Commentary: Not everyone has luck or talent - response to Julius Zajac about options for ghetto children
Julius Zajac's recent commentary presented a proud, self-aware perspective on the problems of Roma - in his view the key to overcoming these problems is education, and anyone can access a decent education in the Czech Republic. Racism, he says, does not stand in the way.
Zajac says Romani people's distaste for education, their lack of interest in it, is at the heart of their problems. He describes it as follows: "Our integration into Czech society depends on education alone, on our appetite for leading our children to an education, not on Councils of Elders or on laws. All of this talk about racism, about how all the political regimes over the years have made it impossible for us to study, are just excuses. How many children in the ghettos do not have a bright future just because their parents have no interest in the education of their offspring? These parents take no interest in how their children are running out of time! How many young Romani people start their own families early, for how many of them does school play no role at all? I don't believe money is what lies behind their lack of an appetite for education. Anyone here in this country can enjoy the good benefits of going to school."
An admirable - and dangerous - perspective
Those who can overcome disadvantage through their own strength deserve admiration. To do so takes determination, a strong will, and talent.
There is also no doubt that such a story can be a good example for others. It can provide hope.
In this respect, Mr Zajac's perspective on "Romani integration" is important and understandable. His generalizations, however, seem counter-productive and dangerous to me - they result in a consonance with the neo-liberal myth that everyone gets the same starting line in life and is the "engineer of their own fate and happiness".
A society built around that ideology is primarily a society for the healthy, the strong, and the young. It will never take enough care of anyone else, whatever their disadvantage - be it age, family history, a physical handicap, or skin color.
A way out?
Let's imagine an easy example - and I want it to make it clear that this sketch, naturally, does not apply to all Romani people living in ghettos - but let's say that the parents of several children are living with them in one room at a residential hotel, or perhaps in a half-trashed apartment in a ghetto on a housing estate, that both have long been unemployed, that both like to drink, that several men in the extended family have done prison time, and that several others have fallen prey to drugs and gambling. Let's say the children of their acquaintances and of their relatives - everywhere they know anyone at all - have been attending and do attend the "special schools", and that basically without even discussing it, their children will enroll in them as well.
Let's say that no one will investigate their children's preconditions for education - from the perspective of the family, it's more comfortable and safer for them in a "special school" and they don't want to go to "normal" school anyway. In how many cases out of a hundred, or out of a thousand, will these children overcome this situation themselves, without anyone else's aid, through their own will?
Let's say the father of the family wakes up one day and says to himself: "Enough is enough! I'm going to find a job, we'll move, and we'll pay more attention to the children, their future is at stake and they must have a better future than this present of ours."
Even if this man were to accomplish this - i.e., to shake off the depression and the resignation that affects everyone in a situation with no prospects, a situation that the unemployed have long known irrespective of their education, their family history, or their skin color - and even if he were to manage to escape what sociologists call the "culture of poverty", which imprisons people in the ghettos more effectively than any physical walls around them ever can through the feeling that there is no exit - and even if he were to have a stronger will than the vast majority of ordinary people, he probably will not be able to help himself: He will not find a landlord to rent to him, and he will not find an employer to hire him. He also will not change the school system.
The starting line
Just so there is no misunderstanding: I am not claiming that the Czech Republic is a country that does not take care of its disadvantaged minorities or that lets its senior citizens die of hunger in the street. We are a relatively decent, wealthy society, and all things considered, one lives very well here.
That, however, still does not mean that our society takes sufficient care of the disadvantaged, or that it does so in a sufficiently intelligent way. Let's return, now, to our model of the ghetto.
It is evident that children in a situation such as we have described do not have the same starting line as average children from the "majority", nor do they even have the same starting line as the vast majority of children from the "majority", average or not. With the exception of individuals with exceptional will power and extraordinary talent, these children will end up like their parents - they will be equipped with an education that is not competitive, they will not find work, they will live in improvised situations that may even be undignified, and they will gradually resign themselves to their fates, falling into one or another addiction, many of them having their own children very young, and some of them ending up in prison.
We can, of course, quibble over the degree to which adults are responsible for their own fates, the degree to which they can and must take charge of their own lives. It is true that almost every single one of us could do "more" with our lives.
However, we probably agree that children are not responsible for their parents and will never be able to do anything about them. If society doesn't help these children, the rest of us will reproduce this vicious circle for the generations to come.
We know very well how to help - it doesn't take any big discoveries or innovations. We must work with these children and their families from the earliest possible age.
In this country the myth prevails that what will save everything will be an obligatory year of preschool attendance. That, however, will save very little, if anything, because the child either has or has not developed many basic capabilities and habits by then.
We also need to give these families the hope of change - which means housing and jobs. There is simply no other way for them to escape.
Right now these people have no chance. Almost no one would under such conditions.
Do we know how to help ourselves?
Leaving children to live in the ghettos, in hopeless situations, does not correspond either to the wealth of our country nor to the ideas on which modern European society is based, ideas that we espouse. However, it is also possible to view aid to such children as a purely economical, pragmatic move.
Roughly eight years ago a study by the World Bank, by no means a romantic Romaphile institution, calculated that the losses to the Czech economy flowing from the insufficient education of Romani children are CZK 16 billion (EUR 582 million). Annually.
These uneducated children, who after "special school" barely know how to read and write, will not produce anything of value when they are adults and will not pay taxes - on the contrary, they will collect various types of welfare. Certainly, it is also possible to discuss how many billions this actually costs us, and it would also be possible to set up another study with different numbers.
However, what is certain is that both the "majority" and Romani people are suffering from the existing situation. "They" are battling with undignified conditions and hating the society they live in more and more, seeing no way out of it.
"We" are fearing them more and more, we have the feeling that we are paying for them, that "they" have special rights, that we are the victims of political "hyper-correctness", of an absurd kind of positive discrimination, that we don't know what to do with "them". It is probable that the same conclusion can be drawn, paradoxically, whether one is a promoter of multiculturalism or a neo-liberal, a "Klausian" or a "Havelite", a "Romaphile" or a xenophobe: None of this makes any sense.
The way things are going now, everyone loses. It would be worth our while to start helping ourselves.
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