Roma Still Waiting for Their "Brown v. Board of Education"

Roma Still Waiting for Their "Brown v. Board of Education"

Hon.
Ben Nighthorse Campbell
United States
Senate
108th Congress Congress
Second Session Session
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Mr. President, 2 years ago, the United States Helsinki Commission, which I co-chair, held its third hearing on the human rights problems faced by Roma. At that time, we gave particular attention to the barriers Roma face in the field of education. As the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities said in his very helpful report on Roma in OSCE region, “exclusion of Roma extends to every sphere of social life, perhaps nowhere with more far-reaching and harmful effect than in respect of schooling.” In other words, ensuring equal access for Roma in the fields of education is an essential element for their integration in other areas of life. The World Bank and United Nations Development Program have also emphasized, in their reports, that integration in education is an essential ingredient for improving the overall conditions in which Roma live.

Last month, as our own country was commemorating the Supreme Court's historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the European Roma Rights Center issued a report entitled “Stigmata: Segregated Schooling of Roma in Central and Eastern Europe.” This report evaluates practices and policies in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia and describes the most common ways of segregating Romani children from non-Roma: channeling Roma into so-called “special schools” for children with developmental disabilities; the de facto segregation that goes hand-in-hand with Romani ghettos; having mixed population schools where Romani children are segregated into all-Romani classes; and the refusal of some local authorities to enroll Romani children in mainstream schools. The European Roma Rights Center report concludes that, unfortunately, “with the exception of Hungary, concrete government action aimed at desegregating the school system has not been initiated to date.” It is surely not a coincidence that Hungary is also the only country in Europe where the mainstream political parties have started to compete for the Romani vote--both developments which reflect meaningful steps towards the real integration of Roma in that country.

As the European Roma Rights Center notes, segregated schooling is the result of many factors which conspire together--not the least of which is the pernicious stereotype that Romani culture is somehow incompatible with education. This fiction continues to be widely held and disseminated by the media, by government officials and public leaders, and sometimes even by the representatives of respected international organizations. Frankly, this myth needs to be debunked. In reality, before World War II, there was no country in Europe that allowed Roma to attend school and maintain their language and cultural identity at the same time. Formal schooling, by definition, meant forced assimilation.

It is amazing testimony to the strength of Romani culture that--after centuries as a dispersed people in Europe, after slavery in Romania and Moldova, after forced assimilation campaigns, and after the Holocaust--Romani identity has survived. For most Roma in Europe, concentrated in countries that fell behind the Iron Curtain, it is only the context of a post-communist world, a Europe which has now recognized the rights of ethnic and linguistic minorities, that the theoretical opportunity to be educated without having to hide or surrender one's Romani identity is within grasp. Kids like Elvis Hajdar, the Romani-Macedonian computer whiz-kid the Christian Science Monitor profiled in April, embrace this opportunity. For many other Roma, however, educational opportunities remain only distant and only theoretical. And, contrary to popular mythology, it is not Romani culture that holds them back, but crushing poverty and entrenched racism. Education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty and it is no surprise that Romani organizations across Europe have made access to education one of their principle demands.

Moreover, the “Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area,” adopted at the Maastricht Ministerial last December, the OSCE participating states outlined a variety of concrete measures states might undertake to achieve this goal. But desegregation will not just happen on its own. It will take leadership and political will and--as we know from our own experiences after the Brown decision--it may still take many years. The time to get started is now.

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