Friday, June 12, 2020

Roma Rights and Civil rights: A Transatlantic Comparison (Prof. Felix Chang)

Roma Rights and Civil Rights

European scholars are increasingly confronting questions of race—a notable turn for a community that, in the shadow of Nazism and eugenics, had avoided race for decades. One catalyst for this discourse is the literature about Europe’s largest racialized minority, the Roma, which itself has taken a critical turn in the last ten years. Ushering in this change, scholars in the emerging field of critical Romani studies have abandoned the ethnographic roots of Gypsiology, often looking instead to U.S. scholarship on critical race theory and intersectionality.

Our new book, Roma Rights and Civil Rights: A Transatlantic Comparison, out this month from Cambridge University Press, sits at the intersection of these trends. My co-author Sunnie Rucker-Chang and I compare the movements for—and expressions of—equality for Roma in Central and Southeast Europe (“CSEE”) and African Americans from the perspectives of law and cultural studies. We see our central contribution as tying Roma rights and U.S. civil rights in a sustained manner despite temporal and spatial differences.

As the first book-length work on this comparison, Roma Rights and Civil Rights integrates three frameworks: federalism, interest convergence, and nationalist constructs of Americanism and Europeanism.

Federalism allows us to tackle how the U.S. federal government and the European Union (“EU”) both drove and tempered minority rights. The framework highlights the coincidence of Roma rights with the territorial expansion of the EU into CSEE after the fall of Communism, as well as the EU’s centralization of power during its process of constitutionalization at the same time. Yet the comparison is mutually illuminating because it underscores how constitutional change in the U.S., too, was influenced by territorial change. This comes out most clearly in the Fifteenth Amendment, passed in part because the suffrage imposed upon the readmission of ex-Confederate states was broader than what the Union had provided.

Interest convergence upends the conventional telling of the EU’s role in Roma rights. As we show, the EU only pushed for Roma inclusion to stem the influx of Romani refugees into Western Europe as a result of xenophobic violence in CSEE. It was therefore a momentary convergence of interests among Roma rights advocates and EU technocrats that propelled Roma inclusion onto the Union’s agenda, just as it was a convergence of interests among African Americans and White elites during the Cold War that nudged the U.S. federal government to accept civil rights.

Finally, the constructs of national identity help us explore the popular reception toward legal and policy changes—whether, for instance, inclusion was embraced because it aligned with notions of liberty and equality or rejected because it offended nativist and exclusionary views of America and Europe. To this end, we utilize opinion polls and filmic representations of Roma and African Americans to gauge their mainstream reception.

The Introduction to the book is available here. Our prior work laid the foundations for the comparison, the use of film, and the treatment of these two groups in the American South and European East.

-- Professor Felix B. Chang

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