationality to anybody, naturally the best possible option is self-identification.

Our nationality is not the same thing as our state citizenship - we do not have it written anywhere in our identification, and any of us might feel like we are members of any nation at all, including the Jedi. Yes, according to the 2011 census of the Czech Republic, there are apparently more Jedi Knights in our country than Romani people.

That does not mean we should absolutely give up on self-identification, but it probably will still not be the ideal way to collect such information for some time to come here. What remains available to us, then, is "third-party identification", which Langer has attacked as "pseudo-science".

The problem is in what Langer comprehends a scientific approach to entail. In his view, if we cannot determine clear, objective criteria, then the approach is not a scientific one.

That concept of science, however, is an outdated one. It makes no sense to determine objective criteria for something as subjective as human identity.

For that reason, the criteria issued by the Czech Education Ministry explicitly contain the information that during this identification of Romani pupils, a person shall be considered Romani if he or she considers himself or herself Romani or of others consider that person Romani. The data collection is, therefore, based on the perception of ethnicity, not on any "objectively-determined" ethnicity.

There is no clear list of pseudo-scientific criteria that is in use here. Nobody is being instructed to assess anybody else's shade of skin color, or skull size, or any such nonsense.

Specific examples

Setting aside all academic discussion of what is and is not scientific, we again arrive at the words of the Romani boy whom I cited above:  "Don't tell me they don't know who is Romani here." Indeed, one-third of citizens in the Czech Republic believe they can tell who is Romani and have said that they would assign Romani children to special education just because of their Romani nationality.

When we poll the public about the education of pupils from impoverished families, though, just 3 % of respondents say they would send such children to be educated outside the mainstream. According to the Office of the Czech Government's Report on the State of the Romani Minority for 2015, as many as 50 % of Romani people here are also afflicted by economic social exclusion.

These numbers make it clear that the support targeting people from socially excluded environments and the support targeting Romani people is not covering the existing need. We then see, in the schools, that children from impoverished families are perceived as being of more significance than Romani children are.

When we poll for general sentiment in society, more than 80 % of respondents express a negative view of Romani people. Indeed, the Roma have the very worst results of any nationality or national minority in the Czech Republic.

Almost the same percentage of respondents assess relations between non-Roma and Roma as "bad". We do not have to cast our minds back very far for concrete examples of such negative sentiment in practice.

During the past two weeks alone we have been able to read the news that Romani people are not being served in some restaurants, or that they are rejected when they try to rent a social hall. Furthermore, we can recall the recent discussion of whether landlords here can refuse to lease somebody their apartment just on the basis of the prospective tenant's ethnic affiliation.

The number of advertisements for apartment units in the Czech Republic that still read "Roma need not apply" is probably immeasurable. Morevoer, in the schools, we have a recent verdict against a principal who refused to enroll Romani pupils because of their ethnicity - not because of their social exclusion.

I doubt that any of those who committed discrimination against the people whom they perceived as Romani ever took the time to first ask their victims whether they actually consider themselves Romani or not. The main thing here is not to label somebody Romani, or see somebody as Romani, but never to treat Romani people differently to their detriment on the basis of their nationality alone.

That kind of treatment is unacceptable. What's more, this kind of discriminatory behavior frequently has no connection to whether the victims are also afflicted by social exclusion.

First written for news server Česká škola (Czech School).

Štěpán Vidím Drahokoupil, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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