Civil Rights Career Focus: On Researching the Roma

May 30, 2016 1:30:00 PM / by Stephanie Sadler

An interview with William New


For the past 15 years, William New from Beloit College has been researching a variety of topics centering on the Roma. If you're joining us at CAPA's Sixth Annual Symposium: Civil Rights and Inequalities (May 30, 2016, before the NAFSA opening reception in Denver, CO), William will be presenting 'How the Gypsies became pathological liars and thieves with bad teeth: A short historical tour of racism in Europe.' Below, he talks a bit about who the Roma are, some of the key issues they face and why an international perspective in education is important.

CAPAStudyAbroad_William New Interview

CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself. 
WILLIAM NEW: I’ve been at Beloit College for almost twenty years, and am now (thankfully) beginning a sabbatical and stepping down from the position of Chair and Certifying Officer. At Beloit, I’m involved with our Youth and Society major, and with our teacher education programs. I teach educational psychology regularly, other courses focused on minority youth and educational issues, as well as courses for aspiring teachers. Lately, much of my focus has been on mindfulness (and compassion and empathy) in psychology and education.

One of my main hobbies is creative writing, and I’m hoping during this sabbatical to make progress on a work of speculative fiction that I’ve been working (and not working on) for three or four years. During this past year, I’ve taken up drumming, which brings together my mindfulness practice with my passion for the arts.

I began researching Roma education in the summer of 2001, when I needed a topic in order to be considered for a summer faculty workshop in Central Europe. During the last year and a half I’ve been focused on the Roma genocide, and on contemporary issues for Roma migrants in Berlin.

Photo: Khamoro festival, Prague, May, 2015

CW: You wrote in an article for Salzburg Global Seminar that it's always necessary to start by asking "Who are the Roma?" And so, who are the Roma?
WN: The Roma are a highly diverse ethnic and social group, originally from India, who migrated in several waves to Europe from approximately 950 to 1200 BCE. From the Byzantine Empire – now Turkey and Greece – they moved to the West and to the North, arriving in Central Europe by the 15th century, and to the rest of Europe in the following two centuries. The Roma have traditionally been associated with crafts, including music, metalwork, horses and other animals, etc, and they spoke, and still speak, a Sanskrit-based language in the same family as modern-day Hindi.

From almost the outset, the Roma have been the subject of prejudice, exclusion, and violence, on the basis of their appearance, their cultural ways, their language, and the itinerant lifestyle they adopted, partly it appears by design and partly by necessity, as they often weren’t permitted to stay within towns. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Roma followed other European migrants to North and South America. During World War II, the Roma were targeted by the Nazis and their confederates on racial and social grounds, and as many as half a million perished in the camps and in the countryside.

Today, the Roma are the poorest, the most socially excluded, and the most discriminated against groups in Europe. Between 10 and 15 million Roma live across Europe, residing in every country, with the largest populations in the Central and Southeastern nations of Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia. One could go on and on …

CAPAStudyAbroad_William New Interview

CW: How did you initially become interested in conducting research on Roma education?
WN: My original impetus was to find any topic in European minority education around which I could craft a good proposal for inclusion in this workshop in the Czech Republic. I had previously been working mostly on American Latino and immigrant issues. At this time in post-communist countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the general situation for the Roma was especially awful, with extreme poverty and deprivation, school segregation that amounted often to outright exclusion, police violence, skinhead violence, and the kind of blatant racism that one had not really seen in the US since the end of Jim Crow. It was only just becoming a issue of broad public concern, and still, for the most part, academic interest was focused on linguistics and folklore. Once I had the opportunity to see the situation first hand, this became my main research interest.

