Over the weekend a young girl who had been living with a Roma family in Greece was picked up by police on the basis of a tip-off about her “distinctive” appearance – with the media emphasising her blonde hair and blue eyes. DNA tests later showed she wasn’t born to the family she was living with.
On the back of that arrest two children were taken from non-national families in Ireland on Tuesday and Wednesday on the basis that they did not look similarly enough to their parents.
One of the families was from the Roma community and, again, the press emphasised this dimension. The tip-off came from a racist Facebook message sent to TV3 journalist Paul Connolly by a local resident – alleging that Roma were “robbing [children] to get child benefit in Europe”.
Both were ultimately proven to be the biological children of the couples they were taken from by the Gardaí.
Rabble interviewed Guardian journalist Gary Younge on Wednesday as the story was breaking. Younge is a critic of institutional racism in the west and covered the Roma community in Europe for the Guardian in a January 2003 article.
Q. What does the recent abduction of a Roma child by the Gardaí say about racial governance here and in Europe more widely? And what does this tell us about the day-to-day lives of the Roma community?
GY: It shows that they are incredibly vulnerable – to popular bigotry and cavalier state intervention. The Roma have much more to fear in Europe from the state and non-Roma communities than non-Roma have ever had to fear from them.
The Roma never gassed anyone. They were gassed during the Holocaust. They are subject to pogroms. The state in Eastern Europe would, until very recently, routinely abduct Roma children. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia they were put into schools for the mentally disabled because they were Roma.
In terms of who has to fear whom it’s not even a close contest. When the Roma do things wrong they’re treated as a group, ‘Roma steal children’ instead of ‘these people abducted this child’. Which would just never happen to dominant groups.
If you were to say that children who do not look like the adults they’re with should be taken away then half of the richest kids in Manhattan would be in the hands of the state. They spend half their time with black and Latino nannies. But nobody thinks that because there is a context there that says, ‘oh, she’s a nanny’.
It’s an excellent, horrific example of a group of people arbitrarily treated differently because of who they are. A textbook case of racism.
But it also shows the link between the popular and the state. This is tabloid journalism followed by tabloid policing.
It’s also completely ignorant. I wrote my article on the Roma after covering the community for a week. I thought, “that’s interesting – there’s a range of phenotypes, ways of looking, that include Roma.” I mentioned two blonde kids by chance.
I mentioned that Roma are more likely to speak the language of the country they’re in than Romani, more likely to have the religion of the country they’re in. But they have the basic aspect that is true for all identities – they know each other and other people know them.
It’s not like I’m an expert on the Roma. I was covering them for a week and after the second day I knew Roma children had blonde hair and blue eyes.
These people who took that kid away knew nothing. And on that basis they abducted a child.
Q. Ireland has a long history of children being abducted by the state and by the Church with the consent of the state. Children being taken from single mothers, young boys being placed into borstal homes and so on. In many cases these children were also abused.
Now people are saying, “isn’t it great that child services are taking the necessary pre-emptive steps when they didn’t do it before?” What do you make of that?
GY: They should be taking judicial steps – not prejudicial steps!
The state should be judicious. You don’t just cavalierly take a child away from its parents. Unless, that is, you think its parents are dispensable or have no meaning.
My understanding is that the kid had blonde hair and blue eyes. Let’s say you have a ginger-haired, green-eyed child – you don’t have those features. Now, apparently, hair colour and eye colour can be the basis upon which the state takes your child. That’s beyond crazy.
It only works if you think it could never be your child. That’s the only basis on which people could think that’s a good thing. What’s scary is, you may not think that today but we don’t know what’s coming tomorrow. You start handing people the powers to take away kids that don’t look right? That’s pretty corrosive.
Q. What do you do as an anti-racist in situations like Greece? You have a case where there’s clearly a background of pathological and systemic racism, founded on long campaigns of demonisation of the Roma community. But this racism appears to be given legitimacy by a particular incident. How at that moment, in the midst of the hysteria, do you intervene in an anti-racist way to talk about the broader aspects? When the specific case, which could be awful, will be thrown at you?
GY: It does make it difficult. I think the most sensible way is to reframe it.
This is Ireland. Do you remember how Irish people were treated in Britain when there was a bomb? There was a legitimate fear in Britain that people would be killed summarily – “there are people out there who may kill me without knowing me”.
From there comes both a popular and a state campaign against Irish people. What did you think of Britain then? What did you think of the disgusting campaign against the Irish? If that bothers you then this should bother you.
You have to find some way to connect. I actually think Ireland offers some useful opportunities in this respect. It’s an overwhelmingly white country which has not always had the privileges of whiteness. Therefore there are parallels that might be drawn.
Whatever you thought of the bombing campaign – you may have supported it or not, and as I understand it the majority of Irish people did not – you could think that the campaign against the Irish was ahistorical and racist. This is not new to this country, it’s just a new group of people.
Q. In conclusion, specifically in relation to the Roma. This is a group of people who have had a history of the most appalling racist treatment across Europe and beyond. Now, in the wake of the press whipping up Romaphobia, there will be renewed hatred and bigotry directed at them across Europe – particularly in the wake of the anger generated by austerity politics. It’s going to be a very difficult few weeks or months to be Romani in Europe.
What is it at this moment that those of us who are anti-racist – or even in the media and appalled at the way colleagues have framed this story – can do to combat that?
GY: I’m not going to claim I have any answers. But one thing that is important is to be completely uncompromising with any suggestion of cause and effect.
If the issue in someone’s mind is pick-pocketing – “look at them around the place, they beg, they pick-pocket” – a proportionate response is to arrest the pick-pocket. A proportionate response to begging, actually, in my view, is an anti-poverty campaign. Child abduction is not a proportionate response to pick-pocketing or begging.
We should treat anybody who abducts a child in the same way. But unless you’re prepared to accept group identifications for yourself then don’t do it to other people.
If you want to say “all Roma are thieves and child-abductors” then you’d better be prepared for people to say “all Catholics are child-abusers”. It makes as much and as little sense. I’m not going to say either of them.
I think it’s important to give no hostage to fortune in allowing people to substitute individual acts for group guilt. It’s never something they would accept for themselves.
An interview with Gary Younge about his new book, The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King’s Dream, will appear in the next print issue of Rabble magazine.