I’m not Roma at all. In fact, I belong to a tribe of people who through happenstance has been born in one of the wealthiest countries in the world of a race which suffers from almost no prejudice at all. But I feel very worried about the international storm of prejudice that seems to be directed towards the Roma at the moment.
I don’t wish to defend the Greek family who may or may not be guilty of having abducted the girl known as ‘Maria’ (with all its Christian connotations). Whether a crime has been committed in this case I have no way of knowing, but I’m pretty sure that crimes have been committed by Roma over time. Just as they have, of course, by white English people such as the Kray twins, Jimmy Savile and Fred West. I don’t think it’s right to condemn a whole race or culture because of the actions of a few individuals.
Of course, there are stereotypes regarding Roma life and one which sticks is a reputation for a kind of rakish, petty criminality. It’s this, of course, that’s directed towards the Roma, but when you consider, for example, the London working class, as celebrated by television series such as Minder and Only Fools and Horses, such behaviour is considered indulgently, even half-approvingly. Why not for the Roma? Why no similarly sympathetic television comedies about a lovable family of roguish gypsies?
History has not been kind to the Roma. They’ve been persecuted by generation after generation: most famously during the holocaust which was very nearly as bad for the Roma population of Europe as it was for the Jews (although the Roma were never granted the status of being the ‘Gypsy Question’ and there was no iconoclastic German composer braying for their blood). In more recent years, they are being further persecuted by marginalisation, bureaucracy and neglect, and this of course is made simpler because there is less perceived value in the survival of an itinerant race.
However, on a longer perspective the Roma have made, in quite a different way, probably as much a positive influence on European society as the Jews (and just as well rewarded by the Nazis). In a time when most people ventured hardly at all from their town or village, gypsy caravans brought trade, vital services (such as tinkers and cobblers), and entertainment in the form of travelling circuses and the like. As these services were for the benefit of the poor, provided by those who were themselves poor and where very little money passed hands, the historical value of the Roma community has been underplayed and mostly forgotten.
And what of the Roma now? The standard view is that the peripatetic way of life that they exemplify is on its last legs and that the Roma’s best course of action is for greater integration in the community of happy house-holders and wage-slaves. But is that received wisdom right? What is so bad about a life of travelling from place to place, led in relative simplicity with few possessions and a tradition of self-reliance? Is there something that wrong about a way of life that fits in so awkwardly with the economic models that we’re being told to follow by big business?
After all, what profits can be made from people who participate on the whole so rarely in modern consumerism and who are a model of how it is possible to be disengaged from the conventional wisdom of the society which surrounds them?
My hope is that the wave of prejudice being fanned by the right-wing press of Europe and those who need very little excuse to discriminate against those whose lives and lifestyles are different from their own will be short-lived and is not part of a growing and menacing trend.