Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 4
31 January 2000

Jan ulk C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C:
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
Racism in the Czech Republic

Jan ulk

(esk preklad ZDE)

On Saturday 29 January, the British commercial, cultural and nationwide television station Channel Four broadcast a one-hour documentary "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" about the plight of the Roma in Europe. Within the framework of many centuries of persecution of Roma in Europe (documented in a series of captions displayed throughout the programme) the film showed intense racial hatred that the Roma suffer in the Czech Republic, (the film argued that this racial hatred is a kind of post-Communist trauma for the majority white population: the Czechs are taking out their current political and economic frustrations on the Roma). The documentary also pointed out that it was highly unjust for the current British government to deny access to Rom refugees who apply for political asylum in Great Britain. Out of thousands of Rom applicants for asylum from the Czech Republic, Britain has granted asylum to just three families.

The film was very well made and was authoritative and persuasive. Critics will argue that it was biased in favour of the Roma: for example it did not show examples of the antisocial behaviour of many (the majority?) of the Gypsies, it did not demonstrate that many Gypsies steal and are violent towards the majority Czech population. (It is worth noting that most of the people, held in Czech prisons are Roma - is this a proof of their criminal behaviour or just evidence of the bias of the judicial system or both?)

Extremely professionally, the film singled out the main issue of this racial problem, the issue of collective guilt. It was all the more effective since the film did this implicitly, by association only.

A cruel logic

The main argument is as follows: it may well be, as many defenders of the Czech racism will argue, that many Czech gypsies are thieves and lead antisocial lives. But that is irrelevant. Nobody has the right to vilify some members of the community solely on the basis that other members of the same community lead anti-social lives. The film concentrated on three or four individual cases of decent people and showed the viewer, very convincingly, that these individuals were creatures of flesh and blood and had the same feelings, frustrations and fears as the rest of us. In other words, that these people were human beings just as the rest of us are, with similarly fragile souls. The film clearly documented the pressures that these innocent people have to cope with as a result of the hostility of the majority Czech population. Even if 95 per cent of all Czech Gypsies were indeed thieves, surely it is still highly unjust that other individuals should be persecuted and/or even killed for this reason.

In the very best British journalistic traditions, the film concentrated on the inner angush of a few selected individuals, who have suffered gravely from the majority Czech attitudes towards them and find it very difficult to come to terms with these pressures.

The most effective remedy for nationalistic and racist prejudice is to show "the other side" as individual human beings with feelings. To introduce them through the television screen, not as some impersonal statistics that represent persecution, but as individual friends invited into your living room. It is a tried and tested maxim that if you have personal friends from other nations, you cannot sustain nationalistic prejudices against those nations. This film tried to break down such Czech prejudices against the Roma in exactly the same way.

Innocent victims

All of the Roma featured in the films were sensitive, articulate human beings who were tormented by the pressure applied to them by the majority population. There was a married couple in Brno: a Romani man who had led a middle class existence, even marrying a white Czech girl. Yet he had still been beaten unconscious in the street, had all of his front teeth knocked out and had his skull cracked. Now the family fears going out and the married couple do not dare appear in public together.

An even more serious example was the case of another Rom who was beaten up by skinheads whilst trying to protect his daughter and her friends, returning home. He ended up in a ditch, with severe injuries, when he tried to crawl out, he was attacked again and left unconscious in the road. Later a lorry and a car drove over him and killed him.

The film recorded the circumstances surrounding the court proceedings at which the skinheads responsible for this attack were to be tried. A militant young skinhead, being escorted to the court by a Czech prison warder, repeatedly tried to attack the British cameraman filming what was going on. The prison escort remained inactive during his attacks. The verdict of the court was a suspended sentence: it was allegedly unproven that the skinheads had attacked this Romani man for it was felt that he may have been lying in the middle of the road because he was drunk.

Needless to say, his widow was utterly devastated by the degrading verdict of the court. The film eloquently recorded her anguish. Yet she refused to emigrate: "I was born here; this is my country. Anyway, I could not leave. I have my husband here," she said, leafing through the love letters she had received from him and lovingly touching a drawing of his face.

Educational discrimination

Many Romani children end up in Czech special schools for the mentally retarded. It is often argued that it is only unteachable children who are transferred, or those children who cannot speak Czech well. It was interesting to note that all the Roma, appearing in the film, spoke fluent, native Czech and obviously regarded themselves as members of the Czech nation - they were seriously offended that the Czech nation rejected them. "I am a Czech citizen with a black face, that is the trouble," said one Rom speaking fluent English.

The film featured a couple of Roma boys, transferred to special schools for the mentally retarded, of about 10 to 12 years of age, who both seemed very agile mentally and spoke perfect Czech. Harrowingly, one of the boys had hoped to become a computer programmer and was worried that since he had been transferred to a school for mentally retarded children, he could now only hope to become something more menial, like a bricklayer. He argued that he was as good academically as his white pal in the normal school, from which he had been moved, but the teacher was biased against him because he was black.

My only criticism of the programme is that in making it, its authors have jumped on the bandwaggon somewhat - everybody is talking about the persecution of the Roma in Central Europe at the moment, let us make a programme about it. It would be just as easy to make a number of similarly shocking programmes about the Czech reality in dealing with many aspects of life - if the habits of the Czech community were to be compared to those desired (if not necessarily always adhered to) standards of West European living.

There are many other equally shocking topics for film-makers in Central Europe. They could have tried looking at the role of women, or at the plight of the homeless, for instance. They could have analysed teaching methods at Czech universities and investigated the conditions in which students must study or tried to explain why there is such a large drop-out rate. They could have focused upon how bureaucracy is stunting development in the Czech economy.

Having said that, the way that the British government has been dealing with the Czech Roma's applications for asylum was also truly shocking.

It is hard, topical news. If we could really understand the conditions in which these people had to live in the Czech Republic, concluded the programme, we would be much more lenient towards them. Canada, for instance, has granted asylum to at least a 1000 families.

The Czech government is currently starting an anti-racism campaign in the Czech media. It would be a wise move for them to purchase this Channel Four programme and make sure it was broadcast on Czech public service, as well as commercial, television. Watching it might be a revelation for many Czechs - they would discover that Czech Roma also bleed, when you prick them.

Jan ulk, 30 January 2000

The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britsk listy.

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