ECMI Minorities Blog: Pandemics of Exclusion: The Scapegoating of the Roma in Romania

2020-05-11

Author: Dr. Andreea Carstocea

A quick run through Romanian media headlines these days reveals the same intense preoccupation with everything pandemic-related as everywhere else in the world. Cases of new infections and deaths are carefully counted; dramatic situations in hospitals are gaspingly narrated; policies for containing the pandemic are closely examined and questioned; the impact on the economy is prophesied in disquieting terms; hopes for the easing of social distancing measures are balanced against worries about recurring spikes in the number of infections. So far, nothing out of the new, pandemic-related, ordinary.

And yet, here and there among the avalanche of pandemic-infused news popping up on computer and TV screens, a particular concern is visible: at the beginning of the pandemic, the reader found out that airports were flooded by Roma returning home from countries with high infection rates – and lying about their whereabouts; teary flight attendants were describing apocalyptic scenes on airplanes (including such nerve-racking scenes where Roma customers asked for seafood sandwiches); while later on, as the pandemic unfolded, the public learned that Roma continue to merrily party in spite of social distancing measures in place. Comments posted by readers of these articles emphatically expressed their shock and revulsion at such transgressions of present-day social norms perpetrated by this ethnic minority.

So what is going on, an innocent reader might ask? Not much, might be the answer, as humans are humans and transgressing rules is nothing out of the ordinary: a (non-Roma) policeman lied about his previous travels upon hospital admission and therefore infected several medical staff; Romanians living abroad did come home for Easter, sometimes from countries with high infection rates – so much so that the Romanian president felt compelled to ask them to refrain from travelling back home. Yet despite the mundanity of all these incidents, the Roma community is being singled out and directly blamed for the reckless spreading of the corona virus among the general population. In other words, they have become the scapegoat in the context of this crisis.

Scapegoating is as old as humanity itself; indeed, the etymology of the word goes as far back as the Old Testament, where it referred to a goat symbolically burdened with the sins of the Jewish people and driven out into the desert. In modern times a scapegoat has come to mean any group or individual that innocently bears the blame for the misfortunes of others. There is a wide body of scholarship seeking to explain the psychological and psychosocial mechanisms through which the responsibility for a negative state of affairs is placed on an (innocent) individual or group. Earlier accounts, using psychoanalytic theory, described scapegoating as a type of defensive projection, through which people attribute a thought or an impulse (which they fear exists in themselves) to somebody else. This way they can relieve their negative self-views by projecting unrelated negative characteristics onto others, who thus become scapegoats. Such a mechanism allows for maintaining one’s or one’s group’s perceived moral value, as it contrasts the (implicit) positive, uplifting characteristics associated with one’s ingroup with the explicit negative traits attributed to the scapegoat. More recent studies use as a starting point people’s need to believe that they can exert control over the environment they live in. When a major negative situation occurs (such as an epidemic, a natural disaster, or an economic recession), it challenges this assumption of control. As such, situations of this type often appear to have unknown, diffuse, or chaotic causes. Focalising responsibility for the respective negative situation onto a scapegoat is a useful strategy for restoring the (perceived) control over one’s environment; scapegoats, unlike chaotic, diffuse, and impersonal forces, can be clearly identified, understood, and counteracted.

Theoretical approaches such as the ones outlined above are very helpful in explaining the way in which the Roma community have come to be blamed for the spread of the epidemic in Romania (and elsewhere). Of course, media (together with social media channels) play a fundamental role in the spread and reinforcement of the narratives that are conducive to making the Roma into a scapegoat. One would think Romanians are all members of a teetotaller nation when one is confronted with an article describing how the police found two Roma citizens recently returned from Italy (and therefore presumably from a high-infection area) drinking a glass of vodka in a pub. Along the same lines, a piece of news bearing the headline ‘A group of quarantined Roma terrified authorities in Argeș’, in which the reader learns of the insults and threats articulated by the said group of Roma persons, implicitly contrasts this ethnic group with the rule-obeying, non-violent, even pacifist Romanian majority. Such media stories reach a wide readership and uphold a certain moral superiority of the majority versus the Other – in this case the Roma community.

The second mechanism of scapegoating is similarly applicable to the current situation. As long as researchers worldwide still struggle to understand how the virus spreads, how it affects human health, and how it can be contained, the pandemic creates a heightened state of uncertainty about people’s lives, which they cannot bring under control. Placing the blame for the spread of the epidemic on the Roma community appears therefore as a useful strategy to explain – at least in part – the current situation, and thus restore some sort of perceived control over one’s environment.

However comprehensive the mechanisms outlined above, there is nevertheless another, darker aspect to the story of Roma scapegoating. This is by no means the only time this ethnic group has been found responsible for a negative situation affecting Romanian society. Just over the last two decades, Roma have variously been found guilty for creating a bad image of Romanians in Europe; for Romania’s economic struggles, being described as the quintessential ‘socially assisted’ citizens who refuse to work and therefore place the economy under undue strain; for contributing to certain undesired electoral outcomes through their alleged willingness to accept payment for voting for a political party or another.

This points toward a long-standing practice of scapegoating the Roma whenever the circumstances call for it, thus repeatedly emphasising the distance and difference between this community and the Romanian majority. In other words, this is an instance of a relentless, self-reinforcing process of Othering. For as long as the socially accepted and occasionally even elite-driven discourses on Roma describe them in the light outlined above, their marginalisation and oppression remains also in the realm of the socially acceptable. We will then continue to hear stories such as the forced evictions to Pata Rât; or that of police abuse in Bolintin; or of the walls erected around the Baia Mare ghetto. Ultimately, in addition to the mechanisms of scapegoating outlined above – reinforcing moral values and coping with uncertainty – its stakes are always grounded in existing power relations, which in turn it shores up. Rather than mirroring some reality of deviance and the alleged threat it poses to an unsuspecting society, the identification of the Roma as the culprits for all the evils besetting Romania constructs such a reality, infused with the attending structural racism. The latter thus performs not only discursive symbolic functions but is constitutive of power strategies meant to uphold existing hierarchies - underpinning Roma marginalisation and reproducing it - casting the not-so-metaphorical scapegoat literally into the wilderness.

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