Principles of Sociology/Roma Issues

Race and Ethnicity – The Gypsy (Roma) Phenomena

Social science research has effectively redefined the significance of race - previously based in biological terms - to that of a social construction contingent on the dynamics of particular societies in particular historical eras. However, the ethnicity component that has always played a large role in racial explanations has been much slower to change. While in public society today, one would have a hard time defending explanations of a specific groups' behavior patterns based on racial disposition, ethnicity, or the shared cultural heritage of a particular group, still serves as a popular and largely unexamined explanatory mechanism. Instead of focusing on the often divisive issues of race and ethnicity ever present when discussing the plight of ethnic minorities in American society, it may be more enlightening to examine the similarities between situations and social context of racial/ethnic minorities in other nations.

Current World Population Dynamics: 13 million Roma worldwide (close to worldwide Jewish population)

- ¾ of the 8 million European Gypsies live in Eastern Europe where they are around 10% of the total pop

- The Roma Diaspora began in India and has now established significant populations all over the world

- These Roma populations do not conform to any one unified group in cultural, political, or ethnic terms

- Roma overall have very high fertility rates compared to the majority populations around them

Social Situation of Roma:

- Roma lag far behind the majority populations around them in terms of all standard of living indicators

- Roma are generally feared and despised by the majority populations around them, irregardless of specific location, mostly because the rules governing their society are generally very misunderstood by outsiders

- Roma speak a Sanskrit based tongue called Romani, which no one outside their ranks really understands

- Their language and cultural belief systems keep them mostly unintegrated in larger societal institutions

Roma history :

- They are believed to be a nomadic lower caste from NW India that specialized in music, animal trading, and metal work that were either captured in warfare or sold as slaves after the Islamic invasions in 1000AD

- From there they were able to migrate throughout the Near East, Northern Africa , and Eastern Europe

- In the kingdoms that comprise present day Romania , they were legally enslaved until the mid 1800s

- One million Gypsies were killed in the Holocaust, but they fared much better than the Jews because their history had made them very unassimilated and adept at evading the authorities

- Most Roma fell under the rule of Eastern European communist governments following the end of WWII, who settled the gypsies on collective farms and in factory towns in a program the called “the great halt”

- After the fall of communism in 1989, their were numerous attacks on Roma communities that amounted to government condoned genocide on a people that had never really been assimilated in these societies

- The communists had instead isolated and deracinated many Roma who now had no sense of coherent culture or community in nations where they were by far the poorest and most hated ethnic groups

Roma Culture and Customs :

- Roma define themselves and other Roma not by group physical attributes, but by knowledge (or lack thereof) of the Romani language and the codes of conduct prescribed by Roma tradition

- Roma culture has a very premodern and traditional division between clean and unclean in all life arenas

- For example, all non Roma are called Gadje, or peasants, and considered very unclean, thus all interactions with gadje outside of economic exploitation bring along fear of contamination

- There are strong gender roles in Roma society – men control secular matters and women control spiritual matters – also, women have the power to pollute men and thus must be controlled by strict behavior codes

- Roma are stratified at three social levels, nation, tribe, and community – there are only a few different nations, many tribes, and many collected communities of unrelated families within the tribes

- There are complex marriage patterns within Roma society that are used to prevent inbreeding while stabilizing networks of power based relationships within and between the tribes

- In Roma families and communities, men have all the decision making power while women are kept subservient and constantly toiling in domestic labor until menopause, after which they become equals

- Roma have very different codes of cleanliness – children often appear very dirty and the yards of their houses are especially cluttered with garbage – but personal hygiene rituals are actually incredibly elaborate

How Roma and their Way of Life Survive :

- Roma are what are termed “middlemen minorities” in sociology – they make a living by catering to the specific needs of the majority population – in European history, Jews most prominently played this role

- Traditional Roma will not socialize or have sexual relations with gadje under normal circumstances

- The Roma have adjusted their “religion” to fit whatever specific region they reside within

- Roma have had certain historical trades that they have specialized in – horse trading, music, copper metallurgy, bear training, fortune telling, small craft manufacture, theatre performance, begging, etc.

- These trades have largely been decimated by the historical process of industrialization, so gypsies have found other ways of making a living including auto trading and repair, off market commerce, and welfare

- Roma cannot make ethically make money from one another, but there is no such ethical code concerning economic relations with gadje, who they see fit to swindle and steal from at any and all times

- Because of these tenuous relationships with gadje, gypsies have never been able to stay in one place very long… so their nomadic lifestyle is a necessity when one cannot sustainably exist in one place for very long

- Roma communities are very close and are responsible for taking care of group economic needs – so that no individual can hold onto known liquid assets for very long and thus must buy cars and furniture instead

- Furthermore, Roma are communitarian, so family honor and well being of the community is paramount

- The laws of conduct within these communities are very specifically delineated so that there is a traditionally endorsed behavior for almost every conceivable situation encountered in life

- Roma culture offers what the outside world cannot provide - belonging - the worst sanction is banishment

Why the Roma are an Important Example to Understand:

- It is imperative that we acknowledge the cultural traits of specific groups are not a natural occurrence, but products of specific interaction dynamics between majority/minority groups that make them most workable

- If one does not understand their historical and present circumstances of a group, they cannot explain their behavior and thus must invent self-serving means to explain their “strange self-defeating behavior”

- Roma have been subject to the same kind of persecution that many ethnic minority groups have faced throughout history – slavery, bonded labor servitude, segregation, discrimination, genocide, stereotyping

- Social and economic displacement courtesy of the dominant society has followed them everywhere – if no one allowed them to settle anywhere under decent conditions, why wouldn't they keep perpetually moving

- Gypsy stereotypes justify the majority/minority power relationships = lazy thieves, dirty and diseased, cannibals, baby snatchers, devil worshipers, spies for foreign powers, assassins, etc.

- Often, minority groups capitalize on stereotypical beliefs to present a certain kind of image to outsiders that could help them profit – exoticized Gypsy fortune tellers present a certain kind of occult mystique

- The degree of difference that Roma communities exemplify is a test of civil society – How can societies cope with truly different groups that are unwilling to assimilate or compromise their values?

Europeans keep asking... What to do with the Gypsies…

- One might hope that today's societies would have more of a place for Roma culture… their historical opposition to settled agriculture is now moot, Gypsies are notably good at free market commerce, and as a whole, the world has become more accepting of multiculturalism ideals

- Still, the Roma people have big problems – high unemployment, low literacy, low life expectancy

- Gypsies trying to get to Western Europe have not been well received and often their statelss predicament has not been recognized – thus they remain displaced people with no real chance in life

- Roma culture does not blend in well with modernization – they dislike gadje doctors (sometimes they sterilize Roma women), gadje schools (track Roma children into lowest classes), and the gadje legal systems that try to stop their child marriage and dowry systems, nomadic lifestyle, and business ventures

- Furthermore, Roma are unlikely to be able to organize their own institutions or their own de facto territories (like the Kurds perhaps) very well, because their social structure doesn't promote collaboration

- Outside the confines of family and community, Roma leaders counter productively infight for personal aggrandizement, collaborating with gadje officials in the process and further tarnishing the Roma image

- Can “gypsy problems” be redefined from focusing on disparate social problems to a unified ethnic issue?

- In Romania today, gypsies account for about 20% of the total population. They are openly despised and discriminated against. The kinds of human rights violations that define the Romanian peoples relationship with Roma are a major issue, perhaps a core one holding them back from EU integration… can gypsies organize cross nationally to take advantage of this situation and garner some real political clout in the process?

Last modified on 16 December 2006, at 09:22