Fighting Racism on Two Continents: CEU Conference Examines U.S. Civil Rights Movement and Roma Rights in Europe

December 14, 2015

As part of CEU's Frontiers of Democracy series, experts gathered for a unique conference that spanned the Atlantic with experts focusing on minority rights in both the U.S. and Europe. “Inside the Struggle: The U.S. Civil Rights Movement & the European Roma Rights Crisis” took place Dec. 7-8 in Budapest and was complemented by a related film series. The conference was supported by Open Society Foundations.

“Equality is not a gift to be bestowed on minorities; it is essential to democracy,” said CEU President and Rector John Shattuck in his introductory remarks, noting that participants would look at the challenges of minority rights and how they are a critical test of democracy itself.

Today the challenges to democracy are greater than ever, Shattuck said, but the demand for human rights has also increased, citing the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. and Roma rights movements in Europe. These movements are acting in a climate of fear, exacerbated by global terrorism.

John Shattuck, President and Rector of CEU holds his introductory speech. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel
John Shattuck, President and Rector of CEU holds his introductory speech. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel

“Today, we are confronting these fears directly,” Shattuck said. “We are looking inside the struggle. There are many differences between these movements. We can't compare them in an easy academic way, but they have common enemies: racism, segregation and a common history. In the U.S., we have the legacy of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. In Europe we have the legacy of the Holocaust.”

Taylor Branch, a historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, gave the opening keynote on the fight for civil rights during the 1950s and 1960s, a movement that grew out of what he calls the “lost history” of African-Americans.

“The history of African-Americans in the U.S. was poorly preserved, if at all,” Branch said. “Most textbooks, if they mentioned it, discussed the end of slavery, but didn't address how slaves arrived or were treated, because it was an uncomfortable topic.”

In all, 11 million slaves were brought to the U.S. from Africa during the colonial period and aside from the poor physical treatment they endured, they were further humiliated by amendments like the Three-Fifths Compromise. The compromise allowed for imbalanced representation of the interests of Southern slaveholders in Congress as population counts included each slave as three-fifths of a free person.

“When I was growing up in the South, in Atlanta, I was taught that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. I was told that slaves were much better off in the U.S. than as 'savages' in Africa,” Branch said, “Sixty percent of African Americans were either domestics or day laborers when I was growing up. They had no money, no protection, and no way to organize, yet they began a movement. A movement is a social process, an inspiration that grows. How does it grow? By people taking risks.”

Taylor Branch, historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, gives the opening keynote. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel
Taylor Branch, historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, gives the opening keynote. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel

Branch said the leaders of the movement had to study democracy down to its roots because they were lacking access to the usual “weapons” of democracy. They boiled it down, he said, to the people's ability to be self-governing and the essence of citizenship – building trust through a compact of votes. They asked themselves: what kind of “army” can we raise? The answer was freedom rides and sit-ins.

“Civil Rights supporters sat on those buses and went to the South,” Branch said. “They prepared themselves for violence. They were saying [to aggressors]: 'You can kill me, sir, but I am talking to you and I am making witness that by sitting here, integrated, that we will build bonds of trust – if not between me and you, than between our children.' In that sense, the Civil Rights leaders personified democracy up ahead of where the U.S. was overall.”

Branch praised women for being the backbone of the Civil Rights movement and underscored the effect the movement had on other marginalized groups.

“History is being distorted again in the U.S. We are now misremembering what happened in 1960s,” he said. “Our politics again are showing the ingenuity of white supremacy to revive itself like Dracula to justify what's going on. You'll find very few people who are comfortable with the fact that Civil Rights Movement was at the frontier of opening up opportunities for women, gays, and disabled people. Once you open the issue of equal citizenship, it opens gates naturally. In many respects, the U.S. is still reaping benefits from those black people who were willing to board those freedom buses. But still, our society still wants to see the black people as the patients, the sick people, and we [whites] need to be in charge.”

Continuing the conversation, American broadcast journalist Callie Crossley shared her experience of growing up as a black southerner during the Civil Rights movement.

"Putting yourself in harm's way without a guaranteed triumph was a uniting force that defined the Civil Rights movement," said American broadcast journalist Callie Crossley. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel
"Putting yourself in harm's way without a guaranteed triumph was a uniting force that defined the Civil Rights movement," said American broadcast journalist Callie Crossley. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel

“What the Civil Rights organizers were trying to do was to make America be America for all of its citizens,” she said. “The Civil Rights Movement was about pointing out the hypocrisy that we, the 'other,' are not allowed to participate; you [white people] are not allowing us to participate fully.”

Putting yourself in harm's way without a guaranteed triumph was a uniting force that defined the Civil Rights movement. She emphasized that no one who participated in the movement knew there would be victories; they were taking on huge personal risks. Some even signed their own wills before they got involved. Crossley noted that it was not just a sad and practical reality but it was also a psychological tactic to show outsiders how serious they were – that they believed so deeply in the cause they would be willing to give their lives for it if necessary.

