Madonna and European Racism: The Roma (“Gypsies”)

(Photo: Wikipedia)

The Associated Press has a story about 1000s of Romanians booing Madonna at a Bucharest music concert, where she criticized discrimination targeting the Roma (Romani or “Gypsies”). The story reports that at first Romanian fans applauded Roma musicians who performed with her, but the crowd of 60,000 changed dramatically when she

condemned widespread discrimination against Roma, or Gypsies — and the cheers gave way to jeers.

There are at least half a million Roma in Romania. The AP report noted the large scale of this racialized discrimination, which human rights agencies report is probably greater than for any other racial-ethnic group in Europe:

Sometimes, it can be deadly: In neighboring Hungary, six Roma have been killed and several wounded in a recent series of apparently racially motivated attacks targeting small countryside villages predominantly settled by Gypsies.

The scale of the everyday discrimination is indeed huge and extensive:

Nearly one in two of Europe’s estimated 12 million Roma claimed to have suffered an act of discrimination over the past 12 months, according to a recent report by the Vienna-based EU Fundamental Rights Agency. The group says Roma face “overt discrimination” in housing, health care and education.

And this anti-Roma framing and discrimination is reinforced at the top:

In May 2007, Romanian President Traian Basescu was heard to call a Romanian journalist a “stinky Gypsy” during a conversation with his wife.

The violent discrimination extends to Hungary, Bulgaria and other European countries as well:

Human rights activists say the attacks in Hungary, which began in July 2008, may be tied to that country’s economic crisis and the rising popularity of far-right vigilantes angered by a rash of petty thefts and other so-called “Gypsy crime.”

According to wikipedia

The Roma suffer the worst health conditions in the industrialized world together with some of the worst health problems associated with the third world. Rates of both infectious and non-communicable diseases are high. The proportion of Roma living in poverty exceeds 75% in countries throughout the region.

Wikipedia also describes widespread racialized discrimination across Europe, including today in western and southern Europe:

Amnesty International reports continued instances of Antizigan discrimination during the 2000s, particularly in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Kosovo. Romanies are often confined to low-class ghettos, are subject to discrimination in jobs and schools, and are often subject to police brutality. In Italy, the government recently declared that Italy’s Romani population represented a national security risk and that swift action was required to address the emergenza nomadi (gypsy emergency).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the Roma’s ancestors likely immigrated out of south Asia (India) about the 11th century, and they have been racialized in Europe and the United States since at least the explosion of racist science in the 19th century:

Later in the 19th century, Romani immigration was forbidden on a racial basis in areas outside Europe, mostly in the English speaking world (in 1885 the United States outlawed the entry of the Roma) and also in some South American countries (in 1880 Argentina adopted a similar policy) . . . . The persecution of the Romanies reached a peak during World War II in the Porajmos, the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis during the Holocaust. In 1935, the Nuremberg laws stripped the Romani people living in Nazi Germany of their citizenship, after which they were subjected to violence, imprisonment in concentration camps and later genocide in extermination camps. The policy was extended in areas occupied by the Nazis during the war, and it was also applied by their allies, notably the Independent State of Croatia, Romania and Hungary.

Somewhere between a half million and 1.5 million were killed by the German Nazis and their allies in eastern Europe during the World War II era.

Even after fifty generations in Europe there is still this widespread racialized oppression. In addition, the AP report also noted contradictory responses in Europe today to the Roma, with very negative and discriminatory responses in most cases but more positive responses to some of their culture, especially to “Gypsy” dance and music cultural styles. This reminds me of the way that many/most white Americans “enjoy” certain kinds of African American and Latino music and dance, even as they persist in widespread racial discrimination against these U.S. groups. In racially framed worlds, here white-European, people considered to be “of color” are often OK “in their place.”

The Racism in “The Great White Hope”

Keith Olbermann and Rep. Maxine Waters do a nice job of calling out the use of the phrase “great white hope” as steeped in racism. Here’s a clip on the long side (6:10) but worth watching all the way through if you missed the live broadcast:

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I really appreciate Olbermann saying “as a white guy” the recent political events make him uncomfortable. And, then poses the question to Rep. Waters, “are we going backwards or forwards?” It’s about the frankest discussion of racism on mainstream media that I’ve ever heard.

