Recognizing Roma

Akdeniz University project

Akdeniz University project, grades 5-7

A remarkable, but little noticed event was reported on April 7 in the NY Times (with limited coverage elsewhere). Rick Gladstone’s, ‘Roma poisoned at U.N. camps in Kosovo may get apology and compensation‘ relates the findings of a human rights advisory panel of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo. The panel found that the mission failed to protect Roma families sent to camps after war broke out in 1998 between Serbia and Albanian separatists.

Hundreds of Roma were placed in three camps in Mitrovica, Kosovo, after ethnic Albanians had seized their homes. The camps were within 200 yards of enormous piles of industrial waste from a lead-smelting factory. Soon after the camps were set up, many Roma died from lead poisoning. Others suffered stunted growth, irreversible brain and nerve damage, suppression of the immune system, anemia and renal failure. There were associated speech, language, and behavioral problems. Some of this is described in the film Gypsy Blood: The Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian IDPs of Mitrovica, Kosovo (2005).

Turgut Reis school

Turgut Reis school

The panel’s findings are significant in two ways. First, the U.N. rarely apologizes for anything, often denying allegations or asserting diplomatic immunity. Forced to enter difficult situations with limited resources, it is understandable that mistakes can be made. But even as the organization of last resort, it is important for it to acknowledge errors and where possible provide remedies. That’s a necessary first step before encouraging member countries to do likewise.

Perhaps more significantly, the finding recognizes a harm done to Roma people, one in a long series over many centuries. During the Second World War, the Nazis exterminated hundreds of thousands of Roma. This was the Baro Porrajmos, or Great Devouring. After the war Roma experienced killings, forced sterilization, segregation, racial discrimination, evictions, and extreme poverty.

Roma are widely misunderstood. People who would never say something similar about other groups often casually offer ignorant and offensive comments about Roma people. They are seen by many as rootless (“gypsies”). It’s true that they are widely dispersed, but most are settled, or would choose to be if they could find work. They are seen as unwilling to participate, even though as with any group, some assimilate well to dominant lifestyles while others maintain distinctive ways. It’s a final insult that they are widely blamed for petty crimes with little evidence other than an often mistaken ethnic identification. (And yes, they do commit some crimes, just as do members of any group.)

My own experience with Roma people has been limited. There were Roma in Illinois, especially in the southern areas. I met Roma people during a year in Ireland. Amongst a large number of immigrants, they were often misidentified based on quick judgements about behavior. I’ve met Roma in the US and in various other countries in Europe. I learned about librarians in Bucharest working with Roma communities. I visited “Roma schools” in Turkey. I wouldn’t pretend to any great personal knowledge, but what I have experienced loudly confirms what I’ve read from thoughtful sources, e.g., The Roma and open society or Dimitrina Petrova’s ‘The Roma: Between a myth and the future.’

To take just one example: The Turgut Reis middle school in Çanakkale, Turkey (see photos above) is set in the midst of a 600-year old Roma community. To residents of the neighborhood, the Turks, Arabs, Europeans, and so on are the itinerant ones. Students in the school are bright, energetic, focused on sports, music, and each other They’re sometimes unruly, but fun to be with. They fit well to my stereotype of middle school students .

The needs of the Turgut Reis community are familiar in other urban settings–job opportunity, education, affordable housing, and overcoming racism. The history of the people undoubtedly shapes their situation today, but that situation is not determined by being Roma. Attaching a label, such as “Roma,” may provide a starting point for conversation, but it ultimately tells us little about any individual.

I’m glad that the U.N. panel found a failure to comply with the applicable human rights standards in the Kosovo camps. It also urged a public apology and payment of adequate compensation. I hope that doing so nurtures the growth of a greater understanding of a complex and fascinating culture.


The New Jim Crow

US incarceration timeline

US incarceration timeline

In his now classic analysis of the criminal justice system (The Crime of Punishment, 1966), Karl Menninger wrote, “I suspect that all the crimes committed by all the jailed criminals do not equal in total social damage that of the crimes committed against them.” That was at a time when the number of people in the US who were in jail or prison amounted to around 300,000. Today, that number is well over two million. The US has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, well ahead of the #2 jailer, Russia, or that of many regimes considered to be dictatorships, police states, backward regimes, failed states, or otherwise democracy-challenged.

