Thematic Chapters – Chapter 3Living in the shadow of caste-based discrimination: A profile of Dalits, Burakumin and Roma
This article will concentrate on three groups in diverse geographies: Dalits in India, Burakumin in Japan and Roma in Europe. Although these communities are different from each other and have distinct histories, they are bound by their existence in a world marked by hierarchical discrimination.
Their stories are local and particular to their societies, but what they have in common is that the struggle against their oppressor has caste at the centre of its axis. Despite the fact that Dalits and Burakumin are often physically indistinguishable, the discrimination they face — exclusion from the job market, segregation in schools, public spaces and housing, stereotyping and prejudice, as well as criminal acts of physical violence and mental assault by state and non-state actors alike — is a common experience across the groups.
The intrinsic connection between work and exclusion is a specific feature of caste-based discrimination. It is not simply a matter of limited access to the market or work opportunities. It is also that the very nature of the work itself perpetuates the broader stigmatization of the group. In a caste-dominated society it is expected that dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs will be undertaken by the most marginalized communities. The occupations themselves, variously seen as ‘unclean’, ‘polluting’ or otherwise undesirable, are indelibly associated with the caste and colour of the group who performs them. This chapter unpicks the correlations between discrimination, work and related areas such as education (a key determinant of future employment and income) through the experiences of these groups.
All the communities under discussion are excluded minorities in their respective societies, either as a result of being marked out as different from a narrowly defined national identity or being forced to isolate from the rest of society due to historical injustice, persistent harassment and discrimination. Their minority status is at times designed to dwarf their relevance in electoral politics, reducing their autonomy and placing them under the control of the supposed majority, which assumes the right to patronize the minority group. In a constitutional framework, the minority group is designed to rely on the majority, which is historically a registered oppressor. Within these countervailing circumstances, the majority utilizes the norms of (un)democratic representation to grant itself a position of superiority. This creates a system that inferiorizes and dehumanizes others by identifying the differences as necessities of distancing.
Populist framings are created to further harass the minoritized communities by forcing them to accept the norms of the majority community. A specific reading of history is proffered to relegate their story and adumbrate divisions between both groups. The minority group refuses to assimilate, because the stories of their subjugation are maintained through culture, religion, literature and practice. The majority group then utilizes this refusal to point to the inability of the minority group to cohabit — and thus a call is made for their exclusion. This process of social ostracization is then furthered through various legal protocols that serve to compel the minority to adjust rather than live independently. After ensuring the constitutional fabric works in favour of the majority, the minority community is given an ultimatum. Any failure to adhere to the rules of this system are met with a harsh response from the state to penalize the minority community, with extra-state actors serving as vigilantes to reinforce their rule with violence.
In a caste society, then, minorities are treated as outcastes in their own society. Side-lined from the narratives of the majority, their oppression is justified by invoking historical myths and past traumas. In modern times, the majority community derives legitimacy by comparing itself with the minority and their status, despite the fact that the majority and minority are not always distinguishable from each other: in many cases, they may practise the same cultures, eat similar food and celebrate shared festivals. However, this is not always the case. The point is, even though there are similarities, the caste society legitimizes the oppression through coercion of historical facts.
Inadequate UN recognition
Notwithstanding the wide-ranging discrimination these groups face, international recognition of these challenges has been slow. The United Nations (UN), for instance, has favoured a specific discourse around race and racism that privileges ostensible physical attributes as an overarching parameter to describe a minority community. In the context of Europe and North America, where diversity and difference are perceived in line with a melanin-based order of society, a ‘racial’ understanding of minorities is predominant. This, however, side-lines many discriminated caste groups who do not readily fit into this categorization. Dalits, for example, may have a similar physical appearance to dominant caste members and separated only by name and other signifiers imposed by the system. A similar fate is experienced by Burakumin who, despite being indistinguishable from other Japanese, are nevertheless subjected to harassment and stigma: in the words of the Buraku Liberation League (BLL), Burakumin are ‘not a racial or a national minority, but a caste-like minority among the ethnic Japanese.’ Like Dalits, their continued marginalization is the legacy of centuries of feudal oppression. Many hesitate to identify publicly as Buraku out of fear of the backlash and mistreatment they might receive at the hands of non- Buraku members of Japanese society.