Something Seems Strangely Familiar Here: Town Hall “Protests”

1. Déjà vu, in Psychology–The illusion of having already experienced something actually being experienced for the first time. 2. An impression of having seen or experienced something before: Old-timers watched the stock-market crash with a distinct sense of déjà vu.

Dull familiarity; monotony: the déjà vu of the tabloid headlines.

Machiavelli once said that “[w]hoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.” So as I have recently flipped through the numerous self proclaimed left and right winged television shows on CNN, Fox, and etc., a chill crept through the nerves within my vertebral column. My eyes were horrified, but at the same moment, not surprised to witness fisted clinched and crocked brows on white Americans at town hall meetings where civilized debates of the proposed health care plan by the Obama administration was to be occurring. Angry rhetoric along side held high posters propagating to on lookers that our president was in essence similar to the paranoid sociopath and war criminal Adolf Hitler. With a critical lens, a psychologists may say that these people are actually guilty of transference (which is a phenomenon in psychoanalysischaracterized by unconscious redirection of feelings for one person to another).

Secondly, what was more troublesome for me were the number of people at these town hall gatherings who were strapping semi automatic side arms and even holding military grade weapons such as AR15s.

Haven’t we been here before? Has history not shown us the damage this sort of anti-social behavior and angry rhetoric can have on people and a country? I feel that the evolution of WWII and the Hitler regime is a perfect example for us to keep in the forefront of our minds. There are enough comparisons between what is happening in our country to what lead to WWII and the slaughter of millions of innocent Jews that should give us pause.

During the rise of Hitler, the economy was in a depression. Hitler’s tactic to blame the Jews for the state of Germany appealed to their emotions and not the true nature of the crisis in Germany. The propaganda that followed that was created by Hitler and Goebbels gave way to a wave of radio blitz, leaflets, movies, and posters that stoked the flames of hatred and misdirection. Are we seeing this today? Yes we are indeed.

The rallies, the nonsensical statements calling the president a racist against whites by Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh can be compared to the radio blitz by Lord Haw Haw and Axis Sally of Germany.

Moreover, the ignorance, frustration, and racism toward Jews allowed for fertile ground for the rise of the Third Reich. As the world knows, here in the U.S. we are too undergoing a scary economic crisis. This is the time of high unemployment, company bailouts, government bank takeovers, increase in spousal abuse, and etc. We have seen throughout multiple media outlets how the country blames in part our first Black president for not helping the government to recover faster. This factor on top of the already dissatisfaction of many Whites having a Black president has caused an alarm to be raised in regards to hate groups. CNN has recently noted that many whites blame President Obama for the economic crisis. Here in the U.S., groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted that “[a]fter virtually disappearing from public view a decade ago, the antigovernment militia movement is surging across the country – fueled by fears of a black president, the changing demographics of the country and fringe conspiracy theories increasingly spread by mainstream figures.”

I am not declaring that another holocaust is imminent. But what is important here is for us to all take a moment and realize that if we are not careful, history could indeed repeat itself.

Community-Based Racial Healing

There is a new grant opportunity that readers here may want to consider from the Kellogg Foundation:

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is pleased to announce a new and exciting grant opportunity in response to our commitment to becoming an effective, anti-racist organization that promotes racial equity. Racial Equity refers to principles of fairness and justice. Racial equity work describes actions designed to address historic burdens as well as to remove present day barriers to equal opportunities. This is accomplished by identifying and eliminating systemic discriminatory policies and practices. Specific remediating strategies, policies, and practices are also required. These actions address the effects of historic injustice and prevent present and future inequities. Our approach to racial equity is inclusive. We will focus on priority concerns for vulnerable African American, Native American, Latino/Hispanic American, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, Arab American, and European American children and families within the context of their communities.

This grant opportunity seeks to strengthen and bolster community-based approaches for racial healing and racial equity efforts targeting vulnerable and marginalized children. The Kellogg Foundation anticipates awarding grants up to $400,000. You are invited to submit a proposal for our Community-Based Racial Healing work as outlined in the Request for Proposals (RFP).

This is exciting for those of us concerned about racial inequality because it indicates a new funding stream for anti-racist work.   Please spread the word, and good luck for those who apply!

