The French philosopher Michel Foucault once said that the way those with most power talk about those with least power always shines new light on the nature of power. We have learned a lot about power in the last week.
On 11 November, Sheffield Brightside MP and former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett claimed that the influx of central European Roma migrants into the Park Hall area of his constituency was causing so much friction there could be riots. He blamed the Romani migrants. He said:
“We have got to change the behaviour and the culture of the incoming community, the Roma community, because there’s going to be an explosion otherwise. We all know that...
“We’ve got to be tough and robust in saying to people you are not in a downtrodden village or woodland, because many of them don’t even live in areas where there are toilets or refuse collection facilities. You are not there any more, you are here — and you’ve got to adhere to our standards, and to our way of behaving, and if you do then you’ll get a welcome and people will support you.”
A day later Nick Clegg (also a Sheffield MP) weighed in. “There is a real dilemma... when you get communities coming into a part of our country and then they behave in a way that people find quite difficult to accept... They behave in a way that people find sometimes intimidating, sometimes offensive.”
For Blunkett, all Romani people “know no better”. They probably like living in a place with no toilets or refuse collection; because they don’t have “our standards”, they must have no standards. If Blunkett was more honest he would have said something like “they live like animals”. That is certainly what he meant. If he was trying to avoid a charge of racism, he failed.
What does Clegg mean by “offensive”? The Guardian did a responsible investigation into inter-community relations in Park Hall and the only substantiated complaint they found was than Romani people sometimes stand around chatting on street corners in summer time. Is that what Clegg meant by “offensive”? Really?
What is offensive is these racist and reductive party political broadsides. (The exchange was party political: Blunkett attacked the government for cutting New Labour’s Migration Impact Fund and Clegg whined that a rise in migrant population was “not our fault”.)
Anti-Roma racism, like any other form of racism, is based on ingrained ignorance. In the case of the Roma, it is ignorance generated by years of official, socially-accepted systematic persecution.
There are ten million Romani and gypsy people in Europe. There are many sub-groups. Romani communities are both settled and nomadic. They live in both urban and rural areas, and not just the “downtrodden villages”. In the UK many gypsies are Irish Travellers, a distinct ethnic group.
Everywhere Romani and gypsy people are some of the most marginalised and systematically impoverished people.
The Roma people have suffered enslavement by landowners (up to the 1850s); near physical annihilation by the Nazis; vicious discrimination under Stalinism and under the Eastern and central European governments which followed Stalinism.
Today, despite anti-discrimination policy in the European Union, anti-Roma racism is getting worse. This lies behind the numbers of Roma migrants coming to the UK — an estimated 200,000 in the last few years.
In Slovakia, where many of Sheffield’s Roma migrants come from, Roma people face all the worst forms of exclusion, political hostility and hate crime.
In Slovakia 70% of Roma people are unemployed (compared to 33% of the total population); a hugely disproportionate numbers of Romani children are placed in special and segregated education; 40% of Romani people live in segregated and non-standard forms of housing for whom the threat of eviction is ever-present. Both private landowners and local authorities demolish homes, at the instigation of other local residents or under the premise that these homes can be classified as “waste dumps”.
In recent years there has been a rise in racially-motivated violent attacks against Roma. This has been stirred up by anti-Roma marches and protests — a dozen or so in the last two years.
Many local politicians. just like Blunkett and Clegg, help to stir up local hostility. In January 2012 the mayor of Zlaté Moravce said “... we do order in the city and we will force to leave those who do not work and are parasites on us whites... I promise you, you will have to work and for work you will be paid... no one will be parasites on us and the others... thank you to all citizens... and declare fight against discrimination of whites in the city and whites in this country...”
That vile message was a few grades up on Blunkett and Clegg in its hatred against Roma but on a par with the comments that Blunkett’s outburst inspired in Daily Express hack Leo McKinstry.
Commenting on the false report that a Roma couple had tried to sell their baby to another Park Hall chip shop owner, McKinstry said: “[this] depraved conduct is part of the world created by the ideology of multiculturalism, where the values of traditional civilisation are constantly undermined.”
Incoherent it may be, but to be taken seriously as part of the Express’s campaign against Romania and Bulgarian citizens being able to come to the UK when restrictions are lifted in January 2014.
General anti-migrant sentiment is also behind Blunkett’s tirade. He and another Labour ex-Home Secretary, Jack Straw, have said Labour made a mistake in accepting EU citizens would be allowed to work in the UK. They want Miliband to be more upfront anti-migrant.
What is it that both “respectable politicians” and street-fighting neo-Nazis gangs hate about the Roma?
They hate the fact that this persecuted people do what any persecuted people would do — stick together, mistrust authority and hold onto their own culture. For bigots the only culture that Roma and gypsy people have is criminality. For others the Roma are an “exotic” people (e.g. the sympathetic but distorted view of Irish travellers in “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”).
In the UK racism against Roma migrants builds on centuries of officially sanctioned indigenous prejudice. It continues. This government promotes strong action against the “illegal” sites of travellers and gypsies (in the context of a huge lack of legal sites).
When politicians like Blunkett and Clegg demand “integration” they are putting the boot into the powerless. A socialist idea of “integration” is radically different.
We want every Romani child to go to school and to stay in education. We deplore the high proportion of traveller, gypsy and Roma children who are “missing” from education. If good healthcare, social housing and jobs were available to all, there would be a lot more equality and “integration”, that is, mutual respect and social solidarity between new migrant and “indigenous” communities would naturally follow.
The politicians who have overseen the decimation and privatisation of services are really not interested in that.
The left has to make it matter of urgency to challenge the “acceptability” of anti-Roma racism, from politicians, from the press. If we do not, racism, anti-migrant prejudice and divisive propaganda from the politically powerful will continue to rise.
Solidarity with all migrants. Build solid campaigns to reverse the cuts. Fight anti-Roma racism!