In the fall of 2002, I had the opportunity to lead a study abroad program for ACM in the Czech Republic, during which we traveled extensively. I structured my elective course for this program around Roma issues and used our travel to visit many Roma settlements and organizations. Instead of going to the museums, my little group of 15 liberal arts students went to the slums. The following semester I was a Fulbright Scholar in Greece where my project focused on Roma education, and I spent a lot of time in one elementary school. Over the next few years, with the support of Beloit College, I traveled frequently to Central Europe and Greece, and did a good deal of reading and writing. My Roma research career was enriched tremendously through meeting and working with Hristo Kyuchukov, a Bulgarian Roma who was teaching at the same Slovak university where I was a Fulbright fellow in 2010. Hristo has been involved in Roma research and an activist his entire life, knows everyone in the field, and speaks all the relevant languages. We became good friends and have been constantly involved in projects for the past six years. Now he lives in Berlin and works with refugees.

CAPAStudyAbroad_William New Interview

CW: Why is speaking at CAPA’s Symposium on civil rights during NAFSA 2016 important for you?
WN: I’ve been involved in minority education, and related youth and legal issues, since I took my first teaching job in 1979 in an inner city Catholic elementary school. Even though there has been momentous change in the years since, the problems my Black and Hispanic third-graders struggled with 30-some years ago in Jersey City are much the same as those the third graders I work with now at our local Boys and Girls Club experience in Beloit, Wisconsin. You just have to keep doing the work and telling the story. With particular reference to the Roma, many who are involved in international education encounters in Europe and elsewhere, it’s important to bring some information to counter the stereotypes and disinformation spread about the Roma everywhere; even in well-regarded media outlets. For example, this past winter at the end of a presentation I gave on the Roma genocide, a woman in the audience asked me if the Roma were mostly thieves and what she might do to protect herself from them when she was traveling. This is what anti-Gypsyism looks like, and it’s looked like this for hundreds of years.

Photo: Commemoration of liquidation of Gypsy camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, 8.3.2015

CW: Do you feel that attitudes towards Roma have changed in a significant way since you first begun to research and write on the topic?
WN: When I began fifteen years ago there were very few academic researchers interested in the Roma. I recall some of my Czech colleagues where I was working suggesting that one would not be taken seriously if he or she studied Gypsies. That has changed, though one often wonders whether it is for the good. My Roma friends speak now of the academic Gypsy business, where gadje (non-Roma, like me) academics make a career out of researching Roma, without doing much for Roma. There are many many NGOs, European organizations, and national/local organizations devoted to work on Roma issues, and the "Roma problem" is in the news all the time. It has become politically incorrect in some circles to express overt anti-Roma sentiments. Many of my colleagues as the Slovak university where I taught in 2010 now speak openly for Roma rights and against the racism often expressed by students. But other colleagues speak almost as freely against Roma, and against the perennially proposed institutional reforms. The level of popular animus against Roma has continued to be very high, and in the past few years there has been an increase in hate speech and hate crimes against the Roma, as part and parcel with the anti-migrant feelings spreading across Europe. On the other hand, probably more young educated people are sympathetic with the European anti-racist agenda, if not quite as sympathetic to the individual Roma they meet on the street.

Photo: Django Reinhardt's Hot Club of France, Paris, 1938

CW: What are the key issues Roma are facing that you feel most need to be addressed more openly? What most pressingly needs to be done to make a difference?
The issue most on my mind at the moment is violence by right-wing inspired individuals and groups against Roma, and the unwillingness of the police and other parts of the legal apparatus to respond appropriately, leading to a general feeling among Roma of insecurity. A related problem is the lack of access to fair legal processes offered Roma people. Most post-communist states continue to exclude Roma children from real educational opportunities, leading to high school graduation rates in the single digits, and virtually no college attendance. Roma often also continue to live in refugee-like conditions, without adequate nutrition, running water, heat, and access to health care.

It’s quite different in different places, even in places in one country or town, which is a problem itself. The prevailing neoliberal strategies that governments employ in dealing with social issues and translates into enormous disparities in living conditions from municipality to municipality. In one Slovak city, for instance, we saw last summer a Roma settlement without basic services, and no more than ten miles away we visited a Roma neighborhood of new, though modest, homes built by the village to encourage social integration.