During the UN World Conference against Racism, held in Durban in 2001, Dalit and Buraku activists made a concerted effort to highlight caste as a category demanding special attention. Though their campaign for the word ‘descent’ to be included in the Durban Declaration was not successful, it was later adopted in the General Recommendation No. 29 of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The committee affirmed that ‘discrimination based on “descent” includes discrimination against members of communities based on forms of social stratification such as caste and analogous systems of inherited status which nullify or impair their equal enjoyment of human rights.’ This loosely defined phrasing and the accompanying term, ‘discrimination based on work and descent’ (DWD), were adopted by the UN after lengthy discussions with the Indian government, which refused to acknowledge caste as a matter significant enough to merit international intervention. The eventual formulation was therefore a compromise, with much of its impact neutralized by vague phrasing. Various UN treaty bodies, Special Rapporteurs, human rights bodies and fact-finding missions of independent experts now rely on this term to talk about caste-affected citizens worldwide.
A breakdown of the DWD terminology will help to understand the nature of discrimination and exclusion better. Descent is lineage-based, an inherited identity that brings either opportunities or exclusion, with work and occupation closely correlated to bloodline. Indeed, employment and caste are like two sides of the same coin: both are inseparable and allow dominant castes to frame this hierarchy as a secular phenomenon, the product of skill and merit rather than social oppression. In a caste society, employment of the privileged as well as the excluded is secured according to their ranking: privileged castes rely on the labour of the marginalized in an interlinked hierarchy. Those exploited by this system are left with no options but to find employment in a degrading job. For instance, I asked a Dalit woman who was cleaning human excreta at a railway station in Nanded, a city in Maharashtra, the reason she took the job. She replied that, though she was ashamed to do this — even leaving the house in the early hours and working until the break of dawn so no one would notice — the lack of any other job opportunities had forced her to take up the work.
Descent may even be justified as an intergenerational form of job security, guaranteeing a livelihood that can be passed down to one’s children. Of course, there is a fundamental problem with this unitary, market-based formulation: it does not properly acknowledge that these inherited professions are used to determine the status and value of entire communities, for better or worse: in a caste society, the more privileged castes are welcomed even if they are trading in leather goods, while the traditional castes who deal with the hide and leather are loathed. Some scholars, following these discussions, have critiqued how international discussions of caste have increasingly moved away from the religious origins of caste, despite the significant role that religion plays in supporting the edifice of the caste system. But by seeing it in solely secular terms, caste is then presented as a technocratic issue that can presumably be solved with legal interventions and constitutional safeguards.
However, this overlooks the reality of caste as a structural and psychological conception, sanctioned and embedded by religious codes and societal behaviours over centuries. In order to improve the living and working conditions of caste-affected citizens, a proper framing of their issues is essential. Not identifying caste discrimination as caste and diluting it through the use of vicarious frameworks only serves to distance the victims further from realizing justice. In addition, this framing does not create a movement to rally behind: clouded by too much jargon, it does not reflect the material reality of their lived experience.
In order to improve the situation of caste-affected citizens, a proper understanding of these issues is essential. Caste is not just work and descent-based discrimination. Equal parts historical, social and psychological, it is an inescapable and all-pervasive system of discrimination that has sought to grade humanity into strict and unambiguous hierarchies. Unlike race, caste is distinct in that it does not rely solely on corporeal and material representations — it is also a deeply cultural manifestation.
As an outcome of this, the centuries-long interpretations and brushing of various cultures produced societies that have created permanent outcaste classes, condemned to poverty and failure. We shall now look at the case studies of Dalits, Burakumins and Roma communities and their position in the global rights struggle. A collective study of these groups has not been undertaken, barring some recent scholarship that looks at various oppressed groups across the world, and it remains an area where much more activism and academic work is needed.
Caste-based discrimination against Dalits in India
Dalits, also formerly known as ‘untouchables’, were among the lowest castes in the Brahminic Hindu society. These groups were generally employed in the most stigmatized and ‘dirty’ professions, such as tending corpses and cleaning human waste. Dalits remain among the most marginalized communities in India today, a predicament normalized by entrenched religious hierarchies. Indeed, their oppression is a juridical function of the spiritual institution: the religious norms of the Hindu social order codify their subjugation, with far-reaching corporeal, social, economic and political consequences. Despite making up a significant proportion of the national population — though the Indian government has for decades refused to include caste as an indicator in the national census, some estimates suggest that there are over 320 million Dalits in total, including Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists — Dalits are still obliged to abide by the laws and social customs set up by the dominant, oppressive castes. Dalits are discriminated against as groups. Often, an act of perceived insubordination by a Dalit is not treated as an individual infraction but is extended to the entire Dalit community through collective punishment. Generally, Dalits are forced to live on the peripheries of villages, excluded from access to basic amenities such as water, food and education. Their marginalization begins from birth, experienced through elevated levels of childhood malnutrition that then segue into lower educational access and limited employment options in their adult lives. For instance, while stunting rates among the children of members of dominant castes are estimated at 26 per cent, this proportion rises to 40 per cent among Dalit and Adivasi children.
