- Gypsies and Other Itinerant Groups: A Socio-Historical Approach
The central thesis of the book is straightforward: Gypsies are not descendents of travelers who came out of India centuries ago and whose movements can be traced as if they were a specific ethnic group. Most scholarship about them is therefore wrong. They are people whose occupations made them wanderers, and, as such, they were increasingly stigmatized in Europe. With time, their marginalization forced them to develop distinctive cultural traits in order to survive. Gypsies appeared at a time when European states were consolidating themselves, precisely [End Page 306] because it was growth in state power that created the category of “Gypsy.”
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as powers and bureaucratic control over populations grew, Gypsies were further marginalized, and this trend culminated in their slaughter by the Nazis, who simply carried the notion of the Gypsies as a separate race to its logical extreme, labeling them as racial polluters. Contemporary efforts to “solve” the Gypsy problem in Western Europe may seem more benign than the Nazi solution, but it is a continuation of the same practice of falsely labeling wanderers as a distinct race with undesirable traits.
How plausible is this account? Opinions will depend on the degree to which readers believe that all ethnic identities are purely social constructions, mostly a function of governmental efforts to impose repressive bureaucratic control. If that account is generally accurate, then this book presents a superb case study that will be cited for years to come. If, however, its “constructivist” viewpoint is taken with a grain of salt on theoretical grounds, factual questions about the Gypsies begin to intrude on the book’s thesis.
The authors make some valid points. Some European wanderers and travelers are clearly not descendants of Romani speakers. Repression and prejudice have occurred, and still do, especially in Eastern Europe. Nazi theories of race were not only scientifically untenable, but they were in some ways emblematic of a long tradition of pseudoscientific mislabeling that was applied to all ethnic groups.
Being partly right, however, hardly makes this book convincing. What about all the linguistic evidence that points to a once common Romani language? Many of its dialectics still survive, and they are clearly related to north Indian languages. Why has it been possible for scholars to trace the movement of Romani speakers through the Middle East into the Byzantine Empire and Western Europe at a specific time? Why do the largest number of people called Gypsies (or, as most now prefer to call themselves, Roma) live in Romania, where modern state consolidation came centuries after they were identified as a distinct people? And why, even after centuries of intermixing, do many Gypsies in Romania and other European countries still have, on average, darker skin than the other people among whom they live? (The word “Rom,” from which the name of the language “Romani” is derived, is not related to the country name of Romania, which is named after Rome. In Romani, the word Rom means “man” or “husband.”)
It is not a service to either scholarship or to the Gypsies themselves to pretend that their identity as a separate people is merely a function of state repression, or of stigmatization by others. Many still possess a distinct culture, and hold on to it fiercely. How have many (but certainly not all) managed to remain unassimilated for so long, without a state, a common religion, a common written literature, or a single homeland? To what extent is their reputation for dishonesty toward despised Gadzé (non-Gypsies) justified? These are important questions, and to assume [End Page 307] that asking them is prejudicial carries political correctness too far. Nor is such avoidance helpful to Gypsies. Since many do not want to be assimilated, we might as well try to combat the frequently hostile relations between them and the Gadzé on the basis of facts rather than on wishful thinking.