Czech ombud: What threats do minorities face and why does the majority feel at risk?
Czech ombud Anna Šabatová recently gave a speech to open the 23rd annual "Dialogue in the Center of Europe" symposium, the topic of which was "People on the Margins", organized by the Bernard Bolzano Society and the Munich-based Ackermann-Gemeinde. News server Romea.cz publishes the speech in full translation below.
What threats do minorities face and why does the majority feel at risk?
The topic of nationalism, of "us" and "them", of majorities and minorities, has coursed through all of human history either consciously or unconsciously. Anthropology has contributed in a significant way to our reflecting on this lingering atavism, the feeling that one's own community, nation or tribe is culturally superior, as well as on other ramifications of our anxiety over what is foreign and our fears of difference, past and present.
When I say anthropology, I am thinking of cultural and social anthropology. These disciplines have completely divorced themselves, in methods and especially in terms of values, from the physical anthropology of the prewar period, whose value scale, in combination with many other prerequisites, facilitated the brutal abuses and horrible consequences of the era of National Socialism.
Unlike physical anthropology, cultural anthropology has completely liberated itself from the problematic value framework of a hierarchy of nations, thanks to its concept of cultural relativism and its thorough rejection of the division of nations into "civilized" and "uncivilized". Behavioral models are at work in every society that bring people together to create and structure their societies, whether on the basis of customs, language, religion or traditions.
In and of itself, there is certainly nothing wrong with this. The problem arises when such criteria basically become the only ones, or the predominant ones, that can be communicated in a society.
This happens when those who speak other languages, worship other religions, or are different in some other way are ostracized from the rest of society. At the present moment, we are beginning once again to sense this problem even more intensively in our society.
We are currently able to follow the rise of racism and xenophobia here. Under normal circumstances, a healthy society will succeed in managing this atavism thanks to the reflections upon it that already exist.
Our society is not in good condition in this respect, and intolerance against minorities, particularly against Romani people (but not only against them) has spread throughout all of society. Demonstrations against Romani people, the media's depiction of this minority, and various alarmist news reports and rumors about Romani people are inundating the public space.
An impartial observer who only read the newspapers and the discussions posted beneath the articles featured on Czech news servers might think Romani people represent the main - and perhaps even the only - problem that Czech society has. What has caused this state of affairs?
Why is Czech society again beginning to build its identity on rejecting this rather small minority? There are several reasons.
The first one I would like to mention is the division that is facilitated by this exaggerated perception of "our" tribe versus "theirs". Many Romani people live (or until recently, lived) rather well-integrated into majority society here, but the percentage of those who are completely excluded to the margins is growing.
These people live in ghettos or residential hotels and their children attend different schools than those attended by children from the majority society. With the growth in unemployment here, many Romani people have lost their jobs or work in uncertain employment without labor law protections where they are segregated into all-Romani work teams.
There are fewer and fewer situations in which non-Roma and Roma might naturally encounter one another in employment, in their places of residence, or at school. This enhances their sense of difference and provides fertile ground for fear of the other and the unknown.
This has catastrophic consequences for this vulnerable minority. Ostracism is increasing, problems continue to grow, and the fear of the majority in some places is turning into hysteria and panic.
This makes integration impossible even in cases where, under other circumstances, it might be realized. Even Romani families who have not yet fallen to the bottom of the social barrel and who have the strength and the will to face their problems are beginning to feel the effects of the majority's relationship toward the Roma.
Romani people are encountering difficulties with finding normal housing and permanent employment. Romani pupils are encountering ridicule at school, and Romani people are more and more often becoming the targets of both physical and verbal attacks.
All of this can very rapidly push Romani families to the margins of society. It pushes a family into a ghetto, their children into the "practical" (previously called "special") or the segregated schools, and instead of their being able to make money, it pushes them into welfare, on which no one, Romani people included, lives well.
Where do we locate the cause of this state of affairs? Why has de facto segregation so rapidly increased, enhancing this sense of difference and foreignness?
One of the causes is the inequality for which Czech society was unprepared after the 1989 revolution, inequality which in recent years has tangibly affected the middle class as well. Many people are experiencing existential fears firsthand (despite all the assurances by many journalists and politicians that people here are able to live beyond their means) and those fears are one cause of this frustration and reduced tolerance in Czech society.
Human rights, however, are not an abstract construct or an ideology. They are also not limited to civil and political rights, as those who criticize them are trying to get the public to infer.
Cultural, economic and social rights are also part of human rights, which is to say, they are part of our fundamental rights per the Czech constitutional order and per the international treaties the Czech state has ratified. There are differences between the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and those protected by law in terms of the state's obligations and responsibilities, as well as with respect to law enforcement.
If we want to defend the cultural rights of minorities, it is essential that we not forget about the social rights of society as a whole. We must prevent people in our society living in fear of being unable to pay their mortgages, of losing their jobs or not making enough money through self-employment, of being subjected to debt collections, of being unable to afford their children's education, or of losing the roof over their heads.
A society full of such obstacles and tragedies will never be open to any minorities, especially not those whom it can identify by their appearance. The feeling of injury and injustice being experienced by many people here makes it politically impossible to enforce measures that would ultimately lead to integration.
Integration is being de facto prevented because an unhappy society always seeks a scapegoat for its frustrations. Without a certain degree of equality, without equal rights, democracy cannot exist.
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