By Erick Boone,
Max Kampelman Fellow
While the OSCE participating States have committed to promoting tolerance and protecting the rights of diverse communities, the most ardent advocacy often is done by individuals who are members of those groups. Their activism often leads to changes that benefit not only the disenfranchised but also society at large.
The United States has a rich history of demonstrating for civil rights and social recognition. The 20th century alone saw the birth of a multitude of social movements, including the civil rights movement organized by the African-American community to end racial discrimination and secure equal rights under the law.
African-Americans have faced centuries of injustice in the forms of slavery, segregation, brutality, and discrimination. The racial hierarchy in the U.S. was bolstered by legislation that either ignored discrimination or condoned it. Still, African-Americans resisted subjugation, leading boycotts, protests, and sit-ins. They formed alliances that brought attention to issues and created civil society organizations that pushed for change. Community leaders also campaigned for elected office to change the system from within. Their efforts led to reforms in law that protected the rights of African-Americans throughout the United States. Thanks to the contributions of activists, extraordinary social progress was made.
The fight for social equality continues to this day. In the United States, a new generation of activists contribute to the struggle. Yet, the fight against injustice is transnational—on the other side of the Atlantic, another group whose historical experiences share striking similarities with those of the African-American community is also engaged in a struggle for civil rights.
The Roma Community
Roma, the largest ethnic minority group in Europe, migrated from Northern India nearly 1000 years ago. Romani communities’ migration would eventually bring them to Europe, arriving first in Southeastern Europe and then Western Europe.
Given the vast geographic spread of the Roma, the various European societies in which they settled differed greatly. The ways in which those societies responded to Romani settlement also differed. The one constant, however, was the mistreatment of Romani communities.
For example, in what is present-day Romania, the local rulers as well as members of the monastery and aristocracy forced the Roma into slavery during the 14th century. Romani people worked as servants for the church and the state, with little more than the right to life. Romani men and women were made to work as domestic servants, blacksmiths, ironmongers, and a host of other professions. Roma slaves were seen as property that could be punished or sold as their masters saw fit. After nearly 400 years, Romania finally outlawed slavery in 1855.
In other parts of Europe, Roma faced discrimination driven by beliefs of their racial inferiority. When the Nazi party took power in Germany, they turned their sights on addressing the so-called “Gypsy problem.” This began with discriminatory laws that targeted the Roma and ended with the systematic slaughter of Romani men, women, and children throughout Europe. An estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Roma were murdered during the Holocaust, representing 25 percent of the continent’s Roma population.
Today, Roma still face stark inequalities. The European Commission launched infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic in 2014, Slovakia in 2015, and Hungary in 2016 for discriminating against Roma in their educational systems. In all three countries, Roma are channeled into almost completely separate schools and classrooms—with disturbing parallels to the segregation African-Americans faced for decades.
A Cause for Collaboration
Comparisons between the struggles of African-Americans and the Roma are not new.
Romanian activists first drew parallels in the 19th century when Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book depicting the harsh realities of slavery in the United States, was translated into Romanian. Its criticism of slavery helped energize the campaign to abolish slavery in Romania.
This shared historical experience, along with several others, is the basis on which many African-American and Roma activists form modern partnerships. These partnerships have expanded thanks to the efforts of both individuals and organizations.
For example, in 1995 in the town of Szentendre, Hungary, former U.S. civil rights activist Michael Simmons organized what would come to be known as the Szentendre Exchange. African-American Veterans of the U.S. civil rights movement met with Romani activists to discuss their efforts to further civil rights in their respective communities. Each group was invited to share stories of victories, challenges, and the methods that were the most successful.
In 2018, Harvard’s Center for Health and Human Rights hosted a similar event for its annual celebration of International Roma Day. The event featured a panel discussion titled, “Alone Together: Strength and Solidarity between the Roma and African-American Communities.” Margareta Matache, leading Roma rights activist, and Cornel West, renowned political philosopher, served as speakers on the panel. The two noted that with increased solidarity and cooperation, African-American and Roma advocates can learn from one another and achieve greater change.
Ivan Ivanov, the executive director of the European Roma Information Office, also cites the U.S. civil rights movement as an inspiration for his work. Ivanov, who studied international human rights law at Columbia University, heads an organization that focuses on anti-discrimination policies in the fields of education, employment, healthcare and housing.
The OSCE has facilitated dialogue through its Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Larry Olomoefe, former ODIHR Adviser on Combating Racism and Xenophobia, has worked with Roma to advance their rights and lead workshops on civil disobedience and political activism. Olomoefe notes that a component of these seminars entails teaching the history of protests like those led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and determining how it relates to the issues the Roma face today.
Helsinki Commission efforts build on this history of exchange and collaboration. Helsinki Commission staff invited Soraya Post and Romeo Franz, two Roma Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), to participate in congressional events on Roma and meet with U.S. government officials and civil society. This included meeting with members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus and a visit to Howard University in Washington, D.C. The two learned of the role that Howard University and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have had in supporting African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights.
The campaign for greater civil protections for Roma has seen moderate success due in large part to the work of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), a strategic law organization comprised of human rights lawyers and activists inspired by the NAACP’s legal victories during the U.S. civil rights movement.
The ERRC enjoyed a major victory in 2007 when the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the Czech Republic for its practice of placing Romani children in separate classrooms under the guise of special education.
Dubbed “Europe’s Brown v. Board of Education” after the seminal court ruling that outlawed de jure segregation in the United States, the “Ostrava Case” outlawed this form of school segregation and paved the way for future desegregation cases.
The ERRC has achieved similar success in cases involving illegal deportations of Roma, disparities in access to clean water, and police brutality.
The Helsinki Commission has supported Roma and minority rights since its inception. It has advocated for the recognition of the enslavement and genocide of Roma. Helsinki Commissioners have also spoken out against the systemic inequities that many Romani communities still face. Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), the commission’s first African-American chair, has frequently highlighted the importance of International Roma Day and, along with other Helsinki Commission leaders, in 2019 introduced a resolution celebrating the contributions of Romani Americans.
Despite these victories, Roma continue to face discrimination and prejudice. A 2015 study found that an average of one out of five Europeans would feel “completely uncomfortable” working with a Roma colleague. In some countries that number rose to 50 percent. Still, promoting tolerance can only be achieved through a concerted effort.
Although government support is necessary to create substantive change, it is not enough. The most successful campaigns for social change occur when governmental institutions form meaningful partnerships with civil society organizations.
The grassroots organizations that found success during civil rights movements were bolstered by progressive legislation and generous funding from the private and public sector. Similar partnerships can be formed to support the work of not only the organizations that focus on Roma issues but also those who seek to collaborate. The history of African-American and Roma collaboration suggests that there are possibly shared solutions to be gained out of a shared experience.