Many European organizations, the Open Society Foundation among them, have put a great deal of money and energy into addressing the issue of Roma. Some progress has been made. Roma parliamentarians, business people, journalists, lawyers, and academics have for instance pushed for equal rights for the Roma minority in their respective countries. They are the visible sign that policies of inclusion have worked.
And yet, for the vast majority of Roma, inclusion remains a distant goal. More than 70 percent of Roma live in poverty, and at best only 29 percent graduate from secondary school.
Larry Olomoofe is the racism and xenophobia advisor for the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization of Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Warsaw. After working on Roma issues for many years, he likens the challenge to a Rubik’s Cube. There are a lot of working parts, and it requires considerable coordination. You can make progress up to a certain point, and then it just seems impossible to get any further.
“I’m one of the biggest critics of ‘Romanomics.’ It’s an industry,” Olomoofe told me in an interview in Warsaw in August 2013. “We pump so much money into the situation, and all it does is privilege a few, the ones who know our rules and play our game.”
“If you do a rough estimate of how much money has been pumped into the Roma issue over the last years, let’s just say it’s a billion euro,” he continued. “That’s a conservative estimate at the time I wrote the piece, in 2007-8. And there are 15 million Roma in Europe. They could have given 25-30,000 euros to each Roma! Even if they squandered it, at least it would have been them. Whereas the representatives of the Roma have access to these funds, and it has had no impact on their community.”
We talked about an incident that happened around the time of our discussion in the Hungarian city of Ozd where the mayor shut the water supply to the Roma community. It took place during August when the temperatures had exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
“How is that not part of the Roma discourse that people can still treat “Gypsies” this way?” Olomoofe said. “At the same time, they can lecture me or Roma in the city center to keep quiet? I saw this guy once screaming loudly at a Roma woman for speaking on the metro. Roma rights? The prevalence of Roma discrimination continues. People feel that they can act with impunity, whether it’s ordinary citizens, government officials or neo-Nazi groups that march through their neighborhoods. This process of Roma rights is just a self-propagating mechanism to empower people who are the messengers not the people down below. That’s why it’s like a Rubik’s cube.”
The Roma Decade of Inclusion is set to run until the end of this year. It’s unclear what will happen next, although the various stakeholders have “supported the option of continuing the Decade but in a revised and streamlined form.” That will likely mean less money and less country-level buy-in.
Olomoofe recommends a different approach with the funds allocated to Roma inclusion. “The funds should have been used very differently to create infrastructure in the Roma community,” he concluded. “I’m not talking about housing. That’s still the state’s responsibility in terms of quality of life. But if you want to create a representative system, you have to find a way to get the people involved. I’ve always suggested that there should be more community-based activities. And that’s not to say that it should be politicized. Instead we should create what we call citizen advisory roles in the community itself. There should be a building in the community that does Roma rights at the local level. How you harness that energy is another matter. There are 15 million Roma across Europe: how do you best gain access to those Roma? Instead of creating a structure that pretends to have that access, there should be an organic development, rather than something imposed.”
You were talking about the work on Islamophobia being done here in Warsaw at the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
I have a very precise definition. At the OSCE, the portfolio is not called “Islamophobia.” It’s called “intolerance against Muslims.” And intolerance can manifest itself in a broad variety of ways, which doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s Islamophobia. There’s a danger of collapsing everything into one category, like taking the banal act of someone saying that women shouldn’t wear headscarves in public as Islamophobia instead of as a legitimate critique — in the same way that we question crosses in a classroom. It’s about secularism. A reductive challenge to Islamophobia would suggest that the crosses being removed from public space or the non-display of religious attire or paraphernalia in public offices is a form of phobia or resentment of Christianity: a form of Christianophobia. So you create an illegitimate discourse that serves political interests or needs and doesn’t address the fundamental problem. What we advise in my office is to have a more discerning eye.
The minaret ban in 2009-10, then, isn’t Islamophobia. It’s intolerance or discrimination against Muslims. For me Islamophobia is the obliteration of Islam — in the same that homophobia is the eradication of homosexuality in society. The Danish cartoons of Mohammed then are also not Islamophobia, though people see them as that.