In a piece originally published in and recently updated for TomDispatch, “The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American UndercasteMichelle Alexander writes,

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow

If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

I just finished reading her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010), which piles on the stunning and depressing statistics. But the book does much more than to amplify a sorry state of affairs that most of us know about, but rarely talk about. Several points came through strongly for me:

  • Through actual case stories, the book shows what these numbers mean for the felons for life, their families, their communities, and our democracy. In many cases the people so labeled are innocent, coerced into a plea bargain, or at most convicted of a minor crime.
  • Those who subsequently become subject to legalized second-class citizenship are disproportionately African American. Large numbers are convicted of drug crimes, even while their White counterparts are bigger users and sellers of drugs.
  • The mechanism by which this happens is a maze of laws and court rulings, which have severely compromised civil rights for all of us, even though their impact is primarily on people of color. One more item was added to the maze this week, when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that correctional officials may without cause, strip-search a person arrested for the most minor offense. Albert W. Florence was strip-searched twice after being wrongly detained over a traffic fine. Florence said at the time, “It was humiliating. It made me feel less than a man. It made me feel not better than an animal.”
  • The interlocking system including bias, laws, police procedures, courts, prison industry jobs and profits, has created a shameful justice system, far worse than the one lamented by Menninger.
Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander

Alexander says that she had several specific audiences in mind for the book. One is “people who care deeply about racial justice, but who for any number of reasons do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration. In other words, I’m writing this book for people like me, the person I was 10 years ago.” Another was for people “lacked the facts and data to back up their claims” about how the criminal justice system was operating as a third mode of racial caste making (following first slavery, then Jim Crow). I felt I fit in both of those camps, and fortunately not in the third, that of people trapped in the system.

Following her work on an ACLU racial justice project, Alexander says “I had come to suspect that I was wrong about the criminal justice system. It was not just another institution infected with racial bias but rather a different beast entirely…Quite belatedly, I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”

Coming to appreciate that system in a deeper way makes the book powerful for me. It doesn’t in any way try to excuse crime, or to lay the blame for it on lack of employment, poor education, or inadequate housing, as many liberals might do. Nor does it link the injustice of the system to individual bias per se. Furthermore, it debunks accounts of individual responsibility, moral failure, or familial inadequacy as some conservatives might propose. Instead, it shows how the system operates, how it developed and grew, and why it will be so hard to change. Yes, better Supreme Court justices matter, but they won’t dismantle the system. Affirmative action is helpful, but it’s far from a solution. All of those explanations for crime and incarceration matter, too, but they’re not the central narrative.

The book is disturbing, and depressing at times. It cannot be said to end on a happy note, but in the last section, “All of Us or None,” there is at least a vision of what could make a difference. Alexander calls for a conversation on race in which “us” means “all of us,” or as Martin Luther King said, that a shift was needed from civil rights (interpreted simply as rights for those who are dispossesed) to human rights.

This means, among other things that

Whites should demonstrate that their silence in the drug war cannot be bought by tacit assurances that their sons and daughters will not be rounded up en masse and locked away. Whites should prove their commitment to dismantling not only mass incarceration, but all of the structures of racial inequality that guarantee for whites the resilience of white privilege. (p. 244)

The book closes with an excerpt from James Baldwins’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time. That entire letter is worth reading and re-reading many times, but I’ll just end here with a small excerpt from that excerpt:

this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…It is the innocence which constitutes the crime…They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it…those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality…And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.  For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.

US suppresses minimum wage in Haiti, and more

The release of 1,918 Haiti-related diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks this summer reveals details of US involvement in Haiti from 2003 to present. Unfortunately, the cables support the historical pattern, just adding in disturbing details. If there is any good news here, it’s of a rare example of responsible journalism. The Nation is collaborating with the Haitian weekly newspaper Haïti Liberté on a series of groundbreaking articles about US and UN policy toward Haiti, which are based on those cables.

