David Beňák: The Czech state itself is cultivating professional welfare recipients, but education can be an enormous force for lifting people up
As a child growing up in a Romani family, David Beňák says he experienced discrimination frequently. When he was at university he established one of the first Romani information centers providing legal and social welfare system counseling.
Beňák worked for the Czech Government's Inter-ministerial Commission for Roma Community Affairs, then as a politically appointed Deputy Human Rights Minister, and currently is director of the Agency for Social Inclusion at the Czech Ministry for Regional Development. No other Romani person has achieved a higher position within the state administration.
Q: From your position as a citizen who is part of the Romani minority in the Czech Republic and a highly-placed state bureaucrat, do you believe the average Czech is racist?
A: I don't think that label would be fair to Czech society, although a lot has been said about it in that context. However, I do believe most Czechs have a problem with Romani people, but that is more about antigypsyism, it's not primarily about racism. It has a basis in history, but I do not believe that the average Czech person is essentially racist.
Q: Do you see aversion on the side of the Roma toward the Czech majority?
A: Certainly there is some. These two groups of people live alongside each other, but they don't live together, which creates entrenchment. Each then names what they see from their perspective. However, it is the case that just as a Czech person can be a racist, so too can a Romani person, that is not ruled out. In many Romani people it's more like a kind of animosity, a negative relationship.
The Roma are at home here too
Q: What do you consider to be the most harmful thing for Czech-Romani relations?
A: Exactly the fact that while we do live alongside each other, we do not live together. That may sound banal, or awfully simplistic, but it's not as easy as it seems, and I think that is the essence of this problem. Just try going out on the street and asking people if they know how the average, normal Romani person lives here. Many people will tell you that they do not, that they've never been invited into a Romani home, and Romani people would tell you the same thing. We basically know nothing about each other and we live with concepts of each other that are frequently negative.
Q: How, in your view, should these two groups begin to live together?
A: That is something I have personally been striving to achieve for more than 20 or maybe 25 years, and I don't have an answer. I believe nobody has a 100 % answer. There is no easy remedy for resolving this. Certain things do work, for example, getting to know each other through culture, festivals, food. A good example is the Khamoro festival in Prague, which has already become a tradition. In many countries Romani people are appreciated exactly for their culture and music. We need more such bridges, and let's acknowledge that we are not absolutely managing to build them. Errors are no doubt being committed by both sides, but I am convinced that the side who has to come forward and take the extra step is the side of the majority society. In the context of mutual coexistence it's also necessary to recall that this country is home to Romani people too. The Roma have lived on the territories of Bohemia and Moravia for more than 600 years, which is no small amount of time.
Q: However, you yourself say that you have been attempting, unsuccessfully, to establish this connection for basically a quarter-century. Where are the biggest obstacles?
A: A heavy obstacle for us, for Romani people, is our low levels of educational attainment. Education is an enormous, enormous force that can lift up not just individuals, but entire groups. The communist regime committed a great deal of damage in that regard. It devastated several generations of Romani people, because a significant part of the Romani population were intentionally educated in the "special schools", which was a large-scale decimation of our capacity. That is a legacy we are combating to this day and we will be fighting it for a long time. It's brilliant that the number of high school students among Romani people is growing today, as is the number of apprentices and the number of college students. Many Romani parents realize that education is a value, although naturally it does not guarantee anybody a 100 % certainty of success on the labor market. Let's admit that Romani people sometimes have a much more difficult time of it on the labor market here. Discrimination exists, although it is not just ethnic, but also age-based. Moreover, each early departure from education, each child who does not properly complete primary or secondary school, costs the state millions of crowns in the taxes that would otherwise be produced by their career in regular employment. That's just wrong, and it's one of the holes through which our money drains away. Another such hole is when firms and society discriminate against these people and leave them with no choice but to apply at the Labor Office for welfare, which also costs the state a lot of money.
"They don't rent to Gypsies"
Q: Do you see any trends in this here recently, whether positive or negative?
A: I believe that now things could improve. Unemployment is low and the demand for workers is high. People who would never have been hired just a couple of years ago, even though they were looking for work, are more frequently getting jobs now, even if they are Romani. There is still strong discrimination here, but it has shifted. On the other hand, the existing hunger for some professions unfortunately also does damage within the Romani community. Romani people who are in their second year of apprenticeships are already being attracted by firms to start working full-time. They then leave secondary school early, and it is highly likely that they will never re-enroll. Naturally that will harm them in the future.
Q: How does the social exclusion of the Romani community manifest itself in the Czech Republic besides a lower average level of education and higher unemployment?
