- Unfinished Business:The Long Road Ahead to Civil Rights and Roma Rights
In a powerful law review article published ten years ago, Jack Greenberg, one of the most respected and talented US civil rights lawyers and constitutional scholars of his time, addressed the commonalities and differences between African American and anti-Roma structural racism. As a lead litigator in the watershed US Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education and head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Greenberg had been consulted by leaders of the Roma movement in Europe for advice on how to cull enduring political and socio-economic advantage for an oppressed and stigmatized minority from successful litigation, and what Roma activists might learn from their African American comrades. The law review article, his considered reply, advanced the thesis that though "for much of their histories the Roma in Eastern Europe and African Americans traversed similar paths. … [d]uring World War II … their paths forked."1 African Americans had built a civil rights movement that brought the deep-seated and extreme racism to which they were daily exposed, despite the abolition of slavery, to national (and international) attention, a movement that compelled US courts to firmly outlaw segregation. By contrast, Greenberg argued, though the abolition of Roma enslavement in Eastern Europe had, like for African Americans, not halted enduring structural racism against them, it failed to generate comparable political visibility and widespread civil society mobilization. While African Americans eventually had large numbers of the majority white population joining their cause and marching side by side with them, the Roma's extreme social and cultural marginalization had continued.
It is fascinating to reflect on Greenberg's thesis now, in the summer of 2020, after publication of Ta-NeHesi Coates' landmark Atlantic article in 2014, the police murder of George Floyd, Eric Garner, and so many others, the dramatic societal growth of Black Lives Matter, irrefutable evidence of the dramatically disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on African American communities (13 percent of the population, 33 percent of the deaths), and with a debate about the enduring obscenity of American structural racism raging.2 Did the paths of African [End Page 197] Americans and Roma really fork after World War 2? After all, in the ensuing decades, Roma activists and their dedicated and capable lawyers also secured several high profile court victories, and Soviet dominated socialist governments in South and Central East Europe (SCEE) imposed assimilationist policies that, at least prior to the dismantling of Communism, diminished Roma educational and employment segregation. And, like their African American counterparts, Roma communities in the twenty-first century are disproportionately poor, lead shorter and less healthy lives than their majority compatriots, are over-represented in the most dangerous and least serviced neighborhoods, and under-represented in high income employment or quality educational establishments.3 Today the commonalities seem to far outweigh the differences. Did Greenberg get it wrong? Were Roma Rights activists misguided in thinking that the US Civil Rights movement held important lessons for them?
Roma Rights and Civil Rights: A Transatlantic Comparison by Felix B. Chang and Sunnie T. Rucker-Chang provides an intriguing and powerful set of answers to the broader question about the usefulness of the comparison. The central thesis of this concise but carefully researched and lucidly written book is that the comparison between the tortuous paths towards securing rights and remedies for both African American and Roma people, despite their manifest differences, reveals enduring similarities and yields instructive insights at various levels. First, both communities have long existed as racialized and stigmatized "internal others" within their polities.4 The authors rightly argue that, despite long proclaimed and legally binding constitutional commitments to non-discrimination and equality before the law within their respective polities, both minorities have had to engage in intense political and legal battle to challenge their racialized subordination. An enduring, hegemonic ideology that proclaims their transnational, cultural "otherness" (be it as Africans or as Asians) rests...