Racial Equality Long Way Off: Panel in the Vineyard

Someday, I hope to be one of those academics that summers at the Vineyard. Until then, I’ll just read about them online from hot, muggy New York. I came across this article about an interesting panel discussion at the Whaling Church on Martha’s Vineyard, called “Achieving Equality in the Age of Obama.” The panel happened just a few days ago, and was led by Harvard professor Skip Gates, and included, among others, Harvard professor Lawrence Bobo, Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell, and New York Times columnist Charles Blow, and moderated by journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

The entire article is worth reading, but I just wanted to pull out a couple of relevant bits here.  Gates put the state of racial inequality in the U.S. in context when he reflected on his recent arrest inside his home:

“There are one million black men in jail or prison and on July 16 this summer I became one of them . . . what about all those men and women who languish unfairly in prison every day, who are racially profiled every day, who have no recourse, no hope of salvation no way to break that cycle?”

Professors Bobo and Darling-Hammond followed Gates introduction with relevant stats on the racial inequality in incarceration:

Panelist Lawrence Bobo, another Harvard professor, had the numbers: one in 100 Americans are behind bars, one in 15 African Americans; or one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34. Next to him, Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond noted that the United States had five per cent of the world’s population, but 25 per cent of the world’s prison population. Most of these were nonviolent criminals, Mr. Bobo said. Arbitrary disorderly conduct charges — the initial, later dropped, charge against Mr. Gates — was part of the reason, as was drug use.

Feeding the jail and prison system in this country, is a deeply unequal educational institution:

Though an African American was in the Oval Office, black kids suffered dramatic inequality in educational opportunities, said Ms. Darling-Hammond; the difference between public school spending per child varied from $40,000 per year to $4,000 per year in “apartheid schools” with 90 per cent minorities who lacked textbooks, music or art classes and where there was a 50 per cent teacher turnover rate each year.

So, she said, the U.S. now ranked 35th out of 40 industrialized countries in math achievement, 31st in science and at the bottom tier in graduation rates. The U.S. had slipped from first to 16th in higher education. “Almost all of this comes from inequality,” said the woman who was head of the Obama transition team in education. Depressingly, she said the country had work to do to implement the 1896 Plessy (“separate but equal”) Supreme Court mandate in schools, let alone the integration required by Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.

And, even in the elite enclave of Martha’s Vineyard, there’s intense resistance to change, as Prof. Bobo noted citing anecdotal evidence from bumper stickers he’d spotted around the Island:

Mr. Bobo who cited three Vineyard bumper stickers” I’ll show as much respect to your president as you showed mine,” “Had enough change yet?” and “Don’t blame me, I voted for the old white guy.”

Prof. Harris-Lacewell summed up what she called the “exquisite benefit” from the Gates arrest, this way:

“All of us could of course work on making sure we are the most upright, uprighteous, pants on, name their kid Jason instead of Jamal . . .” but it wouldn’t change the power structure.  “For me, one of the most exquisite benefits of the stupid Skip Gates arrest in his home, is the lie that it gives to the notion that respectability will make you safe.”

Indeed, we have a long way to go to change the structure of racial inequality in this country.

Infant Mortality & The Stresses of Everyday Racism

I think that the national discussion about racism and health care reform gets so abstract sometimes that we forget that when we’re talking about health, we’re talking about people’s lives. And, as this short clip (about 4 minutes) demonstrates very powerfully, leading researchers contend that racism plays an important role in infant mortality among African American women, even when controlling for income and education. This clip, from Episode 2, “When the Bough Breaks,” in the video series “Unnatural Causes,” (2007), features UCLA obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Michael Lu. Lu believes that for many women of color, racism over a life time, not just during the nine months of pregnancy, increases the risk of preterm delivery, one of the leading risk factors for early infant death:

And, in an interesting piece of research by one of the experts featured in the full episode, Dr. Camara Jones, concludes that: “being classified by others as White is associated with large and statistically significant advantages in health status, no matter how one self-identifies.” So, there’s a very real, somatic level at which racism both takes a toll on some and provides an advantage to others.

I think we should keep this in mind as the health care debate rages on. What kind of society do we want to create?

If Calling People ‘Stupid Racists’ Won’t Win the Health Care Debate, What’s a Better St rategy?