It’s like genocide. If we use the term too broadly, when it does take place…
People are going to be immune to it. Or they’ll say, it’s been with us for so long, why should we pay attention to it? That banalization is a huge danger to our work. We’re trying to capture hearts and minds. We should be concerned about the forms of Islamophobia that create a radicalization that people feel compelled to do something about. We’re looking at that at the OSCE as well. We call it violent extremism leading to radical terrorism, and it’s based in the anti-terrorism unit in Vienna. My advice is that we don’t lose the general human rights approach. Instead we’re focused on a reaction to radicalism, or perceived radicalism. And how do you define radicalism?
There’s the case in Bulgaria involving the 13 imams and that’s the issue: what is radicalism? The question is over what they are doing and what they are saying. It’s a legal discussion and a discussion in the media. The acts involve money transfers from Arab states to the Bulgarian Muslim community. Are these radical acts?
This is a result of 9/11 that allows authorities to encroach on such activities. Money transfers are a byproduct of globalization. When I was growing up in London, my mom was forever sending money back to our family in Nigeria via postal orders. There was no Western Union at that time. When I was living in New York, Western Union was a very lucrative business, in Harlem and Brooklyn especially. International transfers have been with us for a long time. To identify that as somehow connected to terrorism is to implicate I don’t know how many billions of people. It gives the authorities the right or the opportunity to expropriate, and, as you know in some countries, the state now uses this opportunity to cut off sources of international funding.
To dry up support for the so-called foreign agents.
Exactly. In an inverted fashion, it creates the clandestine transfer of funds. I remember when I was in Moscow to do a training with the European Roma Rights Center and I had to carry $20,000 in cash, secreted on my body. Then I had to to hide the money all over my hotel room. It was to pay for accommodation and travel for the participants.
I remember one protest here in Poland organized bizarrely by the Buddhists in alliance with a far-right organization against the building of a mosque. Have there been others?
No. I don’t think there’s too much animosity or tension with Muslims here. I was talking to my friend, who runs the “intolerance against Muslims” portfolio, and he told me about a historical site in Bialystok where there’s a renowned mosque. It’s a landmark that people are proud of. It’s a vestige of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. And there’s no tension in the community.
What you have with these far-right wing groups is the bandwagon effect. They’re just jumping on to the latest trendy thing, in the same way that Gay Pride always causes anti-Gay tension. Because of what happened with the minaret ban, they feel they should do the same here. But there’s no real threat. Unless they conflate Islam with Turks.
My experience here in 1989 was that there were strong levels of racism. There were some attacks against students studying here from other countries. The racism was represented in op-eds and political cartoons. People would say, “We Poles are treated like Africans by the international community, and we shouldn’t be treated that way because we are Europeans.” But it sounds like the situation has changed.
Well, I don’t know how we could test that. But we could look at what happened in the intervening period. When you were here before, Poland wasn’t a member of the EU. It was pretty isolated. There wasn’t a lot of movement. There weren’t many places in the West where Poles could go to other than maybe Germany. Now they are members of the EU and have freedom of movement. They have themselves migrated. And a lot of them have had the usual migrant experience in the UK where they suffer the animosity meted out to typical migrants.
There’s this well-known event that took place in 2011 around Christmas on a tram in London where this woman was caught on camera having a racist rant against any Black person within the vicinity. In the first six or seven seconds, she says, “What is this country coming to? Fucking niggers. Fucking Poles.” I tell people, when I give presentations, that they need to bear this in mind, that they are all potentially migrants somewhere. It’s that knock-on effect. It’s my job to remind them that their extended family, their diasporic family, is subject to the same negativity that they are meting out to others.
To some extent, that’s had some direct impact on the public psyche if not the social consciousness of Poles. They’ve suffered now. They might characterize it now that they’ve been treated the same as Africans. Well, that’s right, they are! That’s the whole point about discrimination. There’s always a lateral movement where one group replaces another. It’s not a rational issue: it’s an emotional one. It makes logical sense that Poles would be seen in a threatening way by hosts. It’s generic. At the time this whole thing started to come out about Poles in Britain, there were approximately 600,000 Poles in Britain. But there’s been a strong connection between Polish émigrés and Britain for a while. I had a lot of Polish friends and I didn’t realize that they were Polish at the time. They were just, for instance, Rob. I didn’t realize that Boronsky was a Polish name. We played football together. There was a Polish community in NW London that congregated every Sunday at the community center and did Polish things. I can see why there’s been this steady migration. It’s another wave of globalization.
