Information should be free - Taken back the story
Gypsies in America
From open road to Internet
Mar 26th 1998 edition
Mar 26th 1998
WOODLAND HILLS, CALIFORNIA
AT THE end of last year, a bill in New Jersey removed from the books the last law in the United States aimed at a particular ethnic group. The law, dating from 1917, allowed the state's towns to “license and regulate roving bands of nomads, commonly called gypsies.”
In a country with so many vocal ethnic groups, America's gypsies (known as “Roma” to themselves) hardly get noticed. To begin with, most of them do not roam around; they live in houses, and conceal their ethnic identity when they rent a new home. Only the ubiquitous fortune-telling salons, a feature of every big American city, give their presence away. Their numbers range anywhere from fewer than 100,000, according to the Census Bureau, to more than 1m, according to some of the Roma.
Matters are complicated by the fact that many American gypsies, when asked, prefer to identify themselves by national origin. America's Roma are divided into a bewildering array of ethnic and cultural sub-groups from almost every country of Europe and the Middle East. Even Bill Clinton is said to have gypsy blood; his biological father, William Blythe, may have been one of the Blythe clan, a gypsy family from the Scottish borders.
Americans in general still have trouble thinking of a gypsy as a member of an ethnic group, rather than a stock character in a film set in Transylvania. And they still entertain some lively prejudices. Several self-appointed “experts” in gypsy crime make lucrative careers out of lecturing police forces on the supposed criminal tricks of roaming families of gypsies, and alleged victims of “gypsy swindles” are a staple of the chat shows. Not that such swindles do not happen: some fortune-telling gypsies, for example, use psychological manipulation to predict disaster unless their clients give them large amounts of money. But gypsies also suffer from the fact that the racketeering laws impose stiffer sentences for members of a “criminal conspiracy”—which, in the eyes of at least some authorities, gypsies are.
Many of America's gypsies still keep to the ways of outsiders. Although they have branched out into other occupations, their distinctive trades, as in Europe, include scrap-metal dealing, car repair and fortune-telling. Fortune-telling is intensely controversial among the American Roma. Some see it as a legitimate business enterprise; others say it reinforces stereotypes, besides encouraging young gypsies to drop out of school. Education, indeed, is a controversy in itself. Some families prefer to take their children out of school after six or seven years, not wanting them to lose their gypsy distinctiveness. And, at least in private, these distinctions are still strong: not only a different language, but arranged marriages and strict laws of purity.
Nonetheless, this is still not an ethnic group that has ever asserted itself—until now. The end of 1997 saw the American Roma score two big victories. The New Jersey law was one; the other involved gypsy representation on the Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
The council had one gypsy representative, William Duna; his term expired last year, and it seemed at first as though the administration would appoint a non-gypsy to take his place. But America's Roma (who have long resented the lack of recognition for gypsy suffering in the Holocaust) and their allies lobbied so vigorously by telephone, fax, letter and e-mail that they persuaded the administration to think again. Mr Clinton appointed Ian Hancock, a Roma who is a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas, to the council at the end of November.
Mr Hancock was also the founder, in 1992, of Romnet, an e-mail discussion group for and about gypsies. (Address: www.rroma.com.) A transnational ethnic group and a global communications medium seem a perfect fit, and Roma websites—both official and unofficial—are proliferating. Although most virtual discussions are in English, one of them, Drakhin (literally, “grapevine”), is devoted to communication in Romany. Romnet is also used for political purposes: most recently, for mobilising browsers to support the Czech gypsies who poured late last year into the English port of Dover.
The emergence of the Roma as another aggrieved ethnic minority on an American landscape already teeming with them may disappoint people who cherish that image of the barefoot, carefree, violin-playing gypsy. For the Roma themselves it is a welcome step towards modernity. As Mr Hancock put it to other Romnet users: “Why was it called progress when gadje [non-gypsies] left their wagons for automobiles, but a shame when our people did?”
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline "From open road to Internet"