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.”


  1. Seattle in Texas

    Wanted to swing by and share some observations shared by some friends from Europe on America. First off, many of the very poor communities back there believe we have roads paved with gold, we all smoke cigars, live in big mansions, and drive Cadillacs and ride Harleys. They are from Yugoslavia and the genocide in Bosnia is invisible here and not relevant to Americans, as is WWII. When Yugoslavia was invaded, they explain the two groups throughout the nation and states that was gone (fled/escaped) within the short time period of 3 days in total were the Gypsies and Jews. The genocide consisted of many people including Yugoslavians not of color, the poor, and all remaining people of color.

    On America, they too were surprised with its reality versus what they understood before they arrived. They were not aware of the great poverty and the extreme racism against people of color, and the xenophobia with relation to first generation groups of any nation and ethnicity in particular.

    But they make a comparison of poor Black communities with the Gypsies back in Europe. The gist of their comparisons are related to the positive with relation to music, art, knowledge, etc., that is transmitted from generation to generation and the negative on the racism between both in that both are systematically excluded from society in many ways for many generations. They are denied full membership of society and targets of various types of inequalities and violence by both the government and the people.

    They only make approximate comparisons with relation to the poor African American communities and Gypsies, between the U.S. and Europe as they recognize the U.S. was built upon American Indian with the Atlantic slave trade African genocide and African American slavery. I’m not aware that any nation in Europe was built upon the slavery of Gypsies. They speak of the systemic differences, which is why direct comparisons cannot be made–only approximate and pointing out similarities.

    I would argue further that our undocumented communities might be a further comparison of how people here in the U.S. are treated similar to Gypsies back in Europe.

    Nonetheless, good for Madonna.


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