I read an article that Polish is now the second language in the UK.
Think about that! Or look at Los Angeles where Spanish is so prevalent in some places. I recall when I used to live in New York, in Spanish Harlem, everything was in Spanish. People didn’t need to speak English. If you wanted to make a buck, you had to learn the language in order to communicate. That’s why I love New York so much. That’s the same thing that can happen with Poles. It’s the biggest Eastern European country in the EU. If you think about the Polish population — its economy, landscape, farming — it’s a lucrative new member.
That’s true. But everyone has expressed a concern about the brain drain here. I was told that Scandinavian countries give third-year medical students here the language training so that they can earn four times the salary in Norway or Sweden. They’re just extracting the intellectual elite.
That’s an inevitability given how the global economic infrastructure operates. The centers of migration attract particular talent. Places like Sweden, given its socio-economic relationship with its neighbors, would do that.
When I used to live in Nigeria, I had a friend who was quite clever. He was born in London, just as I was. And we both ended up in this private school. I asked him what he wanted to do. He said, “I want to go to America.”
“Why?” I asked him.
“Because you can do anything in America.”
I was 17 at the time. It stayed with me. I thought, “Can’t you do anything you want in the UK?” Well, that’s not quite true. America was just too far for me to comprehend. It was completely divorced from my heritage. I had family in London, in Nigeria, but nobody in the United States. I thought it was brave of my friend to just go off there.
That perception is still there today. It’s part of the marketing of America that has sustained itself. People still harbor that ambition even though it’s more difficult to go there after 9/11. As a consequence, many people end up in Canada. They can’t get into America, so that’s the closest thing.
Here it’s so easy to get to the UK by train or bus. A flight can cost 100 euros. And English is a second language in this region. It’s going to continue. People go to these places and get four times their salary because at that salary they’re still cheaper than a local person. And that indicates what the salaries are here. That’s the predominant factor for accession. They can get good quality manpower or talent for one quarter the price.
Let’s go back to the issue of Roma. There was a period of time, which to a certain extent still continues, when a lot of resources went to address the economic and political disparities between Roma and non-Roma as well as persistent discrimination. Have you noticed any significant improvement over that period?
I’m one of the biggest critics of “Romanomics.” It’s an industry. That’s one reason why I left my old organization. It used to be dynamic. It used to pioneer, push boundaries, and establish jurisprudence on Roma rights in the European court system. It was akin to the Legal Defense Fund in the United States. The strategies are the same. After doing a training on Roma in 2008, I came back and wrote a piece I called “The Rubik’s Cube.” It talked about the problematic of Roma rights. Have you ever completed a Rubik’s cube?
Neither have I. I could get three sides, but then I was blocked over the last few squares, so I never got it done. I used this as an analogy for the Roma rights situation. We pump so much money into the situation, and all it does is privilege a few, the ones who know our rules and play our game. During this training for the community, I kept on meeting the same people I’d met over the last five years.
If you do a rough estimate of how much money has been pumped into the Roma issue over the last years, let’s just say it’s a billion euro. That’s a conservative estimate at the time I wrote the piece, in 2007-8. And there are 15 million Roma in Europe. They could have given 25-30,000 euros to each Roma! Even if they squandered it, at least it would have been them. Whereas the representatives of the Roma have access to these funds, and it has had no impact on their community.
You were in Budapest last weekend, right? You heard what happened in Ozd. The local authorities disconnected the water supply to the Roma ghetto at the hottest time of the year. How is that not part of the Roma discourse that people can still treat “Gypsies” this way? At the same time, they can lecture me or Roma in the city center to keep quiet? I saw this guy once screaming loudly at a Roma woman for speaking on the metro. Roma rights? The prevalence of Roma discrimination continues. People feel that they can act with impunity, whether it’s ordinary citizens, government officials or neo-Nazi groups that march through their neighborhoods. This process of Roma rights is just a self-propagating mechanism to empower people who are the messengers not the people down below. That’s why it’s like a Rubik’s cube.”