“I am part of a cause bigger than myself – this is what drove it,” she said, encapsulating the attitude of participants. “I know I can lead a cause bigger than myself. I can make other people, who aren't black, understand this because we are all Americans.”

Bringing the discussion back to the European perspective, Zeljko Jovanovic of the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office spoke of the results of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, which ends this calendar year.

“One thing is for sure: [the Decade of Roma Inclusion] exposed the status quo that is working for a very narrow slice of elites,” Jovanovic said. “Despite millions of euros of investment, the situation of Roma is getting worse. I think we need to pause for a moment and rethink the way we think and work. The first hard truth is that anti-gypsyism is embedded in our public structures, school, welfare systems, hospitals, etc. It is not just a personal sentiment, it is a form of exploitation – economic and political.”

Zeljko Jovanovic of the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office spoke of the results of the Decade of Roma Inclusion. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel
Zeljko Jovanovic of the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office spoke of the results of the Decade of Roma Inclusion. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel

Both the Civil Rights Movement and the Roma rights movement are characterized by dedication to a cause bigger than oneself and commitment to education, he said. However, he cited African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois's change of heart after his writings in the early 20th century that claimed education was the key to forming good black leaders. Nearly a half century later, DuBois wrote that education did not automatically make people leaders.

“We are not having open fora where we discuss this,” Jovanovic said. “We don't have progress at the level of discourse but also changes in leadership that we see. The students need to talk about this, NGOs need to work on it, and also academia. We need to question our assumption that higher education will lead to greater leadership among Roma. I wonder whether universities are the places where moral convictions and references are to be nurtured, cultivated and talked about. I am fearful that young people either have no references to draw moral convictions or, on the other side, they seek them from terrorists. I think this is the challenge of our time. We can't expect others to do this job.”

Sherrilyn Ifilll, president and director-counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, delivered her keynote speech via video message. Every group exposed to discrimination has their own struggle, she said.

“We struggled to end legal apartheid in US, we ended discrimination of African-Americans as second-class citizens, we ended segregated education; the black struggle has achieved many victories,” she said.

Although legal apartheid ended 60 years ago, there’s still tension, even violence, she warned. “The U.S. you see today in which police officers kill unarmed black teenagers - that America is very real. We represent the people who live under this terror….You must never assume the right to human dignity is observed - we must vigilantly protect others’ right to human dignity.”

Sherrilyn Ifilll, president and director-counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, delivered her keynote speech via video message. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel
Sherrilyn Ifilll, president and director-counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, delivered her keynote speech via video message. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel

Ifilll spoke of the “enormous appetite” for change in the U.S., driven by the boldness of young people fighting for their lives and future. The videos of violence against unarmed citizens posted on social media are essential in compelling the country to face what it doesn’t want to face, she said. “Americans are now talking about race the way they haven’t for a very long time.”

“I’ve seen the best of my generation beaten, self-medicating, stripped of their human dignity,” said Patrick Gaspard, U.S. ambassador to South Africa.

The community had no shortage of appetite for change, but had humble expectations of what might be possible. That’s the main difference between then and young activists now: they have an immediate expectation of justice. “The infrastructure of messaging has changed: anyone can join in the movement, critique it and comment on it. “We rise again through Wi-Fi.”

In order to end segregation, we need to address inherent bias and structural discrimination and we also need to address lives that matter (#Romalivesmatter), said Angela Kocze, visiting assistant professor at Wake Forest University. Desegregation and the inclusion of Roma are very much part of the discussion, but not how it affects white people. We’re creating social and political boundaries between us and them, Roma and whites.

Andrzej Mirga, chair of the Roma Education Fund, opened the European Roma Rights Crisis panel, and spoke of the four areas of Roma inclusion policy-making: Roma inclusion decision-makers; Roma inclusion policy expertise, Roma inclusion policy implementation, and Roma policy centers and influencers. Roma representatives are mainly involved in the third area. The Roma are part of the conversation but not of the decision-making. They’re not in a position to drive change, he said.

Andrzej Mirga, chair of the Roma Education Fund, opened the European Roma Rights Crisis panel. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel
Andrzej Mirga, chair of the Roma Education Fund, opened the European Roma Rights Crisis panel. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel

Social inclusion doesn’t cover the question of identity, only ethnic identity, said Iulius Rostas, fellow at CEU’s Institute for Advanced Study. “Social inclusion avoids addressing how the voice of the Roma could be heard in democratic processes. There is no social inclusion without power-sharing. Any claim for equality is a claim for power”.

