In addition to my full-time duties as in-house counsel at a major university in Georgia, I occasionally teach. This past March, I received a Fulbright grant to teach undergraduate and graduate students for two weeks in Hungary. My visits to various historic sites in the cities of Budapest and Eger were informative and interesting. The welcoming nature of my hosts further enhanced what was an overall positive experience.
In fulfilling my Fulbright obligations, I presented a series of lectures on the intersection of race, gender and the law from an American perspective. I discussed the Missouri Compromise, the Dred Scott decision, the Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement.
Generally, the students recognized similarities between the paths of progress in America and their own country. Hungarian women, for instance, have made considerable economic and social strides since gender no longer limits employment opportunities. However, following my lecture on race and the law, a few students struggled to draw parallels between America’s civil rights history and the challenges of Hungary’s Roma population, whose history and condition reflect a struggle with social, economic and political marginalization.
According to the Council of Europe, the Roma people first arrived in Europe around the 14th century and, with a population of approximately 10 million, is Hungary’s largest minority. The Roma people maintain a distinct language, are referred to by the pejorative term “Gypsies” and are believed to have originated from India. Comments about the Roma people offered by students were, “They commit crimes, don’t work and have babies to live off the state,” and “I do not attend school with Roma people nor do I want my children to be educated with them.” We discussed the pitfalls of stereotyping and I encouraged them to analogize the condition of the Roma people to the struggles of Black Americans in the context of de facto segregation and de jure segregation. While some students understood the invidious nature of racial prejudice, a few were unable to liken the historical plight of racial minorities in America to the Roma people.
The Council of Europe has observed that “most Roma live in extreme poverty and many of their communities are basically invisible.” Roma people have suffered political, economic and social marginalization and continue to face many challenges to full integration into mainstream society. According to Thomas Hammarberg, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, in his 2009 Annual Activity Report presented to the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly, “Roma continued to be subject to racism and pervasive discrimination across all social sectors in most Council of Europe member states. Progress in tackling poverty among Roma and enhancing their socioeconomic status continued to be slow.”
The European Roma Rights Centre is an international public interest law organization designed to counter anti-Romani racism and human rights abuses of the Roma, and it tracks significant cases germane to their mission. According to the Centre, violence against Roma is increasing. Since 2008, in Hungary, the Centre has documented 45 attacks of violence against the Roma people, including nine fatalities.
Centre cites the Nov. 13, 2007 case of D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic as landmark in the area of public education. In D.H., the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (Europe’s highest court) ruled that the disproportionate segregation of Romani students in special remedial schools was a form of unlawful discrimination. On March 16, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled in the case Orsus and Others v. Croatia that the segregation of children based on language is unlawful discrimination. In Orsus, while the defendants argued that the plaintiff children were segregated because of language deficiencies, the Court determined that this alleged justification was a pretext for racial discrimination.
While my Fulbright experience enabled me to enjoy a cross-cultural exchange of information, maybe I influenced the students to apply, in the context of my lectures, critical thought to the powerful lessons of history. Hopefully, the students have a heightened ability to contextualize racism (and sexism) without the cushion of geographical distance and recognize that invidious prejudice ill serves the collective interest of society. I trust that most of the students recognize that racism operates to circumvent or curtail the intent of laws designed to equalize opportunities for all. I am confident they understood that America’s rich history includes painful chapters of legally sanctioned racism and celebratory examples of how generations of entrenched prejudices and the goals of democracy can be reconciled.
Laverne Lewis Gaskins is the university attorney at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Georgia.