In my humble opinion, change will require public outrage that fellow citizens live in inhumane conditions just down the street, that significant proportions of the children in their towns and countries are not receiving even a basic education and have little prospect of contributing to their societies and economies. Perhaps, I should say that, rather than outrage, which doesn’t necessarily produce anything, what is required is information and compassion. Perhaps this compassion will result in better public policies, but even now there is a plenitude of well-meaning policies that are not being implemented, and good laws that are not enforced, whenever people believe that the Roma would be the beneficiaries. Thinking back to Vaclav Havel, we might point to a lack of civil society in many European countries.

CAPAStudyAbroad_William New Interview

CW: What do displaced Roma students need to gain a greater sense of possibility in their lives?
WN: I don’t know there are any displaced Roma students in the US, though there are lots of them in France and Germany and Sweden, and other developed countries that are desirable destinations for Roma who are emigrating from the newer, less prosperous and less civil, member nations of the EU. A sense of belonging, as European citizens in a greater Europe, would be nice, but it seems a rare commodity; perhaps it can be found more often in Germany than in other European countries. A feeling of welcome would be a good second choice, but even that is not forthcoming from the French or most of the Scandinavians, who see migrant Roma as a drain on their social services, and a threat to public safety. To resort to some basic motivational psychology, Maslow suggested that the need for safety and the satisfaction of basic needs precedes aspirations for any kind of higher meaning to life. This is probably where many young Roma find themselves in the countries to which they have migrated, though, again, this varies from place to place. Roma children from Roma, now living in Paris, currently have no guarantee of a safe place to live, the basic amenities of life, educational prospects, et al. Many Roma migrants from Bulgaria, in Berlin, are housed and fed, attending schools, and learning German. 

CAPAStudyAbroad_William New Interview

CW: Do you think an international education is important for American students? Why or why not?
I can’t imagine an education worth having that is not international. Having spent a lot of time over the past two decades in Europe, it’s difficult to imagine how one is to understand who "we" are without a careful consideration, and perhaps some first-hand experience, of who "they" are. Study abroad, for American students, is not the only or perhaps even always the best way to encounter the international, and it’s not feasible for many. In the US, students need to be reminded that their education and their schools and communities, are already international, and have always been. In this case, it’s more a matter of learning to see what’s in front of you than in going somewhere else.

And those who have not learned to see what is in front of them are not very likely to learn much when they do go somewhere else. I’ve known many American college students who were dead set against having any experience abroad that would interfere with their prior conceptions of how the world is and must be. You would think that the "international" world would make it difficult to sustain that viewpoint, but with globalization and 4G and social media it turns out to be surprisingly easy. Perhaps the psychological and physical world that my millennial children now inhabit is already constituted as global, or international, so speaking of an international education as if it were something to be added on might be a mistake. But then, whether it's traveling internationally or bringing attention to the international at home, both still have the capacity to disrupt the complacency of always being at home.

Photo: Beloit College students at Roma elementary school, Kremnica, SK

CW: What would you recommend as essential reading or general resources on the topic of Roma and civil rights?
WN: That’s an impossible question! If there’s one book on the Roma that one might start with, it’s We Are The Romani People by Ian Hancock, a British Traveler and University of Texas professor whose main research has been on Romani linguistics. Ian taught me what is now a ruling maxim in Romani research: "nothing about us without us." Now obviously he is just one voice who doesn’t claim to speak for everyone Roma, but this book is an excellent place to begin. 

Romani Flag
Photo: Romani flag created in 1933 and accepted by the 1971 World Romani Congress (public domain)

CW: What advice could you offer to students who wish to pursue a career in civil rights?
WN: I might suggest to students that they not [necessarily have to] pursue careers in civil rights per se, but that instead they commit to pursuing vocations that could help make the world a better place to live, for themselves and others; that they attempt to act with a spirit of compassion toward others and toward themselves; that they always seek to understand the consequences, especially those out of sight and mind; and that they concern themselves with more with giving that with taking or having.

Thanks William! 

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Topics: Civil Rights