The continued subjugation of these communities is repeatedly enforced through extreme, sometimes lethal violence. Dalit self-assertion, in particular, has attracted swift retribution from dominant caste groups, many of whom are closely aligned with far-right Hindu supremacist groups. This was painfully illustrated in March 2022 when a young Dalit from Rajasthan, Jitendra Meghwal, was killed by two youths from the dominant Rajpurohit caste who reportedly took umbrage at his sporting a moustache — a symbol of pride and masculinity in northern India that some dominant caste members believe should not be worn by Dalits. Given this attack was far from an isolated incident, it is not hard to fathom the state of Dalit life and its vulnerability. Dalit women are especially oppressed on account of their gender, class and spatial location as well as their caste. Consequently, they are disproportionately exposed to sexual violence. By the end of each day, according to government statistics, 10 Dalit women have been raped — a figure that likely captures only a fraction of the assaults that are actually carried out against them.
In addition to these direct attacks, Dalits are also excluded from many benefits of society. This is reflected in the dangerous and demeaning forms of employment that large numbers are still engaged in, such as manual scavenging — the removal by hand of human waste from sewers and septic tanks — even though the practice was formally banned in 2013. Reflecting the multiple discrimination they face on account of their gender as well as their community, Dalit women make up the large majority of this highly stigmatized workforce. Manual scavengers and other essential service providers in India are typically employed by the state and local council through contractors who treat Dalit workers as temporary, disposable labour. The lack of regard for their health and wellbeing is demonstrated by the frequent absence of gloves and masks to keep them safe. This is the case with Panchkula Municipal Corporation, where many Dalit sanitary workers are denied even this basic equipment but are obliged to wear a tracker on their wrist to allow their supervisors to monitor their every move in real time. Despite costing millions of rupees, this highly invasive technology has been rolled out in other municipalities including Mysore, Lucknow, Indore, Thane, Navi Mumbai, Nagpur and Chandigarh, predominantly those controlled by the Hindu far-right, and is normalized by the widespread stereotype of Dalits as ‘lazy’.
The direct relation between quality education and employment is a wellestablished fact. Education prepares eligible candidates for white- or pink-collar jobs, who would otherwise be unable to exercise these professions freely. This is the case for Dalits in India, who due to their lower educational outcomes are forced into pre-destined jobs. However, data shows that even after gaining higher education, the path to decent employment is an uphill task for Dalits. Prior to this stage, the enormous institutional discrimination and harassment meted out by casteist teachers and their curricula hinders the Dalit student’s confidence to assert their self positively.
Any Dalit success is eclipsed by the level of community oppression. Any news regarding Dalits is rarely an occasion of celebration or affirmation: in the rare moments that a Dalit success is highlighted, the dominant caste society reacts with hatred and dismissal. This is illustrated in August 2021 by the reaction to India’s loss of the semi-finals hockey games to Argentina in the Tokyo Olympics: shortly afterwards, two upper-caste men staged a mock celebration outside the home of Dalit hockey star Vandana Katariya, taunting her family that the result of the team having ‘too many Dalit players’.
While educational attainment has steadily improved in recent years, reflected in a significant uptick in literacy rates, higher education enrolment is still far below the national average: while total enrolment at primary level is 81 per cent, reducing to 60 per cent at secondary level, the proportion falls to just 11 per cent in colleges and universities. The graduation rates are even lower. This underrepresentation is the result of multiple factors in addition to caste discrimination, including poverty and the absence of institutional and infrastructural support, resulting in very high dropout rates. Irrespective of this, significant numbers of Dalit students have somehow managed to overcome these odds and continue their studies, though not without many difficulties. While Dalit students can enter colleges and universities through the quota system — a progressive policy of the Indian state intended to protect and promote education among Dalit students — in practice, many of the spaces allocated by the quota guidelines are not filled. Those Dalit students who do succeed in being admitted are made to undergo humiliation and harassment by domiant caste cohorts, teachers and the college administration. I am a case in point: I was myself a victim of bullying and discrimination by the college administration and teachers, even though I was the president of the college’s student council and therefore publicly known. Recent incidents, such as 2021 video footage of a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur berating students with remarks that were widely perceived to be casteist, show that this discrimination has not gone away. In this hostile climate, many Dalit students choose to conceal their identity out of fear of social ostracization, avoiding any overt signalling that might indicate their caste status: they refuse to join Dalit student groups or attend cultural events, such as commemorations and festival celebrations, that might identify them.
