A COLOUR-blind society needs colour-blind laws. This is the major argument used by opponents of the affirmative action clause of the Anti-Discrimination Act. The Slovak Constitutional Court, it would seem, agrees. On October 18, it judged the Act's affirmative action clause to be at odds with the country's constitution.
As a result, the state's help for the Roma community depends on the nature and the goodwill of the government and not the existence of a law.
Affirmative action in the United States has been defined as programmes to overcome the effects of past societal discrimination by allocating jobs and resources to members of specific groups, such as minorities and women.
Certainly, the temporary balancing strategies have evoked fiery discussion in the US over how long these strategies should be applied and at what point the playing field becomes level.
The European Union has encouraged its new members to help their disadvantaged groups of citizens, and the European parliament called on all EU countries with a significant Roma minority to fight against unjust exclusion and improve the Roma's access to education.
Slovak politicians and media use the expression "positive discrimination", which has a rather negative connotation in this society. Slovaks are quick to refer to strategies that the Communist regime applied to the Roma community when the regime was in denial about their problems, and enforced the Roma's dependence on social aid and programmes through artificial employment schemes.
The majority of Slovaks deny the existence of discrimination against minorities in their society.
Though the general awareness of these issues has largely improved, sociologists and human rights activists say that latent racism continues to slumber under the bedclothes of the new EU member state.
"On one hand, there are people who worry that a certain group will enjoy some advantages based on ethnicity and race, but on the other hand, they do not seem to be disturbed by the fact that there have been marginalized groups in Slovakia for many years. One huge group of citizens [Roma] lives in unbelievably negative conditions. It seems that this does not bother many or they are not willing to see that their bad conditions are a result of discrimination based on ethnicity," cabinet appointee for the Roma community Klára Orgovánová told The Slovak Spectator.
According to Orgovánová, the opponents of affirmative action should observe that Roma children are often placed in separate classrooms, sometimes even in segregated parts of the school building, which is a result of discrimination.
The cabinet appointee stresses that the affirmative action and balancing strategies are temporary tools designed to help the disadvantaged groups to climb to the level of other citizens.
International organizations, including the United Nations Development Programme, have been warning about the problems of Roma exclusion.
Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations Kálmán Mizsei said last year in an interview with The Slovak Spectator, "The Roma population of Slovakia is so much behind the mainstream, and it is so much a target of prejudices, that its problems cannot be solved exclusively on the basis of the civil principle [that all people are equal]."
However, a poll by the Institute for Public Affairs sent out a positive message when showing that over 85 percent of Slovaks agreed with the anti-discrimination act.
"Support for the anti-discrimination law is so universal that different opinions between social-demographic groups are not apparent," the institute's analysis read.
To answer the question of whether the playing field in Slovakia is level, one perhaps should ask oneself some questions: How many Roma physicians have I seen over the past couple of years? How many Roma reporters do I see on television? How many Roma teachers work at my children's school? How many Roma politicians are there in parliament?
These are not exactly colour-blind questions, I agree, but they do show an urgent need to create diversity in education and public life.
Nevertheless, the positive news remains that the cancellation of the clause will not in fact threaten the projects that the Slovak cabinet started for the Roma community in 2003, according to Orgovánová.
Slovak society has been through many impressive changes. There have been some painful reforms adopted, and people have also reformed their minds.
Besides, the problems of the Roma community are not Slovakia's alone. It is a complex European problem to which the EU should not turn a blind eye.
Fighting Roma stereotypes is a Herculean task, and will require the active engagement of the Roma themselves. However, many Slovak entertainers still find it completely normal to entertain the public on primetime television with Roma jokes. These serve simply to reinforce the stereotypes.
Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic says that we cannot cure discrimination with discrimination. Let us trust that he knows of some other remedy.
By Beata Balogová
24. Oct 2005 at 0:00