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Letter to the Editor: Attitudes to Roma: Racism against frustration

Readers ask if Slovak society will ever make room for Romanies, or take action against racists.
photo: Spectator archives

Dear Editor,

I have followed the discussion among your readers on the Roma question with great interest. It seems to me that many of the feelings expressed are a mixture of racism and frustration.

The 'Roma problem' has been around for generations. The communists' efforts to assimilate the Roma failed. Now, people are more concerned with building a healthy economy and a functioning democracy. Meanwhile, the Roma population multiplies and their living conditions worsen.

I sometimes wonder at the irony of it all. Imagine that you are a poor, uneducated Romany who lives in a ghetto. You have no job skills except manual ones. No one wants to hire you, and the only way to get money legally is to rely on family benefits and welfare. To get the former, you must produce children. If the state cuts back on other social benefits, you must produce more children to make up the difference. If you still can't make ends meet, you must resort to sneaking into gardens or markets and stealing food.

Naturally, some of the behaviour the Roma are forced to resort to does not endear them to the rest of society. But it was well-educated white people who thought up this crazy system in the first place. What about changing the laws so children are no longer a source of income?

I grew up in Montana during the 1960's, an era of great racial discrimination. Fifteen miles from my hometown there is a large Indian reservation. Culturally, economically and socially, Native Americans share many similarities with the Roma. Not least is the fact that white people designed the system they live in - the reservations they inhabit, where there are no jobs, the alcohol they drink which is sold to them by whites.

I learned to be far more sensitive towards the plight of Native Americans during my senior year of high school, during a two-week programme in Indian studies. It is a pity that the same kind of opportunities are not offered to white Slovaks to learn about the Roma.

My wife and I adopted our children from India. I remember that soon after we arrived in Slovakia, our children were chasing each other around in front of us. One lady made some remark about dirty Gypsies. We told her that we were American, and that our children had been born in Calcutta. She looked at them again, and said "Oh, aren't they cute!"

We have since adapted to people giving nasty looks to our kids, but our children are still afraid to go some places by themselves because they are afraid of how people will react to them. I have come to understand vicariously through my children how many Roma feel.

Like many of my friends, I worry about Slovak society 30 years from now. If the approach to Slovak Roma does not change, the country is on the path towards big problems. The social welfare system will continue to encourage irresponsible behaviour on the part of the Roma. If no effort is made to defuse the tension, some day it will explode.

Slovak society cannot afford to throw up its hands in despair. It needs to look at how other societies have managed similar issues, and it needs to make changes soon.

Bill Baker

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