A: In discrimination in different areas of life, generally. For example, if you are a Romani person, and if you have the money and want to buy an apartment somewhere, there is no guarantee you will manage to do so. The owner will refuse to sell to you because he doesn't want to make the neighbors angry. He simply will not sell to a Romani person. How many such cases actually exist is, naturally, a question, but there is no doubt that this happens. With respect to rental housing it's an absolutely extreme problem. There are people who do not hide this at all, they will tell you face-to-face that they don't rent to "Gypsies". It's awfully bad for families with children who need somewhere to live. Research unequivocally demonstrates that children who live in residential hotels do worse in school. Unfortunately, both phenomena are interconnected. Whenever I give a lecture, I always say that thousands of Romani people here want nothing more than what everybody else wants: To have a place to live, to be satisfied there, to have a job, to make their own living, and to live a satisfied life.
Q: How do you explain that currently there are no Romani people in almost any public positions? For example, there are no Romani MPs in the lower house like there used to be.
A: I ask myself that same question. I have been working in the public administration for almost 20 years, and when I used to work at a municipality, for example, no Romani people ever applied for positions there, not even to be social workers, which is an enormous pity. It would be good if more Romani people were in positions like the one I am working in today, or that my colleagues of both genders work in. That could aid us with convincing the public that there are tens of thousands of absolutely normal Romani people here who are our fellow citizens, who take an interest in what is happening in society, who read the newspapers, who vote, who contribute to charities, and who lead absolutely normal lives. This can't much be seen in the public administration, and there are also just a few local politicans who are Romani.
Like jokes about blondes
Q: Do you believe, therefore, that famous Romani people who are known to the public, like the Czech Television journalist Richard Samko, or Monika Mihaličková [Horáková], when she was in the Chamber of Deputies, are able to aid with the majority society becoming aware of the existence of Romani people as, in your words, "normal citizens"?
A: This is difficult. In my view, it is not absolutely necessary that each Romani person publicly say that they are Romani. That wouldn't make sense, and it probably wouldn't contribute much to good relations. I believe it's more important to look at why such people don't declare themselves to be Romani. You don't get any credit, in the eyes of the majority, for being Romani. Frequently it is the case that Romani people are afraid to speak about their own community with others because people enjoy spitting on the Roma. It's like making incorrect jokes about blondes - it's just not right. In this country we often laugh at political correctness, but it is absolutely necessary, because sooner or later that incorrectness will be turned on us, and it's not pleasant. Among Romani people, the problem is that they are unable to identify themselves with positive role models who are generally, publicly recognized, or with an idea on the basis of which they would be able to proudly say: "I am Romani." That could change if there were more Romani people in public functions - although some Romani people do work for the police and the army today. It would be desirable if the public knew there are many absolutely normal citizens here who are Romani people. Yes, there are among us Roma the kinds of people who cause problems, but that is how it is in any group. By the way, an overlooked fact is that Romani people are given much harsher sentences than non-Romani people are by the Czech courts. Tolerance for their lawbreaking or misdemeanors is much less than it is for ethnic Czechs.
Q: Romani people are customarily seen as those who abuse welfare...
A: That is associated with what we were discussing before, with education. The majority society has to put its foot down and say "Damn it, we aren't going to raise any more people to live on welfare here!" However, the state currently does just that and society allows it. We are raising professional welfare recipients as a result of our school system, which is absolutely crazy. In the context of the Romani community, welfare benefits are a rather controversial subject, overall. When elections are on the horizon, everybody says how necessary it is to combat the "inadaptables" and "abusers" of welfare - but who are those people? The law does not define the abuse of welfare, the only place this is touched on is the use of welfare for purposes other than the purposes for which it was awarded, so it has to first be proven - and mechanisms do exist for that.
Q: Despite that, many people here do believe that Romani people receive some kind of special pensions, better benefits, even better medicines than non-Roma.
A: That is absolutely absurd. There is no advantage to being a longterm unemployed person on welfare. Imagine that you apply for a job three or four times and they tell you to your face that they don't hire "Gypsies". That simply brings you down, it completely demotivates you to constantly hear that. Romani people also have their human dignity. It's also because of this that many Romani people have become rather closed in on themselves, which is then quite difficult to break through somehow. To say nothing of the 26 racially motivated murders of Romani people that have happened here since 1989, many of which remain unsolved. I guess what I would mainly like to say is that many Romani people like myself - and that's not a small number - are aware that a certain minority of Romani people create a problem for our coexistence and are probably not good neighbors. At the same time, though, there are Romani people who are different from that, and we do not deserve to be tarred with the same brush. We don't deserve to experience that and neither do our children. Nobody deserves the ascription of collective guilt that currently frequently happens, and we should all do our best to change this in a fundamental way.
First published in Czech for the Institute of Independent Journalism (Ústav nezávislé žurnalistiky).
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