To fix the Roma issue, we need to fix our institutions, and fight the anti-Roma sentiment deeply embedded in our institutions. Knowledge production on Roma needs to be part of social inclusion: anti-gypsyism embodies not only prejudice against otherness but “the embodiment of deviance from European norms.” Universities, institutions must promote knowledge production to know how anti-gypsyism came to being, how it works, he added.

Social inclusion policies can’t succeed without the elimination of prejudices, said Flora Laszlo, executive director of the UCCU Foundation and new CEU Outreach Officer. Communities have a responsibility to listen to new leaders, to invite new knowledge. We need to empower young leaders as universities, NGOs to be able to share their knowledge and communities to be able to receive this knowledge, she said.

Bela Lakatos, the mayor of Acs, a small town in western Hungary, talked about how he managed to systematically eliminate segregation in the local school. He started the integration process with first graders, created vocational class for school dropouts in cooperation with local businesses, and when the proportion of special students was higher, offered to give them more help. “Local institutions don’t support integration. The state would rather get rid of the problem of more Roma kids going to school. They’d rather shape policies to suit majority thinking, majority prejudices,” he said. Acs is the only Roma mayor in Hungary whose jurisdiction is not majority Roma.

Bela Lakatos, the mayor of Acs talked about how he eliminated segregation in the local school. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel
Bela Lakatos, the mayor of Acs talked about how he eliminated segregation in the local school. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel

The second panel, The Roma Rights Movement, turned the topic into a question - is there a Roma rights movement? What are the challenges faced by such a movement?

Mensur Haliti of the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office outlined structural issues - preoccupations, as he called them, with poverty, with waiting for governments to solve problems, and with the Roma-non-Roma relationship.

“We must change by organizing and engaging in democratic life differently,” Haliti said.

Kocze of Wake Forest University said each member of the Roma community must find his/her own way of contributing to the movement and to positive change, as well as ways to work together.

“Some go back to the village, some teach at university, some make policy - we all have our own way of contributing to the movement,” said Kocze, who is also a CEU alumna. “There’s a generational struggle inside the movement. It’s really important to recognize that we are standing on each other’s shoulders, learning from each other’s struggles.”

There is no Roma movement, according to Gabor Daroczi of Romaversitas, adding that there is no consensus even on what kind of movement it should be.

“Do we want to support individuals or communities? If the latter, then we should find the way. Is it a civil movement, the source? Or do we have to be active on the political side?” he said.

“It’s about learning how to dream big across national borders but within localities,” said Romani-American academic Ethel Brooks of Rutgers University. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel
“It’s about learning how to dream big across national borders but within localities,” said Romani-American academic Ethel Brooks of Rutgers University. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel

The audience then heard from Romani-American academic Ethel Brooks of Rutgers University, who grew up in a Romani family that had been in the U.S. for five generations. She was raised with a sense of affinity with the struggle of African-Americans, and her mother “filled [their] trailer with books” to encourage both education and an understanding of the history of the Romani community. That was the connection between her immediate situation and the broader issues of identity and discrimination, she said.

“It’s about learning how to dream big across national borders but within localities,” she said. “In the long term, how do we claim our rights? How do we build upon Romani knowledge and pride? These are challenges but also opportunities.”

The law offers an important route to change, and recognition of Roma rights, according to Djordje Jovanovic of the European Roma Rights Center.

“When I talk to governments that are segregating students I don’t tell them it’s not fair, it’s not nice. I tell them it’s illegal,” he said.

Daroczi countered that approach, citing his work as chairman of Chance for Children Foundation, an NGO that is suing local governments, schools, churches and the Hungarian government for segregating schools. The NGO has won all but one case, but “nothing has changed,” he said.

In her response, journalist Crossley said the Roma must decide when the movement will become a movement that is able to prompt change.

“Where is that moment? That is for the Roma people to decide,” she said. “Where is the moment that helps you, in a disruptive way, to redefine and say out loud, this is unfair and must be changed?”

“Television and the Civil Rights Movement grew up together,” said Crossley, who opened the panel “The Role of the Media”.

“Southern newspapers downplayed black movements. Their reporters came, took pictures, but these never got published,” said Crossley. It was only local black newspapers that could counterbalance the biased reporting, and thanks to the popular train services, whose employees would distribute them to other states, they have become “national” in a sense. None of these could, however, approximate the influence of the New York Times.

It was an important turning point when senior New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury reported on the violence and segregation in Birmingham, Alabama in his article “Fear and Hatred Grip Birmingham.”

“It was television, though, that catapulted the movement to the forefront,” said Crossley. Leaders of the movement realized that they have to strategize to gain coverage for their goals.

From 1950 to 1960 the percentage of American households with TV sets soared from 9 to 90 percent. At this time only three networks operated, so the Civil Rights Movement could get nationwide coverage. The Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 were reported on all channels and “when 48 million people watched the events of Bloody Sunday, there was no turning back,” she said.

