Istvan Forgacs is a prominent Roma-Hungarian expert on the subject of Roma inclusion in Hungary and Central Europe. After graduating in Budapest, he has studied at Columbia University and has managed and advised Roma inclusion programs for more than a decade, including at the Open Society Foundation and the Council of Europe. Mr. Forgacs claims two mother tongues: Hungarian and Lovari (a Roma dialect).
Last month, an article by a well-known Hungarian journalist, Zsolt Bayer, caused a significant stir in Hungary and was covered widely in international media. Prompted by a report of a violent crime allegedly involving Roma, Bayer’s commentary, in which he says a “significant number of Gypsies are unfit for coexistence,” was roundly condemned by the opposition and ruling parties, some even called for the writer to be prosecuted under hate speech laws. While much of the reaction focused on the extremism of the article, some responses also raised the problem of public security in certain parts of the country and the question of coexistence among certain groups. Hungarian Globe asked Istvan Forgacs to address the subject. The following is his contribution.
The people of the 21st century are eager to sort out complex issues of the world, to make judgments, pick sides and label individuals as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘moral’ or ‘immoral.’ In the Balkans, Kosovo has always been, for many, the land of the freedom fighters. Bosnians were considered heroes while the Serbs were stereotyped as war criminals. The Kurds are seen as victims wherever they go, just like the Roma. They are a people without a country, never able to find a society that is open enough to accept and include them. Some issues are always fashionable at tables in Brussels, London, New York and Washington due to their seeming lack of any moral ambiguity. Pick the right side and you can expect welcoming smiles, sympathy, and strong handshakes for your righteous display of tolerance and solidarity.
The issue of ethnic groups (or nations) without a country is blue-chip on the political and sociological stock exchange of the western world. Regarding the situation of European Roma communities (or the European Roma nation) it’s easy to form a meaningless opinion, separate good from evil and side with them – those who suffer, who have difficulty and are often targets of discrimination. No one knows who they (we) are exactly, but one feels that society should be open, tolerant and positive in this matter. So let me tell you a little about who we are.
It is true that being Roma in Hungary is not easy these days. As a Roma, you face prejudices, encounter blatant or subtle racism, and very often you live in a disadvantaged family where chronic deprivation seems inevitable. You are most likely poor. You have several siblings, poorly educated parents, and live in sub-standard housing somewhere at the edge of a village. You have most likely attended a segregated school, if at all. You have experienced abuse from the police and sometimes ethnic-based atrocities. Your children probably face the same fate, the same life. Whose fault is this? The typical reply is that it is the state and the intolerant majority, and it is incumbent on them to take all responsibility for changing the situation. As a Roma and an ‘expert’ in this field, I have been involved in numerous discussions where this simplification is applied. I must say that it is not right.
When I meet other Roma people, I usually inquire about their personal experiences with intolerance and how they deal with it. Confronted with these experiences, we are forced to search ourselves for a solution. What can one do to foster change and a thaw in our relations with the rest of Hungarian society?
To blame the whole of society and government does not help. The Roma need to initiate change in their own communities. This is the most difficult and the most crucial part of the solution. The Roma need to adopt a new approach towards the majority and start the process of reuniting their own communities on the local level. There is no such thing as a countrywide Roma nation. However, there are Roma individuals, Roma families and local, Roma communities, each with their own characteristics, values and responsibilities. With some effort, they will have a chance to shape their own reputation and win respect where they live – or at least set the tone for a more peaceful coexistence with their neighbors. If they try, they will not have to share the shame of other Hungarian Roma who reinforce prejudices and embody stereotypes with their actions.
The ‘Us and Them’ division should exist in society, but not between the Roma and the non-Roma. The divide should fall between the Roma who make an effort to ascend the barriers and integrate into society and those who do not care to try. Society sees violent crimes committed by some Roma and judge the whole as guilty. To avoid that, at least on the local level, the Roma should prove that not all of us are criminals. Myself, my family, and my community are exceptions to the rule. Villages such as Uszka, Igrici, Kotaj, Gönc , and Besence are good examples, communities that have worked hard to distinguish themselves from the culture of crime. The more Roma communities that strive to change their own reputation, the sooner we will see a reversal of our role in Hungarian society. Without this process, prejudices will never be erased.
As a Roma, it is discouraging for me when people use the term ‘Gypsy crime’ as if referring to a genetic encoding specific to the Roma. We are not naturally evil with a penchant for immorality. Nevertheless, I have to admit that most of the Roma live in a special socio-cultural environment where individuals are easily lured into a life of crime. What entices so many into that life, and what can we do to pull them back into our law-abiding society?
In many local communities in Hungary, it is regrettably true that a significant part of the Roma have no problem following the path of crime and antisocial behavior. Experts tell us that they want to change, but cannot because they have no real resources or support from outsiders, the local authorities or the government. I am not in the position to make a judgment, but I can certainly talk about those communities where I work. Unfortunately, I have to say that the prejudices that many have about the Roma are sadly often true. Consider whether the following statements are prejudiced or based in fact: the Roma people do not want to integrate. They do not want to accept the standards of the majority. Roma leaders are poorly educated, very often corrupt and use the Roma people only against the majority for their own self-interest. The Roma have a different moral standard. The Roma do not care about the rest of society. Prejudice or fact?
Making a list of crimes committed by the Roma in the last decade in Hungary would not be fair, nor would it be politically correct. It cannot be ignored, however, that several of those crimes were nation-wide scandals. These national scandals amplify the prejudices of the majority, and general Hungarian fear of a perceived Roma menace on a national and local level is growing now more now than ever. The bulk of Roma leaders are poorly educated, and they resort to simply passing the blame onto the majority for all the strife of coexistence. Part of the Roma people do often refuse to integrate themselves into local and national societies. For some, these difficult truths are an easy excuse to justify their prejudice against us. As one of the 800,000 Roma living in Hungary, it is a painful admission.
Naturally, politicians care more about their own political interests than this complex and seemingly intractable problem. In fact, the conflict serves them well. Pulling the race card has no political drawbacks for many of them, even if the majority of those protesting racism are full of the same anti-Roma prejudices as those they protest against.
Many sociologists would like to believe that it’s the leftist politicians that typically take up the fight against racism and intolerance, but this is another over-simplification and currently not true in Hungary. Right-leaning and left-leaning voters understand that the issue of coexistence is a complex topic. The majority of Hungarians long for a broad and constructive change, one that will transform prejudices about the Roma people. Much of society would like to be able to distinguish the good from the bad, instead of lumping all of the Roma together in one group. It is up to us to work in our communities to eradicate the culture of crime so that we can avoid being lumped into the group of ‘bad’ Roma and present a new face for our community.
Ultimately, Hungary needs both sides to keep open minds and commit to establishing cohesion if we’re ever going to move onward.