Tag Archives: discrimination

The European race to the bottom on the Roma

by Rhodri C. Williams

It is something of a truism now that many Eastern European EU member states remain threateningly uncomfortable places for their Roma citizens almost a decade after having solemnly plighted their troth to the Copenhagen criteria, non-discrimination standards and all. Even the briefest perusal of the European Roma Rights Centre website provides ample evidence. To wit, for instance, this charming encounter between a busload of visibly drunken football supporters and a schoolyard of Roma children three weeks ago in Konyár, Hungary:

…the group got off the bus and threatened the Romani school children. They sang the national anthem and the anthem of Transylvania (Szekler anthem) and shouted racist, anti-Roma expressions (“dirty gypsies, we will come back soon”). They made gestures threatening to cut the children’s throats. Some members of the group also urinated in front of the school building.

***

In addition, the relevant school has previously been involved in a racist scandal. Earlier this year, a teacher at the school was dismissed after making racist comments about Roma on video. He said that Roma children are primitives, dirty and smelly, but who understand the physical punishment only, and that they should have their spines broken.

The teacher was fired from the school after the incident. The NGOs are concerned that the group may have targeted the school, which is not in an obvious location for a rest stop on this route. The fact that the former teacher was also on the bus suggests that the school was deliberately targeted. The subsequent events, including threats to children and shouting racist statements should have been investigated and clarified immediately by police.

Ah, the discreet charm of the post-socialist bourgeoisie. And yet – it is also a truism that many of the more established Western European EU member states may benefit from the splashy, full-bore racism in the East in the sense that it obscures their own slightly more sophisticated versions. In recent weeks, Italy and France have come under renewed criticism on this score, as – more unexpectedly – has Sweden.

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Briefing on property issues in southern Kyrgyzstan

TN reader ‘Kaigyluu’ has kindly provided this blog with an updated overview of the complicated and politically charged property question in Osh and Jalalabad, the towns in southern Kyrgyzstan most affected by the June 2010 violence between the Kyrgyz majority population and the Uzbek minority. The briefing, which is posted on the resources page of TN, describes the manner in which attempts to provide durable solutions for Uzbek displaced persons by rebuilding their destroyed neighborhoods are complicated by both the legacy of Soviet social engineering and the burden of contemporary nationalist politics.

Week in links – week 10/2011

First, the weblog equivalent of a moment of silence for the victims of the ongoing disaster in Japan. Six years after their adoption and sixteen years after the similarly devastating Kobe quake that gave rise to them, the Hyogo Declaration and Framework for Action on disaster risk reduction face a gruesomely concrete field test.

Second, on an administrative note, I should announce a likely hiatus in TN postings over the next ten days or so, during which I will be on mission in West Africa. I hope that a few guest-postings may land during that period (and they will be rushed to press) but its likely to be pretty quiet here otherwise.

Moving to news, UN housing rights rapporteur Raquel Rolnik focused on the right to housing in post-conflict and disaster reconstruction settings in her latest annual report. While I have not yet had the chance to review the report in detail, it is interesting to note that the press release focuses heavily on land rights for affected persons. From this perspective, there is likely to be some overlap with last year’s humanitarian guidance on post-disaster land issues (posted on by Esteban Leon here).

The FAO has released a new report on gender equality in agriculture that focuses on women’s unequal access to the various economic opportunities and inputs that would let them compete with men – and the enormous price tag of such bias in a hungry world where women make up 43 percent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries. If TN readers are willing to overlook one appalling pun (“a level ploughing field”), they will find much of interest.

The New York Times followed up on articles from October  2010 and January of this year with a more recent piece on the complications faced by NATO troops in Afghanistan attempting to compensate villagers for property destroyed in the course of counter-insurgency fighting.

Finally, following up on last week’s posting on the Economist’s special report on agriculture, I should point out that my plug for this week’s corresponding report on ‘property’ may have been a case of irrational exuberance. The new special report is a fascinating read on property as an investment, the ostensible safety of which appears increasingly fragile in an era of recurrent bubbles. Of great interest to me, but perhaps more in my capacity as a mortgage-holder in one of Europe’s few remaining bubble candidates than as a blogger.

Restitution comes to Hamtramck, Michigan

by Rhodri C. Williams

Yesterday’s New York Times reports on a case of restitution in response to a discriminatory pattern of wrongful evictions carried out beginning in the 1950s and 60s. Lake Bogoria, Kenya? Northern Iraq? Nope. Hamtramck (“pronounced ham-TRAM-eck”), Michigan, just outside Detroit.

By the Times’ account, Hamtramck is a rather independent little place that refused incorporation with the metropolis that now fully surrounds it. It is also a former Polish enclave, which now, despite having become one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the Detroit area, is still busy counting down to this year’s “Paczki Day”, featuring “polka music from Misty Blues, traditional Polish dancers, the Paczki Toss, the “Paczki Express” Historic Bus Tour, a visit from the Detroit Tigers’ mascot, Paws, and much more.”

Finally, it is also one of many American cities that used urban renewal and highway construction as a means of obliterating black neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s, atomizing communities, fueling the cynical practice of racial “block-busting” and ultimately driving white flight to the suburbs.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, another mid-western burgh, I grew up in the safety of the ‘burbs without ever considering the strangeness of the fact that the poor black neighborhood north of downtown went by the distinctly teutonic moniker of “Over the Rhine” or questioning why the entire western quadrant of central Cincinnati had been given over to a monstrous tangle of freeways.

