Roma: Everybody Knows

By Marcello Cassanelli

When it comes to Roma, everybody seems to be an authority on the subject. Everybody knows what all Roma look like, that they can’t possibly be blond, that they all hail from Romania (Roma – Romania, of course); everybody knows that they beg, that they don’t like to wash themselves, that they don’t want their children to have a proper education, that they want to live in camps encircled by barbed wire; everybody knows that they don’t want to assimilate, prefer to live as nomads, all the while exploiting Europe's generous welfare States; everybody knows that they practice magic, that they are all gifted musicians and circus people; and – last but not least – that they steal (babies and more).

Furthermore, everybody knows that Roma are what they are because they have always been like that, that their ‘Romaness’ is genetically inherited and will be passed on to future generations; that this 'Romaness' stretches back in time and across borders like some golden thread weaving back to some Transylvanian valley still in the shadows of vampires.

I never cease to be amazed by the certainty of those experts on the subject of Roma and the oddly furious pride they take in displaying their expertise. I am baffled because having worked for a few years for and with Roma, after having lived and shared my daily life with Roma colleagues and friends, I can't find a shred of evidence for such racist assertions.

But the comments keep coming. And that’s why I decided to do some research into all of this, in particular to find the source of the idea that Roma inherit so much from their ancestors, that works on them like a kind of birthmark they can’t hide nor change.

I began searching for some authoritative source to explain this “inheritance factor” in a credible manner and, to my astonishment, I discovered a whole science dedicated to this, and it’s an old school with scholars, camp followers, debates and all the attendant academic trappings.

It’s called “Anthropological Criminology” and its main tenet was that “criminality was inherited, and that someone "born criminal" could be identified by physical defects, which confirmed a criminal as savage or atavistic”. My latent national pride surged when I learned that this ‘school’ had its golden age in late 19th Century Italy. Its toxins would seep into the ‘Golden Twenties’ of Italian Fascism and beyond.

The whole thing was started by the eminent Italian criminologist Professor Cesare Lombroso (credited with popularising the term ‘born criminal’), who was undoubtedly inspired by observing his fellow-countrymen in the search for detectable inferior physiological differences. In fact, he posited that Northern Italians and Southern Italians were two different races and went on to claim that “Southern Italians were more crime-prone and lazy because they were unlucky enough to have less Aryan blood than their northern countrymen”.

Lombroso and his disciples supported their claims with autopsy findings on criminals and declared that they had discovered similarities between the physiologies of their bodies and those of "primitive humans”, monkeys and apes. They outlined 14 physiognomic characteristics that are common in all criminals and – for some reason I can’t quite grasp – declared that the female offender was worse than the male.

Needless to say, Cesare Lombroso was lucky enough to be born in Romeo & Juliet’s lovely Verona, way up north, where more Aryan blood runs in the veins of Italian citizens. So, in the end, it’s all about luck - for if you are born in Verona you will have inherited the good blood, and all the other good stuff that sets you apart from the more atavistic types; all that stuff you would be missing, if like me you were born in the southern city of Bari. On the same lines, if you’re European you must be a far better person than someone who is originally from Africa, Asia or Alpha Centauri.

Despite the fact that the founding tenets of Anthropological Criminology were well rubbished early on in the 20th Century, despite the fact that eugenics and biological racism are beyond the pale among reasonable people in the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust, it is incredible that the notion of genetically inherited traits, especially deviant ones, still exercises such a powerful hold on the popular imagination when it comes to Roma. Vast numbers of 21st Century European citizens still firmly believe that criminality is an inherited predisposition, and that as far as Roma are concerned, it is in their blood.

Maybe I should keep this inherited, self-evident ‘truth’ in mind next time I visit one of the brand new all-Roma temporary shelters provided by the good-blooded burghers of the northern city of Milan. I could enter the containers and explain to the 30 or 40 Roma cramped in each of them that they were just unlucky to inherit what they inherited. Paying particular attention to the children, I will explain to them that they are the new, natural born criminals - that they're never gonna change because there is nothing they can do about the blood that runs through their veins.

I will say farewell and leave the rat-infested shelters, surrounded by busy railway tracks and desolate fields, clouded by the smog of smoky pollution from nearby factories, and I will bid those huddled within good cheer, for after all they’re lucky to have found temporary shelter on Via Lombroso of all places. Despite their inherited bad luck, the good municipality has provided them with a good temporary solution, regardless of their inherited bad blood.

Though Lombroso’s theories have long been declared absurd, unfounded, stupid, racist and risible, there are many of you out there, who believe that better blood runs in your veins, that your good and superior qualities are inherited, and set you apart from the atavistic others. Well for those of you, on that lonely good side of the tracks, goodness is in your blood, you've inherited it, so don't fight it, just feel it, I’m sure you will make good use of it.

donate now

Challenge discrimination, promote equality

be informed

Receive our public announcements Receive our Roma Rights Journal

news portal

The latest Roma Rights news and content online

join us

Become a part of the ERRC's activist network in Europe