The Roma Access Program is a necessary program, but not an end in itself. Some people see it as an end in itself because Roma go to the Central European University, get their robes, put their stuff on Facebook, and they’re done. We wanted to create a sense of self-belief in Roma, even a sense of arrogance. Then they could go out and promote themselves and Roma issues. But the problem is that it was internalized as an end in itself. You don’t get people promoting. You get exceptions, not the rule. After 12 years of investment, the 18 year olds are now 30. And all they think about is their own development and progression. That’s the saddest thing.
Where did you want to publish it?
My former organization put out a magazine. And it was the first time that one of my articles had been rejected. It wasn’t a matter of ego or pride. I have other platforms where I can publish. But it’s what was said: “I don’t think we’re the best place to publish this.” After 15 years of doing this kind of work, if they’re not best place to publish it, who is?
And that’s why this thing in Odz affects me so much. After all of this, on the doorstep of many Roma organizations in Budapest, something like this can happen, and all these organizations do is send out a communiqué? Other people did a Facebook campaign to compel the authorities to switch the water back on.
As you said, you were critical of your former organization even before it became a shadow of itself. What could have been and what should be done in terms of avoiding this Talented Tenth approach to Roma rights issues? Would the legal strategy be simply part of a larger strategy?
I worked with the human rights education department. I didn’t actually litigate. But it made me look at strategic litigation as part of a strategic approach. At the time, in 2008, we had the case DH and others v. the Czech Republic, a case on structured discrimination. They were sequestering Roma kids in special schools. We won at the European Court of Human Rights. At the time, we had a new executive director, and she said, “What are we going to do with this?” She thought we had to focus our efforts in the Czech Republic and the Czech Republic alone. And that overlooked the strategic aspect of using the European Court. The European Court case became a precedent that you could apply across the member states. And that was the point. To go to the places where you could find a similar pattern of sequestration or segregation and say to them, “This took place in the Czech Republic. If we take you to court, we’ll win because of this precedent. So let’s work together and try to change it.” That has been the strategic approach.
My job as a human rights trainer was to go into these countries and capacitate judges and government officials so that they could become more congruent with international standards. The directorship at the time thought it better to concentrate energies. We had a falling out at the staff meeting. She asked, “Why would anyone else take this case seriously?” Because they do the same things in their countries! Orsus and others v. Croatia came out later, based on the same result. There was a knock-on effect. If we had to position ourselves properly during the intervening time, things might have changed. Minority Rights international and Amnesty International used this as a catalyzer.
But they didn’t have the grassroots connections that my former organization had, through the internship program, through OSI. And they just let those connections fritter away, or evolve into something else. Now it’s become a token. They’ve lost the momentum. When the strategy was strategic litigation, it included advocacy, research, publishing. We had country reports. And capacity-building. It was a multi-pronged approach that used litigation as a catapult into European society. I saw that the organization was losing its import.
To come to the Talented Tenth part, I used to teach the talented tenth – in internship programs, summer workshops, trainings. They get the positions because they are qualified. The young people will say that they’re the leaders of the Roma movement because they’re educated. And I remind them that many people who were leaders of movements were not educated in a formal way. A person that I look up to on a regular basis is Malcolm X, and he had a checkered history. But he was not formally educated. Education is useful but it’s not always necessary.
Sometimes it can be an impediment!
This is how Roma rights looks like to me today. [A Roma panhandler comes up to us] I don’t give. This is ironic. After all these years of doing this work, we still have this. This is what people still see as Roma. They’ll get kicked out aggressively. But I won’t make that contribution any more.
I was recently talking to a former Roma intern. People who were trained several years ago are now in government positions in her country. She went to one of them and asked for a job. And he said he’d give her a job if she slept with him. This is what Roma rights has come down to. We’re contributing to that.