Revolution in Saint Domingue

Revolution in Saint Domingue

The pattern goes back at least to the earliest days of the 19th century, when President George Washington, a slave owner, had Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson grant the first significant foreign aid of the United States to the slave owners in Haiti in a failed effort to suppress the slave revolution there. Following the success of that revolution, the US enforced a diplomatic and trade embargo against Haiti until 1862. From 1915 to 1934 the U.S. imposed a military occupation ostensibly to stabilize the country and keep out Europeans, but also to shape Haiti into a profitable neo-colony.

As popular resistance to occupation grew, the U.S. withdrew and shifted its support from 1957 to 1986 to the fascist Duvaliers, father and son, and their Tonton Macoutes paramilitaries. After suffering from years of bloody military coups and massacres of protesters, Haiti elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide by a landslide in 1990. Aristide called the mass movement that put him into power Lavalas (“torrent” in Kreyòl). His election succeeded despite the millions that the US gave to his opponent, Marc Bazin, a former World Bank Official. In 1991 a US-backed military coup deposed Aristide as president. René Préval replaced Aristide in 1996, but Aristide was re-elected later, replacing Préval in 2001.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide & Mildred Trouillot Aristide

Jean-Bertrand Aristide & Mildred Trouillot Aristide

The newly released cables pick up the details from 2003 on. Because Aristide had disbanded the army in 1995, it was difficult for the U.S. and its allies to organize a coup. On Feb. 29, 2004,  U.S. Special Forces kidnapped Aristide and his spouse, Mildred Trouillot Aristide, taking them to the Central African Republic.

The cables also show how the US, the European Union, and the United Nations supported Haiti’s recent presidential and parliamentary elections, despite the exclusion of Lavalas, Haiti’s largest political party. They agonized a bit about sponsoring an election that would exclude the majority party from participating, about “emasculating” the country, but decided to push through the sham election because so much was invested already in the neocolonial relationship with Haiti.

The US embassy noted that Haiti would save $100 million a year under the terms of  the Caribbean oil alliance with Venezula, called PetroCaribe. The savings would be earmarked for development in schools, health care, and infrastructure. US Ambassador Janet Sanderson immediately set out to sabotage the deal. She noted that the embassy started to “pressure” Haitian leader Préval from joining PetroCaribe, saying that it would “cause problems with [the US.]” As major oil companies, such as ExxonMobil and Chevron, threatened to cut off ties with Haiti, Sanderson met to assure them that she would pressure Haiti at the “highest levels of government.”

Haiti garment workers

Haiti garment workers

Meanwhile, contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked closely with the US Embassy to block a minimum wage increase for Haitian garment workers. In a June 10, 2009 cable to Washington, Ambassador Sanderson argued, “A more visible and active engagement by Préval may be critical to resolving the issue of the minimum wage and its protest ‘spin-off’—or risk the political environment spiraling out of control.” After Préval negotiated a deal to create a two-tiered minimum wage—one for the textile workers at $3/day and one other industrial workers at about $5/day, the US Embassy was displeased. David E. Lindwall, deputy chief of mission, said the $5/day minimum “did not take economic reality into account.” It was just a populist measure aimed at appealing to “the unemployed and underpaid masses.”

Think about this when you buy underwear or jeans. The artificially low price you pay, which killed the North American textile industry, goes to pay for shipping, marketing, high executive salaries, and industry profits, with practically nothing for the people who slave to make the clothes. But if you live in the EU or especially in the US, you can know that your government continues to work to maintain those low prices, and resists appealing to the “unemployed and underpaid masses.”

Think about the manipulations of the democratic process in Haiti when people ask why the rest of the world fails to see the wisdom and the glory of Western democracy.

Think also about how much of this has been covered in your local newspaper, or on television and radio news.

Immigration jails and the pretense of social justice

It’s great to learn that some Haitian earthquake survivors have now been released from jail, but why were they there in the first place, and why did it take so long to release them?

This leads to some larger questions: If there had been a similar disaster in Toronto, can you imagine that the Marines would have rounded up White survivors and stuck them in a jail in New York for two months? Why did it take so long to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to people from Haiti, following a series of hurricanes and the latest earthquake? Why is that even now TPS is stringently restricted to those in very recent continuous residence (CR) and continuous physical presence (CPP)?

