Title

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The Shared Experiences of African-American and Roma Communities
A Cause for Collaboration
Thursday, August 06, 2020

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.  

Progress

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.

Challenges

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.

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(Bravo!) Parliamentarians and Commissioners Discuss Europe’s Changing Landscape and Brexit #MovetheCouch: Transatlantic Leaders Convene in Brussels 2012 Diversity, Inclusion, and U.S. Foreign Policy Wisdom Session 2009 Black European Summit: Transatlantic Dialogue on Political Inclusion Legislative Initiatives 2021 Chairman Hastings Introduces Federal Jobs Act to Increase Diversity, Ensure Access to Federal Jobs for All Americans Chairman Hastings Introduces Initiatives to Promote Rights and Recognize Achievements of People of African Descent  Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Foster Shared Values, Restore Faith in Democratic Institutions on Both Sides of the Atlantic   2020 Chairman Hastings, Helsinki Commissioners Moore, Cleaver, and Veasey Lead Call for Comprehensive Action to Address Anti-Black Racism Abroad Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Strengthen Ties with U.S. Allies, Support Visionary Leadership on Both Sides of the Atlantic (H.R. 6239)   Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce (H.R. 6240) 2019 Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Protect and Promote Rights of People of African Descent Worldwide (H.R. 1877) Chairman Hastings Recognizes Black European Fight for Inclusion (H.R. 256) National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2019 (S. 497) Hastings, Wicker, Watkins, and Cardin Introduce Resolutions Celebrating Romani American Heritage (H.R. 292 and S. 141) Articles, Reports, and News 2020 The Future of American Diplomacy OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting Examines Intolerance and Discrimination during Pandemic The Shared Experiences of African-American and Roma Communities Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic 2019 On the Road to Inclusion Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future Inclusive Leadership Summit 2018 Fighting Racism and Xenophobia Against People of African Descent The OSCE and Roma 2017 Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2017 Workshop Commissioner and Special Representative Ben Cardin Counters Anti-Semitism and Promotes Diversity Report of U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, 2017 Winter Meeting Romani Political Participation Key to Change 2014 Diversity on the Rise 2012 Helsinki Commission Welcomes Unveiling of Berlin Memorial for Romani Genocide Victims 2010 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference OSCE Holds Conference in Astana on Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Copenhagen Anniversary Conference U.S. Commission Denounces France’s Roma Evictions The Burqa Ban and the Erosion of Human Rights 2009 Black European Summit International Roma Day Bracketed by Rising Extremism and Violence 2008 Report on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Review of the US and Seventh Annual Meeting of the UN Working Group on People of African Descent Racism and Xenophobia: The Role of Governments in Addressing Continuing Challenges Italian Fingerprinting Targeting Romani Communities Triggers Protests; OSCE Pledges Fact-Finding Commission Staff Participates in Conference on Roma; Greece Slated to Serve as OSCE Chair in 2009 Iraq Refugee Crisis: The Calm Before the Storm? 2007 Continuing the Fight: Combating Intolerance and Discrimination Against Muslims Sustaining the Fight: Combating Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Intolerance within the OSCE 2006 Accountability and Impunity: Investigations Into Sterilization Without Informed Consent in the Czech Republic and Slovakia 1996 Ex Post Facto Problems of the Czech Citizenship Law Statements and Speeches 2020 Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency Statement at the Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Bureau Chairman Hastings, Rep. Meeks Issue Statement on Foreign Affairs Funding for Diversity and Global Anti-Racism Programs Chairman Hastings Marks International Roma Day, Notes Consequences of Systemic Racism Exposed by Pandemic 2019 Chairman Hastings Welcomes Release of Country Reports on Human Rights Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Mob Attacks on Roma in Europe 2015 Helsinki Commission Calls for Renewed Commitment to Defending Human Rights of Roma 2014 Statement from Helsinki Commission Chair on the Grand Jury Decision in the Michael Brown Shooting Case U.S. Helsinki Commission Commemorates Romani Revolt at Auschwitz, Deportation oh Hungarian Jews 2012 Roma Bridge Building 2011 Senator Cardin’s Response to Rep. King’s U.S. Anti-Muslim Hearings Attacks in Hungary and the Czech Republic 2010 Helsinki Commission Statement on International Human Rights Day Anti-Roma Actions Erupt in France, Europe 2009 Helsinki Commissioners Condemn Violence Against Roma U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Hastings Condemn Turkish Government Destruction of nearly 1,000-year-old Roma Neighborhood Helsinki Commission Applauds Unveiling of Romania Holocaust Monument Slovak Romani Sterilization Victims Win Damages U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Hastings Release Statement on Plight of Roma 2008 Helsinki Commission Welcomes Groundbreaking of Romani Memorial in Berlin U.S. Helsinki Commission Urges Respect for Human Rights of Roma Teach About the Genocide of Roma Recognizing Europe’s Black Population 2007 Remarks at the OSCE Conference on Combating Discrimination and Promoting Mutual Respect and Understanding 2005 Racist Manifestations in Romania Deserve Government Response The Decade of Roma Inclusion 2004 Mass Murder of Roma at Auschwitz Sixty Years Ago Roma Still Waiting for Their “Brown V. Board of Education” 2003 Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area Political Participation and Leadership Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference (TMPLC) Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2019 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2018 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2017 Legislators Roundtable "Equity and Inclusion Policies for a Changing World" 2016 Second Annual Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2011 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2010 Black European Summit: Transatlantic Dialogue on Political Inclusion 2009  Black European Summitt Report 2009 Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network Workshop 2019  TILN Leading Through Change 2019 Transatlantic Inclusive Leaders Network Workshop 2018 TILN Stregthening Our Democracies Through Inclusive Leadership 2018 Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) Workshop 2017  #MovetheCouch: Transatlantic Leaders Convene in Brussels 2017 Five Years of the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2016 TILN Fifth Anniversary: Celebrating Five Years and Looking Toward the Future TILN Workshop 2015 TILN Workshop 2014 TILN Workshop 2012-2013 TILN Conference U.S. State Department Remarks 2012 OSCE/ODHIR​ Romani Political Participation Key to Change Advancing Empowerment, Equity, and Human Rights Article Advancing Empowerment, Equity, and Human Rights Report  GMF/DOD Mission Critical: Inclusive Leadership for the Security Sector 2017 Mission Critical: Diversity and Inclusion Best Practices for Military 2013 “Helsinki on the Hill” Podcast Series 2020 Communities at Risk The Roma 2019 Equitable and Inclusive Democracies

  • Podcast: The Roma

    Concentrated in post-communist Central and Southern Europe, Roma are the largest ethnic minority in Europe. Roma have historically faced persecution and were the victims of genocide during World War II. In post-communist countries, Roma have suffered disproportionately in the transition to market economies, in part due to endemic racism and discrimination. Ahead of International Roma Day on April 8, Margareta (Magda) Matache, Director of the Roma Program at Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, joins Helsinki Commission Counsel for International Law Erika Schlager to discuss the state of Roma rights in Europe, as well as resolutions introduced by Helsinki Commission leaders to celebrate Romani American heritage. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 10 | The Roma

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