I’ve always had a problem with creating the Talented Tenth. When DuBois was talking about the Talented Tenth, he was talking about an organic development, which wasn’t necessarily about education per se. It could be different talents — schoolteachers, administrators, provocateurs — in the Black community at the time. He was in the South trying to implement this educational system. What facilities were there? So, people have misapplied this particular theory. Roma rights is a testing ground for all these social engineering projects that didn’t work in the past, so let’s try these new techniques here. The Talented Tenth to do what? They’re supposed to have a purpose.
Let’s take the two extremes — the billion dollars given to Roma NGOs and just giving every Roma $25,000 to do with what they want. If you had a billion dollars as an administrator, is there a different option?
I think there is. The funds should have been used very differently to create infrastructure in the Roma community. I’m not talking about housing. That’s still the state’s responsibility in terms of quality of life. But if you want to create a representative system, you have to find a way to get the people involved. I’ve always suggested that there should be more community-based activities. And that’s not to say that it should be politicized. Instead we should create what we call citizen advisory roles in the community itself. There should be a building in the community that does Roma rights at the local level. How you harness that energy is another matter. There are 15 million Roma across Europe: how do you best gain access to those Roma? Instead of creating a structure that pretends to have that access, there should be an organic development, rather than something imposed.
Roma rights is like a hologram. You flick it different ways and see different things. There’s a perception of what it is and what it should be, and then you get closer and you see that it’s something very different.
When I took the position at my former organization, I had an intern from Bulgaria who has been like a brother to me. He’s slightly older. He’s not a member of the formal Roma human rights structure. He was just a random person who contacted me through our website. I said, “Come over and we’ll see what we can do.” He was raw. But I liked that rawness. He was still connected to people on the ground.
I asked him why he was interested in Roma human rights. He was a singer who also played the guitar.
He said, “My uncle. He has an orphanage.”
“What does your uncle do?”
“He’s an undertaker.”
“How’d he get involved?”
“He was a street child. Now that he’s made some money, he wants to give something back.”
So, my Bulgarian intern took me to this place, on the other side of the tracks in Sofia, off the radar. He took me there at night. It was such a harrowing experience. His uncle who drove us. I remember turning this corner, the road was bumpy, unpaved, and I just saw these eyes, running to the car. These kids were running at us, going “wooh, wooh, wooh.” I asked what was going on. The kids were sniffing glue. Then this woman came up to me and begged me to help her. She had a child. I said I wished I could, but I had money in my pocket that was there for these programs in Haskovo, which we funded and which I was there to assess. I said I couldn’t help her, because I couldn’t give her the money. It wasn’t part of the structure. The uncle said that he helped her however he could. The kids were between six and ten, sniffing glue. They were going completely crazy. These kids were lost. There was no remedial social service in place to rehabilitate them. And what she called home was harrowing too. It was a plastic tarpaulin, maybe from a huge container. It was on some sticks. The only source of light was a candle. It was a death trap. It was snowing and raining at the time.
I got into the car, and I was so angry that a human being at the dawn of the 21st century was living like this — in Europe. It’s important to me to make those distinctions. While the comparison between Africa and Europe might be distasteful, it’s still helpful, because it’s true.
Then I went to the program in Haskovo, which is on the border of Turkey. When I turned up at the office, it turned out to be a room and a fax machine, nothing else. They were getting $300 a month, consistently. I was pissed off. I asked them what they were doing.
“We’re monitoring discrimination,” the woman in the office said.
“So, show me what you’re doing. Show me some documentation.”
She took out an A4 piece of paper, folded up. It was a faxed copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And the fax came from my former organization. And I thought, “We’re paying you?” I closed the program down on the spot. I called the office and told them to stop funding that operation even before I got to the car to go back.
My intern asked, “Why’d you do that?”
I said, “You saw that woman yesterday.”
“I never saw anybody do that before,” he said.
That’s how we became friends. I look at his uncle, who uses his own resources and is not part of the organized Roma infrastructure, and he does more for those kids in his own little way. He has created something palpable in the community. It’s organic. This artificial selection, this cherrypicking of the Talented Tenth is not the solution. It’s disruptive.