More than three dozen Haitian earthquake survivors were released from Florida immigration jails on Thursday after more than two months in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

via Quake Survivors Freed From Immigration Jails –

Juanita Goggins

[Note: This post was written five months ago, but I must have forgotten to click “publish”. I’d like to have it on the blog, even though her death is now old news, if only to help record a courageous life.]

I was saddened to learn about the lonely death of Juanita Goggins, a great leader and educator. Her life is a reminder of both the possibilities we have and the great challenges we still face around race in America.

Goggins was the daughter of a sharecropper in rural South Carolina, the youngest of 10 children, and the only one to earn a four-year college degree, from what was then all-black South Carolina State College. She taught in South Carolina’s segregated schools, and then went on to a number of major achievements.

In 1972, she became the first black woman to represent the state as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Two years later, she became the first black woman appointed to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the first black woman elected to the South Carolina Legislature. She was responsible for funding sickle-cell anemia testing in county health departments and sponsored key legislation on school funding, kindergarten, and class size.

One indication of the world she had to navigate was the Orangeburg Massacre. In February, 1968, students from Goggins’s alma mater attempted to bowl at Charlotte’s only bowling alley. The owner refused. Tensions rose and two days later violence erupted. The Orangeburg Massacre resulted in injury to 28 students and the death of three.

Sadly, by the early 1980’s, Goggins had developed mental illness and in later life became increasingly reclusive. She froze to death at age 75, living alone in a rented house not far from the Statehouse in Charlotte, where she had served.

See Once-revered lawmaker freezes to death alone (Associated Press, March 10, 2010).

The New Jim Crow

Writing in Mother Jones, Michelle Alexander  has an excellent article on The New Jim Crow. It’s about how the War on Drugs has led to a permanent American undercaste. Similar ideas came up in my class yesterday as we discussed equity and excellence in education. As with many other topics we saw how making progress within education cannot be separated from addressing the same problems beyond the walls of academia.

Here’s an excerpt from her article:

Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.” Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America.

Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.

She offers some important information that should make us all question how America deals with race today, starting with:

There are more African Americans under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

The article addresses the obvious questions that some readers may have, such as “well, shouldn’t we be locking up criminals?” or “aren’t we at least improving in the ways we deal with racism and poverty?”

It’s worth noting that Alexander’s just saying that the absolute number of African Americans under correctional control today is greater than the number enslaved in 1850. In a sense that makes it less horrific. One might also qualify the claim by pointing out that being on parole is very different from being a slave.

Nevertheless, some aspects of the modern system are even worse and less justifiable. Many people would be surprised to learn that the absolute scale of the institution is now greater. Unlike slavery, it’s now pervasive in every state, and stands out as inconsistent with other contemporary practices. And the current prison system doesn’t even produce goods; it simply drains scarce resources to destroy lives.

Evangelicals attack Voudo practitioners in Haiti

As if people in Haiti haven’t faced enough problems already, Christians, many from outside Haiti, have begun attacking people there who are simply praying or singing.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Angry crowds in a seaside slum attacked a group of Voodoo practitioners Tuesday, pelting them with rocks and halting a ceremony meant to honour victims of last month’s deadly earthquake.

Voodooists gathered in Cite Soleil where thousands of quake survivors live in tents and depend on food aid. Praying and singing, the group was trying to conjure spirits to guide lost souls when a crowd of Evangelicals started shouting. Some threw rocks while others urinated on Voodoo symbols. When police left, the crowd destroyed the altars and Voodoo offerings of food and rum.

Some groups use an interesting method to convince Haitians to abandon their beliefs. Quoted in the same article, Pastor Frank Amedia of Miami-based Touch Heaven Ministries says:

“We would give food to the needy in the short term but if they refused to give up Voodoo, I’m not sure we would continue to support them in the long term because we wouldn’t want to perpetuate that practice. We equate it with witchcraft, which is contrary to the Gospel.”

Does this mean that pelting worshipers with rocks, urinating on their sacred symbols, and withholding food from hungry people is the modern Christian way? Aren’t those acts themselves “contrary to the Gospel”? Why do outsiders, in this case mostly Americans, think that violence is the path to rebuilding a nation? When will we learn that acting responsibly in the world doesn’t mean insisting that we are always right and that our way is the only way?

See the photo in the Associated Press report at Voodooists attacked at ceremony for Haiti victims.