05 December 2000
Czech authorities are lying. They claim that in the Czech Republic, no information about individuals' ethnicity is kept by state authorities, since to do so would, according to a commonly held view, violate the right of the individual freely to determine his or her own personality. In claiming that the state is race-blind and that Czech authorities are not busy tracking and documenting the lives of Roma in the Czech Republic, Czech authorities make music to the ears of that segment of the Romani leadership which has learned well the lessons of the Romani past: that Roma should hide, not be seen, stay out of sight, and when the time comes, run; that exposure is the first part of destruction. Nazis documented, and then they killed. Communists documented, and then they invaded the Romani family, broke up Romani homes, sent generations of Romani children to state institutions, worked hard to stamp out Romani culture. That all ended only ten years ago. Victory, in the circumstances, according to some, is erasure.
But Czech authorities have not ceased documenting Roma at all. During ERRC research in the eastern Czech city of Ostrava in early 1999, although school directors and other schooling authorities universally protested that they could not "determine their pupils' identities for them", nearly every school the ERRC visited had on file a list of pupils according to whether or not they were "Gypsies". The ERRC ultimately gathered a thick dossier including the numbers of Romani pupils at eighty schools in Ostrava, all provided by school directors offering up the contents of their own files. Similarly, in October 1999, employees of Czech Airlines stated that British immigration officials had requested information on the ethnicity of Czech citizens travelling to Britain on Czech Airlines flights and they had been providing it, marking lists with "G" for "Gypsy", "for years". More recently, representatives of a local non-governmental organisation provided the ERRC with a form used by the Czech Ministry of the Interior to document information on perpetrators. The form includes a space to register whether the individual at issue is from a "statistically meaningful group"; one possible answer is the number 1, which is code for "person of Romani ethnicity" (see the form reproduced at Skinhead attacks on Roma in Czech Republic).
The Czech state is not blind to the ethnicity of those Roma who choose not to tell authorities that they are Roma. Czech authorities methodically document "Gypsies" wherever they find them. They quietly conduct surveillance, build databases, and render decisions based on information gathered. Czech authorities continue a practice they claim was ended following the victory of democracy over communist totalitarianism in 1989. But they deny that they do so.
The Czech Republic is not the only country in which databases on Roma are quietly built and used. Allegations of their existence persist in Austria, Germany and Hungary, and that list is far from exhaustive. Yet in many cases, authorities claim such documentation does not exist or, more commonly, that race registries were kept "until recently", but that state authorities have now seen the error of their ways and ceased doing so. Such an explanation reigns until the next scandalous disclosure that, in fact, the state is keeping registries on race.
According to the present bad arrangements, race registries exist for governments to use, but are out of the control of the individual being spied on, and off limits to organisations like the ERRC, which might use them to show what many assert but few can show well: not only, for example, that Roma are segregated in housing and schooling arrangements and sentenced more often to longer prison terms than non-Roma, but also that this state of affairs is getting steadily worse as anti-Romani sentiment throughout Europe enjoys a high tide of popularity.
The ERRC works to end racism. We "fight" racism, to use the clumsy metaphor. In doing so, we tilt at shadows, aiming to bring to an end phenomena hard to grasp and actions the symbolic content of which is frequently disputed. We are joined in this "struggle" by the Czech Republic, which, like all other European states with the exception of Andorra, Ireland and Turkey, has converted the commitment to end racism to legal obligation by ratifying the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In this work, either states aspire to real race-blindness in their own affairs and abandon documenting race once and for all; or states engage to determine discriminatory patterns by gathering data to use in the service of ending discriminatory practices. Lying about the existence of registries, however, stinks.