It’s a paradox. In some way, it’s the presence of these organizations with their money that compounds the problem. So, the spectrum I offered was not entirely accurate because there are problems that exist outside this spectrum.
What’s disgraceful is that they should know about these realities. They’re identifying people to go back and work in the best interests of their communities. But it’s not happening. If you were to do some research among Roma communities and ask them what they think about the Roma HR discourse, they’ll say it’s all about people exploiting them, whether they’re Roma or not. Some Roma have said to me, “if we’re going to be exploited, we’d rather be exploited by our own, not by gadje.” That’s progress? It’s not a paradox. It’s a contradiction, and I’m not the first person to see it. Many people see it but don’t want to accept it. They get invited to these nice public events, which are just a facade. If the problem were solved today, these people would have nothing.
When I used to work on Roma rights, people asked me, “Why aren’t you working on civil rights with Black people?” I don’t want to be categorized by my race or ethnicity. I have particular skills that can be applied across the spectrum. I have particular oratorical skills that don’t just have to be used on behalf of Black people. Part of my role in life is to confound assumptions and perceptions and push for newer realities. I’m currently working as a diplomat for an international organization. Many people don’t expect that when they see me. I’m happy for them to be confronted by that. Maybe they’ll learn as a result not to stereotype people. You can’t do that with Roma. People get chosen because of their Roma identity. With the closing of certain funds, there will be chaos: all these Talented Tenth with no jobs and no capacity to do something else because they can’t compete as a consequence of tokenism.
How has your previous experience working on Roma issues translated into the work you do now?
I came here in a management position as a deputy head of department. I also have experience in training. Part of my job is to capacitate members of staff. When I came here, people asked me why I wanted to leave my last job. I wanted a new challenge. The OSCE needed to take ownership of what they did. I work on hate crimes specifically. I’m not completely out of the Roma thing, it’s just a different approach. I used to work as a consultant for the OSCE to develop their portfolio on hate crimes. I was part of the review committee for their publications. They did pioneering training here in Warsaw and in Hungary and in Bulgaria. I was involved in this. When the deputy head position came up, I applied for it. I always felt that the OSCE paid us as consultants but didn’t retain what was produced. It was just an item on their website. But they didn’t actually do the training. They funded the training. It was important for them to take ownership and for it to become institutionalized.
That’s what I said in my job interview for the OSCE. If I came into the post, part of my job would be to help to create the momentum so that they could do their own trainings. Four years on, we are now doing our own training without consulting external experts. There was a shift in my position. I just didn’t have enough time to do all the administrative work along with the training, capacitating staff, attending conferences, and writing budget reports. They created a new portfolio — training coordinator and advisor on combatting racism and xenophobia. I do training on anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Roma sentiment, racism and xenophobia, freedom of religion and/or belief, and other human rights issues. That’s why I’m involved in the discussion on violent extremism leading to radicalization that includes training of police officers and judges. We’re doing these things now that we wouldn’t have done four years ago.
The experience of Roma allows me to have a perspective. I have to stress that the other movements or issues are less developed. It’s a form of understanding one stage removed from where we are with Roma. With Roma, there’s a consciousness of what the process can bring to them personally. Here, people don’t have that “rationalization.” They come in with a naive perspective. They want to do something, but they don’t know how. So, we help to empower them.
For instance, we’ve done trainings with Muslim groups across Europe. They feel empowered now to report and respond to hate crimes because they know what their rights are. They started to take on cases and prosecute them. They consider those trainings an important part of their history. I get greater satisfaction because I can see the impact of what we’re doing. It’s about prosecuting, recording, holding public officials accountable. These officials may not be discriminatory against particular groups, but they may not be aware that the graffiti next to the scene of the crime is connected to the crime itself. It’s our job to make those connections, whether liminal or explicit.
Working with public officials, I insist that they have to do their jobs properly. They don’t have to love the Roma. They don’t have to love gay people or Africans. They just have to be professional in what they do. I’ve done it from one side, and now I’m doing it from the other. The impact is much more visible than training 20 human rights activists from the Roma community and expecting them to do stuff when they go back to their organizations or communities. That’s not going to happen. Here, because we have the institutional and structural connections, we can follow up.