I’ve been watching the angry mobs lobbying against health care reform with increasing trepidation. It seems pretty clear that many of those in attendance are tied to extreme right-wing racists, such as the militias.


(Image from here.)

And yet, as Gene Lyons accurately points out in a piece on today, ‘you won’t win the healthcare debate calling people ‘stupid racists.’ Agreed.   (h/t to Paul Younghouse at Brainstorms for both these links.)

So then, the question becomes, what’s the better – more effective – strategy for addressing the deep racism running through the health care debate?   Anyone?

A Call for a New Abolitionist Movement

From August 7th to the 9th, the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP) held its annual meeting in San Francisco, CA. SSSP is an organization of scholars, activists, advocates and students, who apply the principles of social science along with a humanistic perspective to the study and solution of social problems. I had the privilege to hear Dr. Steven Barkan deliver his presidential address on August 8th, and his message is an important one that deserves to be heard beyond the walls of the conference hotel ballroom. Dr. Barkan graciously shared a copy of his speech with me, so I could write about it here.


In his address, Dr. Barkan called for a “new abolitionism.” The United States, he pointed out, as others have, has come a long way in addressing racism, and he celebrated this fact. “We should rejoice that many people of color have made gains unimaginable a generation or two ago . . .” Nevertheless, in 2009, almost 245 years after the Civil War ended, more than 100 years after W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” and four decades after the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, “the problem of the color line continues,” said Barkan. People of color still deal with racism on a daily basis, both “symbolic racism” and more overt racism.


To illustrate how racial inequality manifests itself today, Barkan used the examples of racial disparities in wealth and health. He cited statistics showing that the median net worth of families of color is only $25,000 compared with a median $141,000 for non-Hispanic white families. With the exception of Asian Americans, the poverty rate for people of color in the United States is more than double – and for some groups, more than triple – the poverty rate for non-Hispanic whites. To these observations, I would add that while the racial wealth and poverty gaps narrowed somewhat during the 1990s, the current economic crisis has once again restored them to their 1970s equivalents. Moreover, as Barbara Ehrenreich recently pointed out, to be black and poor nowadays makes the probability of “being sucked into . . . the ‘cradle-to-prison pipeline’” increasingly high.


In looking at racial disparities in health, Barkan cited statistics on infant mortality (i.e., the number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births) that show black infant mortality to be more than double non-Hispanic white infant mortality (13.6 and 5.8, respectively). Life expectancy for African Americans is five years less than the life expectancy of non-Hispanic white Americans. As Arline Geronimus shows in her research on racial health disparities, the stresses resulting from daily life in a racist society “weathers” African Americans, causing them to age more rapidly than their white peers and to suffer more chronic illnesses associated with stress and unrelenting disadvantage (e.g., high crime, inadequate access to health care, poor health care, environmental toxins). Although social class mitigates this disparity somewhat, the “hypersegregation” that African Americans continue to experience in the United States means that they remain nearly as socially isolated from whites in their living arrangements and private lives today as they did under Jim Crow (see Patterson’s commentary).


As Barkan pointed out in his address, these are disturbing statistics, but we must remember that “behind them are the lives and stories of real people.”  And so he called for a new abolitionism, “a new movement to end racial and ethnic inequality.”  Specifically, Barkan argued that this movement should use all the strategies and tactics that progressive social change movements have used historically, including traditional political activity as well as protests and demonstrations, and these should be “responsible and nonviolent but . . . also constant, loud when necessary, and perhaps a tiny bit uncontrollable just to keep things interesting.” Barkan sees this new abolitionist movement as a coalition of diverse racial and ethnic groups, but it should not be a movement whose members are solely people of color because “racial and ethnic inequality is, after all, a white problem. It was a white problem in the past . . . and it is a white problem today.” Barkan is not naïve. He admits that many white people will not easily relinquish white privilege. But he urges whites, nevertheless, to fulfill their moral obligation by taking “a leading role in the new abolitionism.”  


I found Barkan’s address challenging, but inspiring.  He made a strong case against the notion of the US as a post-racial society. The complete address will be published in the February, 2010 issue of the SSSP journal, Social Problems. I urge all of you to read it and I urge you even more strongly to take up Dr. Barkan’s call for a new abolitionism.

