The Progressive Post

No choice between fighting antigypsyism and the expansion of social rights

social anthropologist, associate professor at the Central European University, Budapest-Vienna. Her research focuses on ethnic and gender inequalities, post-socialist socio-economic transformations and social justice and pro-equality civil society formations.

Roma equality struggles are to be promoted by framing intervention strategies both through the lens of fighting antigypsyism and that of expanding social rights, ideally in alliance. Therefore, progressive forces should endorse and take advantage of a recent conceptual move which increases the potential of a thick social rights-driven political agenda.

The first EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies (2011-2020) was an important step towards the construction of a Roma equality policy infrastructure. The strategic framework resulted from constructive debates about duty-based anti-discrimination and more ambitious outcome-based equality thinking. The strategic framework generated high expectations about the EU’s capacity to enforce dedicated Roma equality policies and left many civil society actors and experts deeply disappointed with the implementation, which raised questions concerning the very relevance of the strategy. The new EU framework strategy (2021-2030) for Roma equality policies had to respond to revised political claims in a world which is not less challenging than the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. 

The framing of strategic political and policy statements always embodies the outcomes of preceding debates and guides subsequent intervention strategies. It is argued that the Roma quality concerns were framed through human-rights reasoning in the 1990s and early 2000s, and through social and economic inclusion from the late 2000s. In the 2010s, the concept of antigypsyism was intensively discussed and by the end of the decade, it gained traction in civil society and high-level political discussions. The term is meant to unveil poorly understood domains of ethnic and racial oppression and calls for policy thinking of transformative objectives.

Such a shift in policy framing was inspired by an understanding that the 2011-2020 strategy was blind to the continuous ‘headwind’ of antigypsyism. It was not properly diagnosed that antigypsyism motivates both action and inaction in law enforcement and tackling discrimination and hate crimes. Similarly, it was overlooked that antigypsyism undermines state responsibility to design and implement social inclusion policy measures. With the new framing of fighting antigypsyism, Roma and pro-Roma organisations advocated for stressing broad transformative interventions targeting entrenched mechanisms of exclusion. Further, the framing shift was also underscored by arguments that the non-Roma critically view their privileges and engage in reconciling the power gap between them and the Roma. 

The new EU framework strategy has found a compromise between racial justice and social equality considerations. It acknowledges that widespread antigypsyism is a crucial barrier to effective inclusion policies. In the new national strategies that member states were obliged to draft in compliance with the new EU framework strategy, antigypsyism is mostly articulated as a standalone field of action. Recognising antigypsyism rarely informs crosscutting thinking in key sectoral policy areas of Roma equality and inclusion. Only a few national strategies stress mainstream society’s responsibility for the inclusion of vulnerable populations through inclusive education, fighting poverty, the elimination of ghettos or eliminating indirect discrimination in all fields. In short, member state governments need to learn a lot more and faster to embrace the framing of fighting antigypsyism. 

Progressive political forces should acknowledge that fighting antigypsyism has become a powerful language of political salience. As a stand-alone policy field, it sheds light on those elements of racial discrimination that cannot be easily captured by standard attention to anti-discrimination and it magnifies the neglected values of Roma culture, history and social knowledge. As a cross-cutting policy paradigm, it strives to uncover how a majority in society overlooks its privileges and accepts institutional practices which result in segregation and differential service provision. Furthermore, fighting antigypsyism often serves as a meta-frame which stands for cultural decolonisation, political participation, access to social welfare, and racial justice as well, notably every pillar of Roma equality. Regardless of this all-encompassing perspective, the fighting antigypsyism framing should be actively promoted by all European progressive forces for its historical conscience, its call upon the majority to take responsibility, recalling the state its duty to act, and its transformative objectives.

Simultaneously to deconstructing systemic power imbalances between the majority and ethnically defined groups in society, equally robust attention should be paid to how socio-economic conditions of individuals, families and groups, cutting across ethnic lines, continue to generate grave social inequalities in society. The transformations in global capitalism and the responses to recent crises have made participation in the economy and welfare provisions not more egalitarian by the 2020s than any time earlier. This is true despite massive state interventions during the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent energy crisis in Europe. 

Parallel to the rise of the concept of antigypsyism in Roma equality struggles, socio-economic inequalities have gained significance close to other major inequality grounds protected by EU hard law. This move powerfully increases the potential of a thick social rights-driven political agenda and policy visions. 

It is argued that people in poverty and precarity face ‘social maltreatment’ in society due to market and other forces. They also face the failure of public and private institutions to respond appropriately to their circumstances and needs. These failures are systemic and often lead actors to rationalise their discriminatory behaviour according to the expectations of others. Well-functioning markets do not delegitimise discrimination as irrational behaviour. In fact, markets register social norms, and reflect dominant prejudices in hiring, promotion and meeting the expectations of customers. Therefore, maltreatment based on socio-economic condition should be seen as a ‘suspect ground‘ of inequality deserving hard antidiscrimination and active transformative interventions. Accordingly, states should enact regulatory and policy frameworks which do not discriminate against people in poverty and precarity, and guide private actors as well. States should guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against structural and systemic discrimination through affirmative action. A failure to provide reasonable accommodation to people, who need it, is a form of maltreatment.

To have access to basic conditions of life irrespective of the one’s purchasing power is a mirror rationale to the prohibition of discrimination. It calls for transformative social-right based legal and state activism. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has a pioneer voice by noting that the provision of food, water, electricity, sanitation and basic education, hence essential goods and services, should remain affordable to all. A state may be in violation of its duty to protect from discrimination if it fails to guarantee equal access to essential goods and services. It is noteworthy that some EU member states (and beyond) have moved to prohibit discrimination on grounds of ‘social precarity’ or ‘economic vulnerability’. As Olivier De Schutter, a lead expert of this pioneering conceptual progress, argues, “Coercion by the power of the purse, resulting in an abuse of the economic vulnerability of individuals in need, is as problematic as physical coercion”. This expansion of legal reasoning for social rights and corresponding state duties should be welcomed by all progressive political forces in Europe.

In conclusion, Roma equality struggles are to be promoted by both fighting antigypsyism and social rights framings, ideally in cooperation or even alliance. The latter framing often uses terms to mark grave inequality experiences such as poverty, vulnerability and precarity, which the Roma equality advocates consider stigmatising and inappropriate. Further dialogue should be conducted to find a widely acceptable language on this ground. As one of the obvious paths eliminating residential segregation and housing deprivation in both rural and urban settings is a field in which the strategic cooperation can be put in place. 

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