The work I’ve done with Roma has made me much more committed to what I’m doing now. I consider that a significant failure, all the energy expended and so little gained. I’m not talking about personal development. I feel proud about certain people. It’s a 10 percent rate of return, and for all that energy, that’s too low. And here it’s 30-40 percent. We can see the discernible impact on the policing strategies and approaches, at least among those who have done the training. And we have access to legislation, and that changes things too. It’s galvanizing, a catalyzer.
I still have the opportunity to go out into the field and train civil society activists on hate crime. My current project is now working with people of African descent. Because of my experiences elsewhere, I can be much more forthright with African descendent people. We’re now developing a couple of projects that the OSCE is funding for people of African descent. We did a training last year and a big event the year before devoted to people of African descent, which was the first time in the history of the OSCE on this issue. The American delegation to the OSCE has been very kind to fund a number of ideas we put forward. We’re working to put together a trip to the United States to get the Helsinki Committee members together as well as the Congressional Black Caucus to talk about the situation affecting people of African descent in the OSCE region. It would be an opportunity to get another audience interested instead of just going to Brussels all the time. The OSCE, even if it’s only at a nominal level, has access to certain institutional offices that you just don’t get in Brussels.
This particular journey is about to reach its conclusion in terms of advocacy. And then I’ll just go back to academia.
Here? In Britain?
I have an ambivalent relationship with the country of my birth. I’ve had discussions with folks in the pub about my academic background. People will say, “If Britain was so discriminatory, you wouldn’t have been able to go to the universities you went to.” But I did that not as a consequence of British tolerance or acquiescence to some notion of equality. It was despite their racism. I still suffered racism at the university. I went to Oxford and Cambridge. Every day I went from my college to the faculty and I had to show my pass whereas other people could just walk in. Twice a week I went to these same places for the duration of my time, and I still had to show my ID. Or people would ask me the purpose of my visit. Because I didn’t fit in. That’s my point about confounding people.
When I had an opportunity to do a Ph.D., I was told by one of my professors that I should go to New York. I went to America, met a Polish professor, who then took me to Krakow, who told me I could teach a class as a TA. I got into the idea of teaching, and I was offered a job teaching at the university in Budapest, very quickly. That’s why I came to the region. It has nothing to do with the UK. My Britishness only allowed me to travel without a visa. That’s the only benefit. My education wasn’t anything the British can take credit for. I had to struggle every step of the way. I have British friends who helped me keep sane so that I could finish what I set out to do. There were plenty of times when I wanted to leave.
I’m not going to leave Poland. I came to that conclusion a month ago. I’ll stay here, and work from here. I can do consultancy here. And there are a couple books I want to write. One of them is about the experiences that I’ve had — which not many Black people have had. It’s about showing how racism manifests itself, even the benign forms. When people say things, and they think they’re being your friend, but they’re actually compounding the perception of who you are. I travel across the region, and usually I’m the only person who looks like me doing this.
Can you give me an example? In Poland?
It doesn’t happen here. There’s a negative stereotype about Black men, that they’re all drug dealers and so on. But I don’t hear that personally. I hear that indirectly through focus groups. I can’t give you an example in Poland. They’re uniquely anecdotal and funny.
For instance, when I travel I have my headphones on. When I check into hotels, people ask me questions in a way to be my friend: “Hey how are you, are you a deejay?” I say no. Then they say, “I’m sorry. So, why are you here?” Would they ask you that question?
I was doing this event on racism and sport in Vienna at our secretariat. A person who was there then saw me a week later. He said, “I saw you in Vienna. I thought you were a power lifter.” I just turned it into a joke: “Yes, I have to carry the weight of the programs on my shoulders.” They’re impromptu acts of racism, though they’re not perceived as racism. They’re stereotyping.
I wrote an article about this a few years ago called “Visible Invisibility,” based on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I used the oxymoron to signify that I’m here but I’m invisible in the same way as the character in the book. I tried to apply it to the psychological-interactive phase. People see you but put you in a box. This happens everywhere. When I was in Budapest, people would ask me if I was there teaching English. I said, “No, I’m here teaching.”
