More recently, he has focused on the segregation suffered by Eastern Europe’s Roma population. He takes an in-depth look at their current plight, which he calls one of the gravest humanitarian and economic crises of our time,” in the May issue of the Columbia Law Review.
“They are readily stigmatized,” Greenberg, the Alphonse Fletcher Jr. Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, writes of the Roma. “They typically have a darker complexion, are disproportionately afflicted by vastly deficient education, ill health, decrepit housing, high unemployment and severe prejudice.”
The Roma, once more commonly known as Gypsies, are often relegated to the margins of society in such nations as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania, with poverty rates Greenberg calls “staggering.” One study found 100 percent unemployment in some rural areas.
A vast body of European law prohibits discrimination against the Roma. Indeed, Eastern European nations pledged to eliminate discrimination as a condition for admission into the European Union in 2000. However, Greenberg notes that governments have often fallen short, especially when it comes to integrating Roma children in schools.
Greenberg laments that “segregated schools have not obeyed judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. They haven’t openly defied the law. They simply have done nothing. The European Union is in a position to compel active compliance.”
Greenberg has been studying this issue since 2003, when he was invited to the region by Roma leaders, who were starting to bring desegregation cases. He made several more visits in 2007 and 2008, and was aided in his research by interns from the Law School’s Human Rights Clinic.
Greenberg has also co-taught with Professor Theodore Shaw a class that compares school desegregation efforts in the U.S. and among the Roma.
Like blacks in the U.S., many Roma were slaves until the mid-19th Century. They were often the victims of discrimination, and outright persecution. It is estimated the Nazis exterminated at least 1.5 million Roma during World War II, after which they were confined mostly to unskilled jobs in heavy industry. But when the Soviet-dominated Eastern bloc crumbled, the Roma were ill-equipped to thrive in a market-based system.
What has compounded the Roma situation lately is their increasing numbers, outpacing the growth in majority populations.
“Absent a change in economic conditions, continued Roma population growth means that an increasingly larger portion of Eastern Europe will be unskilled and uneducated,” Greenberg writes.
To attempt a solution to these problems, Greenberg says the Roma must achieve parity in employment, health, housing, and civil rights. “But education is the most important of these, particularly because it can lead to the others.”
More important, says Greenberg, is the need to do more than pay lip service to putting Roma children on equal footing in the classroom, so they can help lift their families out of the crushing poverty that has defined them.
“If the nations of the [European] Union fail to act, the results will be the continuation of a slow squandering of Roma lives and loss of treasure and humanity for all who live in Eastern Europe.”
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