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How to reduce discrimination: Getting to know the Roma

Poster of child with supposedly “missing” parents (Credit: Post-TV:

[Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post from political scientist Ana Bracic, currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Stanford University Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.  The research on which this post is based can be found here.]

A troubling scandal unfolded in Europe last week.  Normally, most people wouldn’t blink an eye upon seeing an ethnically mixed family.  When it comes to the Roma (commonly known by the disfavored term “Gypsies”), however, many Europeans do notice.  Three blond-haired and blue-eyed children were thus taken into custody from otherwise darker skinned Romani families, one in Greece (see photo above) and two in Ireland, on the suspicion of having been kidnapped.  While it is difficult to imagine this happening to any other combination of ethnicities, the idea that the Roma must have engaged in at least kidnapping if not trafficking came all too easily due to existing stereotypes of Roma.  DNA tests refuted the jumped-to conclusions: all children, even the “blond angel” from Greece, were Roma, and the two Irish were children of the parents from whom they were taken.  The parentage of the Greek girl, taken in by the Greek couple from a Bulgarian family, was also confirmed.

This is not an isolated example of discrimination against the Roma – just in the past few days we’ve read about a Romani girl being pulled off of a school bus in France, to be deported, and about impressively coordinated anti-Roma demonstrations that include what some have even labeled an attempted pogrom in the Czech Republic.  News pieces sometimes mention programs designed to combat social exclusion, or allude to the European Union’s supposed authority as a punishing agent, but they rarely move beyond that to discuss the extent to which different measures actually make life better for the Roma on the ground.

By and large, the countries mentioned in stories on the Roma are either recent or longstanding members of the European Union.  Discrimination faced by the Roma therefore does not tend to be state mandated, but instead stems from personal sentiment.  Roma are not hired because potential employers discriminate against them; classrooms remain segregated because non-Roma parents threaten to take their children elsewhere.  Much of the battle for social inclusion, then, happens at the personal level.

In a recent project, I took a look at two strategies of rights improvement in the context of ground level discrimination against the Roma.  First, I tested the received wisdom that the European Union accession process, a strong incentive-based mechanism of rights change, drastically reduces ground level discrimination against the Roma, but that discrimination then goes back up when the candidate country is admitted to the European Union, and the potential benefit of E.U. membership no longer acts as an incentive.  Second, I tested a norms promotion claim: ground level non-governmental organizing geared toward improving Roma/non-Roma relations that engages Roma as well as non-Roma helps reduce discrimination.  The study spanned three towns, Murska Sobota and Novo mesto in Slovenia (an European Union member since 2004) and Čakovec in Croatia (at the height of the European Union accession process at the time of investigation), and included over 600 subjects.

Envelopes containing money used as part of trust game (Credit: Ana Bracic/The Monkey Cage) Envelopes containing money used as part of trust game (Credit: Ana Bracic/The Monkey Cage)

I measured discrimination against the Roma through trust games played with modest amounts of money that were nonetheless significant to the participants. Such games have proved to be effective in revealing discrimination in a wide variety of field settings, and they were particularly appropriate in this context because the Roma are widely stereotyped as cheaters and thieves.  In the trust games the non-Roma subjects were randomly paired with Roma or non-Roma partners; my primary interest was in comparing the way non-Roma subjects behaved when partnered with a Roma to the way they behaved when partnered with a non-Roma.

Unexpectedly, I found that the European Union accession process did not appear to reduce discrimination on the ground to the point where it was lower than that in an older European Union member.  Instead, my findings suggested that inclusive ground level organizing aimed at improving relations between Roma and non-Roma helped reduce discrimination.

Practically, this suggests that Roma/non-Roma interaction through activities that soften the public mood and reduce inter-group anxiety, like concerts, theater and dance classes, and parties, is beneficial.  Of course, as the sight of the girl with the parents to whom she bears little superficial resemblance inspires the fallacious and offensive conclusion that “she doesn’t look Roma so she cannot be their child,” it becomes clear that even something as simple as a concert might be a challenge for some communities.  But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried.



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John Sides · October 29, 2013

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