“You teach? Not English? What do you teach?”
“Social philosophy, international law.”
And they’re like, “Really?”
If I said I was there doing sports, they’d say, “Yeah, I understand that.”
But I’ve never had this experience in Poland. I’ve lived here almost four years. But I hadn’t thought about it until you asked me the question.
What do you see as the potential for the OSCE at this point?
There are a number of mechanisms or activities that make the OSCE relevant, like the Helsinki Final Act, which puts all the countries on a level base, or the Moscow Mechanism or the election monitoring. We also get requests to monitor elections outside the OSCE. We have this huge palace on Miodowa street. Before that we were on Aleje Jerozolimskie. We’ve been connected to institutions of power here. We’ve been here for 22 years. People don’t know that. I don’t know if this is because the OSCE likes this concept of quiet diplomacy and interventions like early warning mechanisms.
The second part of your question has to do with hate crimes. I believe in the evangelical aspect of what we do. Hate crimes happen everywhere. We’re starting to establish an institutional arrangement with the UN so that we can start training their staff. We can only work within the OSCE participating member states. Outside the 57, we can’t do anything unless we have a conduit. For instance, for election monitoring in Afghanistan, there’s a special relationship between the UN, the mission in Afghanistan, and our office. The same applies to trial monitoring. Since aspects of our work are essentially global, we’re trying to work around the arbitrary geographic distinctions.
As you might know, along with our Mediterranean partners in North Africa and the Middle East, we worked during the Arab Spring to bring people from there to Warsaw to do training on hate crimes, discrimination, and transitional governments. As an institution, we still have a role to play. The potential is immanent and needs to be explicated. Mongolia just last year joined the OSCE, became the 57th member. When you think of Mongolia’s location near China — I’m not suggesting that China become a member of the OSCE — but the scope of influence, at least geopolitically, could be quite important.
The OSCE will continue to be a platform where the two can meet. There’s the principle in the Helsinki Final Act, which is reinforced in the Moscow Mechanism, that you need to reach a consensus before things are done. The fact that they’re compelled to do this allows diplomacy to prevail. There are tensions. It would be silly not to acknowledge those. So, the OSCE will continue to provide a platform for dialogue and at the end of the day, they will reach consensus.
In light of contemporary challenges, I think we can transform the organization and ensure that it continues to be relevant. That’s a benefit of working at the OSCE. If you have a vision you can have an impact and transform things, instead of just doing the ritualistic stuff. When it comes to capacity building, that’s something the ODIHR never did. Now you come to our trainings and you are trained by OSCE staff. The potential of the OSCE is quite broad. It just needs to be husbanded properly — because there are so many different things that we can do.
We’ve seen a rise of intolerance from explicitly nationalist parties. We’ve also seen the emergence of mainstream political parties that are explicitly challenging a liberal consensus about how democratic institutions and markets function. They certainly strike a chord in the population. Why do you think it’s happening now, and where do you think it will end up?
I don’t think it’s just happening now. Look at the Roma rights discourse. It teaches us that there has always been intolerance. They were just targets that didn’t cause concern for us or for the public to pay attention to, so it wasn’t an issue. Jobbik didn’t just arrive five years ago. In many countries we see the promoting a nationalistic agenda in reaction to EU interference and as a strategic approach to get power. These proponents know that they could increase their support by attacking the credentials of the alliance of liberals and putting forward a revisionist interpretation of history and the role the intellectuals played.
The political climate changed, and the intolerance discourse empowered people, gave them the legitimacy to express themselves. It was wrapped in the “patriotic” discourse. This discourse was always there. I don’t think there’s a spike per se, just a spike in expression and people are following it more. It’s always been there with the Roma, but people said, “It’s only the ‘Gypsies’.” What’s changed now is that they’re extending it to people who have access to means of expression.
This embedding creates political norms that are here to stay. Since many of these countries are enduring the impact of the global economic crisis, they’re scapegoating, which is a standard response to big crises. Look for someone else to blame: it’s not our fault, and they are taking our jobs.
Warsaw, August 16, 2013