Facing the Academic Job Market, Facing Racism

I’m back from the ASA and SSSP meetings (national conferences) in San Francisco, and just now getting back into the groove of writing here.  I saw some good sessions at the meetings.   This meeting was auspicious, too, as I felt especially proud moment to see Patrica Hill Collins ascend the dais as President of the ASA, the first African American woman to ever hold that office.  I did a post-doc with Pat when she was still at University of Cincinnati, and it was a thrill to see her shine.

But the giddiness over Collins’ considerable accomplishment was overshadowed by the conversations in the hallway where the overwhelming impression I got was one of anxiety about the economic downturn and its impact on academic sociology.  Quite understandably, this anxiety was particular pronounced among graduate students.    Every year at the ASA, there is a ‘job market’ in which prospective employers meet with prospective job seekers.   Last year, there were something like 75 academic jobs listed.  This year, that number had dwindled to a mere 30.   Now, I’ve never actually known someone to find a job based on this academic job market version of speed-dating, but there’s a great deal of energy focused around it nevertheless.  And, this year, there was a lot of distress over the low-low number of 30.

The trauma (and really, there’s no other word for it) of facing the academic job market in sociology is compounded for those sociologists who identify racially or ethnically as people of color, and for anyone who lists “race” as their area of expertise.

Racism in academic institutions can take on some funky twists and turns.   There is very little overt racism in the academy, and indeed, most colleges and universities strive to comply with some meager affirmative action policies that claim to “support diversity.”  The reality, however, is a transmogrification of diversity.

Here’s just one way that racism in academic hiring works.   A given department will decide that one position is designated as “the race position.”  The way that this plays out in the hiring process is that the hiring committee has an idea about who the person is that will fill this position, “the ideal candidate.”  The ideal candidate for the race position is typically 1) someone that does work that’s ‘interesting’ but not too radical (i.e., makes a small point related to Marx, Weber, Durkheim or, in rare occasions DuBois, but does not call attention to people’s racism) and 2) focuses on the people of color the committee has decided is in vogue at the moment (not the race of the majority group doing the hiring) and 3) the candidate’s race should match the race of the people they study (thus, making the research more “authentic” and filing the designated slot).   When this kind of search is “successful,” meaning the department finds a candidate who meets all these criteria (and they will), then this effectively contains and ghettoizes any discussion of race in that department and places an additional burden on that candidate to be the spokesperson for their race.  This is really the antithesis of the kind of diversity that, for example, Audre Lorde talked about when she spoke of learning to “recognize, value and accept differences.”

And, for whites who list ‘race’ as an area of expertise on their CV (like me), we can be privy to some pretty egregious backdoor racism from other white academics.   Let me explain.    Once, a long time ago, I was doing a one-year position at a university that shall remain nameless.   Another woman, had also done a one-year position at this same institution and applied for the full-time, tenure-track job.  She was a Latina, but did not study ‘race.’   When she got the job and I did not, the chair of that department (a white man) made a point of trying to soothe my disappointment by telling me that they “had to” hire the other candidate.  The chair in this instance made a classic move to reassert white solidarity with me and diminish the accomplishments and credibility of the Latina woman they’d just hired.   I wish I had confronted him about it, but I was still bruised from not getting that job, so I simply said nothing.    Since that time, I’ve had too many other opportunities to confront white academics who have made similar backdoor comments to me intended to undermine faculty from under-represented groups.

There are some support mechanisms out there for getting through this process.  Professor Kerry Ann Rockemore (University of Chicago-Illinois) is a leader in mentoring new PhD’s who come from under-represented groups in the academy.    Her online forum,, is a premier destination for faculty looking for support from graduate school through the tenure process.  Professor Rockemore also conducts workshops about surviving the academy for faculty of color, and has a new book with Tracey Laszloffy called The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure—Without Losing Your Soul (Lynne Reinner, 2008).   Rockemore has created terrific resources here, and there needs to be much more work done in this area.  For example, her work could be expanded to explore what the specific challenges are for faculty from Latin@, Asian American, or Native American backgrounds.

I think the example of Patricia Hill Collins (and, the next president of ASA Evelyn Nakano Glenn), illustrate that it is possible to transform the discipline of sociology and the academy.   This is not easy, however.  In the words of Frederick Douglass, “There is no progress without struggle.” Courage to all of you on the job market!