A Familiar Injustice

By | Oct 18, 2010

by Ben Goldberg

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  If that’s the case, Italy and France’s recent treatment of Roma (aka gypsies) should give us pause.

Originally from South Asia, the Roma are a nomadic people who have settled all across Europe.  Often linked to crime, the Roma have a long history of being persecuted.  In the Holocaust, they suffered proportional losses greater than any ethnic group besides the Jews.

65 years later, they are being persecuted once again.

France has deported more than 1,000 Roma to Bulgaria and Romania, linking the ethnic group to high incidents of crime. Despite condemnation from Human Rights watchdog groups, the Italian city of Milan quickly followed suit, demolishing and bulldozing several Roma camps.  Meanwhile, the Serbian government has forcefully evicted Roma gypsies from their homes in Belgrade, demolishing the houses while the families looked on. Most of the Roma in Belgrade came only after being expelled from other parts of Europe.

Anti-immigration sentiment is common, and it remains a hot button issue in America, across Europe, and around the world. But the unabashedly racist rhetoric surrounding the expulsion raises a big red flag.

“These are dark-skinned people, not Europeans like you and me,” said Riccardo De Corato, Milan’s vice mayor and a member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling party.  He is in charge of ridding Milan of the Roma camps.

Corato’s blatant racism is a stark reminder of how quickly a seemingly tolerant nation can change course, a reminder with which Jews, in particular, can identify.  While expulsion is a far cry from the mass extermination of a people, it’s worrying to see such overt prejudice toward an ethnic group based on a mix of political maneuvering and shady logic. Those in power blame a convenient scapegoat—in this case the Roma—as a means of “doing something” about difficult or intractable problems.

The underlying reason may be political but the racism and the intolerance that it breeds are at the heart of the issue.  Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s troubles. De Corato blames crime on the gypsies.  “Many of them are criminals,” he told the Post. “They prostitute their own women and children.”

De Corato isn’t the only one who feels this way. As one news source puts it, “many Europeans view Roma as swindlers, social welfare system abusers, and people living parasitical lives on the shoulders of society.”

One blogger notes that this recent surge of anti-immigration in Europe coincides with a wave of anti-Islam sentiment in Europe, as manifested in France’s decisions to ban burqas and the Dutch government’s plans to do the same.

“There is a worrying trend in Europe in which we are seeing the embrace of populist policies. They are creating a new climate of intolerance in Europe with movements in some countries now openly hostile to ethnic minorities and migrants,” Benjamin Ward, the Europe deputy director for Human Rights Watch in London, told The Washington Post.

Such intolerance is worrying.  After his “dark skin” remark, De Corato added: “Our final goal is to have zero Gypsy camps in Milan.”

Sounds eerily familiar.

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