The audience listens to Callie Crossley in CEU's Auditorium. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel
The audience listens to Callie Crossley in CEU's Auditorium. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel

“With the advent of social media, a new type of activism emerged. They don’t wait for the media, they are the media,” said Crossley. The million hoodies movement that started after the killing of Trayvon Martin was the first campaign organized using social media that had a big impact. The movement #BlackLivesMatter sprung in its aftermath to fight against racist violence, but also for the equality of trans, queer and disabled citizens.

“Roma don’t have a voice in mainstream television. In news programs less than 20 percent of the Romas portrayed are given the opportunity to talk and express their opinion,” said Vera Messing, researcher at CEU’s Center for Policy Studies, who analyzed the portrayal of Roma in mainstream Hungarian media. According to Messing, Roma’s are portrayed mostly as an “ordinary person” or child, almost never giving expert opinion, not interviewed in the context of their profession, solely portrayed because he or she is Roma.

The key issues the Hungarian Roma population has to face – unemployment, difficult access to healthcare, education and housing – are rarely discussed in reports on policy. The usual topic is “how much the state is doing for Roma” instead.

“Racist speech has also become mainstream in contrast to the early 2000’s and these voices are more and more prevalent in mainstream media. Earlier the media authority sanctioned these instances much more strictly,” said Messing.


 Researcher at CEU’s Center for Policy Studies, Vera Messing discusses the portrayal of Roma in mainstream media. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel
Researcher at CEU’s Center for Policy Studies, Vera Messing discusses the portrayal of Roma in mainstream media. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel

In their visual portrayal Roma are mostly shown as passive crowds, mostly men and mostly faceless. “A classic shot is of a crowd, walking away, taken from below to minimize any possible identification with them,” said Messing. Another regular visual element is the neglected environment, with clothes hanging around the houses, children and dogs playing in the dirt. Many of the pictures shown of dilapidated houses are shots of abandoned buildings.

“Police raids on Roma flats in Miskolc, Hungary were recorded by the local television, but the program was constructed according to the police’s narrative, with no opportunities for the Roma to tell what they experienced. Cutting and manipulating their interviews is also a regular practice,” said Messing.

The Roma Press Center is the most important outlet that goes against the trends and tries to get news across the media that give a realistic picture of Roma life in Hungary. Successes of Roma in talent shows also had a positive effect lessening prejudice somewhat and providing positive role models for young Roma.

“The image of Roma as freedom-loving, misunderstood outcasts with outstanding musical skills has not changed radically since the 19th century in the West, while we have seen a fundamental development in the portrayal of African-Americans,” said Katalin Barsony, executive director of Romedia Foundation. She also emphasized that Roma professionals, lawyers, employers are still very rarely seen on television.

Katalin Barsony, executive director of Romedia Foundation wants to change the century-old stereotypes about Roma. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel
Katalin Barsony, executive director of Romedia Foundation wants to change the century-old stereotypes about Roma. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel

Referring to the second screen phenomenon, which means that people often use their mobile phones while watching television, Barsony said that “television is still big, its power is not reduced, but amplified by social media, with people tweeting and commenting about the programs they watch.” Barsony also commented on the Roma media scene in Hungary, which was relatively diverse and lively from the 90’s till the early 2000’s when most of them disappeared due to a lack of funding.

The importance of creating a common narrative and history for the Roma is also a major task,  according to Barsony. “There is an ongoing debate among the different Romani sub-groups and dialects what should provide the basis of common Roma identity. On the other hand, the representation of Roma should not be uniform based on the old stereotypes,” said Barsony. She added that there is a wide recognition among Roma that the superficial, patronizing and racist portrayal of their culture needs to be addressed.

“At this point we have to ask what CEU can do for the Roma?” said CEU President Shattuck at the final wrap-up of the conference. He mentioned providing education as the first and most obvious task, adding that CEU has a lot of Roma students whom “we are very proud of.” Shattuck also mentioned offering a safe space for real debate as an important service the university can provide. Facilitating the expression and communication of “the great contribution Roma culture has made to the world” is another task Shattuck wants CEU to undertake.

Ellen Hume, Annenberg Fellow in Civic Media at CEU’s Center for Media, Data and Society, main organizer of the two-day conference. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel
Ellen Hume, Annenberg Fellow in Civic Media at CEU’s Center for Media, Data and Society, main organizer of the two-day conference. Image credit: CEU, Daniel Vegel

“I used to teach people how to be empowered in the media, because I was from the media. I always advised people to have their own story to tell, and find a way to tell it. As we have heard in Sherrilyn Ifill’s video speech, even if you win the legal battles, you cannot expect them to translate into cultural change. You have to constantly push against stereotypes,” said Ellen Hume, Annenberg Fellow in Civic Media at CEU’s Center for Media, Data and Society. Hume was the main organizer of the historic two-day conference.