It was only later, in college, when I bent my newly minted skills as an urban geography major to analysis of my hometown that I realized the design behind these seemingly random phenomena. The freeways had replaced the West End, a thriving mixed-income black neighborhood, whose uprooted residents were scattered as promised replacement housing fell far short of needs. The arrival of black families into neighborhoods like Over the Rhine was, in turn, used by real estate brokers to put greater urgency into the migration of fourth and fifth generation German immigrants and other whites to the suburban sprawl at the edge of town.

The cynicism and waste of it all was a revelation, as was the fact that my formative years had been spent in the midst of the resulting tensions and contradictions without me – or any of my peers that I can recall – having ever really questioned them. It was the late eighties then and we were still a few years shy of the great international bloom of what would eventually come to be known as transitional justice initiatives, but my experience with Over the Rhine helped to shape my own sense of the subtle but tenacious grip the past has on the present.

But back to Hamtramck: a remedy for black families displaced under the guise of urban renewal was ordered by a federal court in 1971. Despite a finding that the city had followed a clear strategy to remove blacks, the decision itself became the object of further politicking over the next two decades, according to an AP article published in January:

In 1971, after a three-week trial, a federal judge said Hamtramck had a clear strategy when it demolished housing in poor neighborhoods. Blacks were 14.5 percent of Hamtramck’s population in 1960, but only 8.5 percent six years later, noted Damon Keith, now a judge on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.It took until 1980 for all sides to agree to a solution: Two hundred family housing units, as well as 150 units for senior citizens, would be offered at below-market rates to black plaintiffs in the lawsuit. It didn’t take long to build the senior housing, but construction on the rest didn’t start until 2004.

“Attitudes, funds and skills were the three missing ingredients,” said Michael Barnhart, attorney for the victims. “The city was still fighting it. Secondly, they didn’t have the money. Hamtramck was in and out of state receivership.”

The city’s current lawyer, James Allen Sr., agreed.

“This litigation was used as a political wedge issue. The us-versus-them mentality kept people in political office,” he said.

That changed when Gary Zych became mayor in the late 1990s. He said resolving the discrimination case was a moral issue as well as a practical one. Hamtramck couldn’t develop vacant land for other purposes until it built the subsidized housing.

It has been a long time coming, but restitution is currently well underway in the teeth of the financial crisis, with 100 homes completed for rental or sale and the rest slated for completion within the year. The remedial program also follows a lot of what would elsewhere be called transitional justice best practices. For instance, where direct victims have died since the case was brought, their children and grand-children are entitled to move into the new housing in their stead. Implementation of the program has also been assisted through consultative processes brokered by civil society actors including fair housing advocates and local clergy. And, perhaps most important, delivery of the houses has been accompanied by genuine acknowledgment of the harm that was originally done through the clearances. As reported in the Times:

Just weeks ago, [displaced former resident] Ms. Sanders moved into a new ranch-style house on the same street where her family once lived, and Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm personally handed over the keys. As a young lawyer, Ms. Granholm was a clerk to Judge Keith [who issued the 1971 decision] in the late 1980s.

“We went full circle, and it’s pretty wonderful,” said Ms. Sanders, whose parents, now dead, were among the 250 plaintiffs who sued the city. “To acknowledge that, O.K., they were wrong, that gives me a little satisfaction because my parents were mistreated so. I just wish they were here to see it.”

Restitution in Hamtramck stands out both for the fact that it happened at all and for its isolation. Urban renewal and highway extensions were commonly used to clear black neighborhoods in the decades after World War II, but Hamtramck appears to represent the only judicial challenge to this practice that was brought to fruition. If it were to be taken as a nationwide precedent, the implications for municipal governments across a broad swathe of the midwest from Cincinnati to Syracuse would be significant (to say the least). From a legal perspective, the statutes of limitation for such suits have surely long since run, whatever arguments one might make about the capacity of the victim to bring suits at the time of the violations. Again, from the Times:

The home building is also what experts call a bittersweet finale to one of the longest-running housing discrimination suits to weave its way through court, having begun in the civil rights era. Beyond its age, the case is also distinctive in that it happened at all. While Hamtramck may be an extreme example, experts said housing discrimination against blacks in the mid-1900s was common, but class-action lawsuits were rare because of their expense and complexity.

However, from a social perspective, the Hamtramck decision, along with its belated acceptance and implementation, stand as another reminder of the fact that Americans, even in the age of Obama, still do not benefit from a completely level playing field. The opportunities of my white suburban classmates were shaped by the mobility their ancestors had enjoyed to move out of neighborhoods like Over the Rhine to suburban areas with well-funded schools and subsidized highways. Meanwhile, the opportunities of many black teenagers of my generation were crimped by policy decisions and commercial practices that destroyed the viable neighborhoods built by their grandparents and barred them access to better ones.

Given the American allergy to being described by the human rights concepts we were instrumental in developing, it wouldn’t do much good to talk about transitional justice. And anyone who turned up in Hamtramck with a copy of the Pinheiro Restitution Principles would probably end up at the wrong end of the annual Paczki Toss. So, in more American terms, it is at least satisfying to see justice done in Hamtramck and know that even if the settlement there will bring no material benefit to the thousands of families uprooted in other mid-western cities two generations ago, it may at least bring a degree of acknowledgment.