Unsurprisingly, this marginalization and invisibility is subsequently transferred into the job market. On the one hand, the majority of Dalits who fail to finish secondary school generally have few options besides unskilled manual labour and the poorly paid, low status jobs such as waste collection that have historically been their lot. For those who do complete higher education, however, there is still a price to pay. Even though there is an employment quota in the public sector, for example, many Dalits do not pursue this option for fear of being harassed and targeted by their dominant caste superiors. Indeed, Dalit workers are often forced to dissociate themselves permanently from their community to achieve any kind of professional success. They also do not provide their children with information about their community, creating a cycle of inherited shame. In the rare moment a Dalit overcomes all these barriers to achieve professional success, the societal response is typically one of hatred and non-acceptance.
Yet countering this is a vibrant anti-caste movement, led by Dalit women and men, who are fearless and outspoken in their condemnation of these injustices. Dalits not only lead the struggle on the streets through popular movements, but also organize department-level organizations and unions to demand proper representation and seek redress when incidents of discrimination in the workplace occur. Notwithstanding the many barriers Dalits have faced in the past in this area, they are increasingly forming workplace organizations and unions across different vocational sectors to contest employment-based labour disputes as well as caste discrimination by colleagues and superiors. Indeed, the issue of employment and unequal treatment — be it the right to gain employment or if employed, the right to a fair wage — has been one of the cornerstones of Dalit activism. Due to the privatization of the economy, many middle-men have undermined Dalit wages further by subcontracting their jobs through organizational hierarchies. This makes it difficult for the state as well as private players to be held directly accountable, despite existing labour laws.
Dalits are also a significant community politically in India. They are well aware of their importance in electoral democracy. That is why they rally collectively for fair representation in the parliament and state legislature. However, due to the nature of Indian politics, they have often ended up becoming pawns of the party leadership who, despite being generally led by dominant castes or Dalit-hating groups, have been able to mobilize fears of Muslims and other minorities to secure a large proportion of Dalit votes. But while Dalits in India have often been co-opted by political parties led by dominant caste groups, they have also become a much more visible presence in national politics in recent years, aided by organizations like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), currently led by a Dalit woman, Mayawati, whose ambitions remain to becoming the Prime Minister of India. Besides official political parties, a diverse range of social and semi-political pressure groups exists at the neighbourhood level, allowing Dalit slum-dwellers to draw attention to their cause.
There is also a robust civil society, led by Dalit organizations like Backward and Minorities Central Employees Federation (BAMCEF), State and Central Government Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe Unions, non-profit organizations such as National Commission for Dalit Human Rights, the National Confederation of Dalit Adivasi Organizations and the Feminist Dalit Organization who conduct awareness programs, advocacy and research about the Dalit situation in India, in some cases liaising with international donor agencies. At the grassroots level, Dalit youth organize around intersecting issues of caste, gender, sexuality and transgender rights. One such group, Kamal Foundation in a central Indian town, Nanded, leads transgender rights activism through Dalit slums and political avenues. In addition to this, there are noticeable Dalit-led regional language digital and print media reporting on caste-based issues. Together, their work highlights the potential for transformative change.
Japan’s Burakumin – a history of invisibility
Burakumin are a marginalized community who are still living with the reality of being outcastes from mainstream Japanese society. The word Buraku itself invites contestation. Though it has long been associated with stigma, the BLL has sought to subvert its meaning and reclaim it. This is similar to what happened with the word Dalit, which was repurposed and deployed in militant action by the Dalit Panthers and Dalit literature, subverting the submissiveness attached to it.
Though official estimates suggest that there are around 1.2 million Burakumin in Japan, the actual total is likely to be significantly higher, given that many prefer not to disclose their ancestry out of concern for the repercussions. Like Dalits in India, Burakumin were routinely exploited as labourers to undertake the least desirable work — slaughtering animals, dealing with the hides, executing criminals — that was widely regarded as polluting according to Japan’s Buddhist and Shinto beliefs. In the social hierarchy of feudal Japan, society was ordered into three principal classes — warrior, peasant, townsfolk — with Burakumin placed below them all in the seventeenth century.
Originally, the stigmatization of Burakumin was tied closely to the work they undertook, such as tanning and leatherwork. But as Japan modernized economically during the Meiji era, other Japanese from outside the community entered these professions. By leveraging their political contacts and resources, they were ultimately able to displace Buraku merchants and establish a near monopoly over the leather industry. This one-sided ‘liberalization’ meant that many Burakumin had to find employment in other sectors, such as agriculture or the military and police. Nevertheless, despite not being a visible minority, their exclusion persisted and was expressed through spatial discrimination.
The literal meaning of Burakumin is ‘hamlet people’, a reference to the rural settlements peripheral to villages where they were segregated, but as the country urbanized some of these areas evolved into marginalized neighbourhoods within cities such as Kyoto and Osaka. Until the publicly funded Special Measures for Dowa Projects were implemented from the late 1960s, these settlements were characterized by inadequate housing and spatial segregation. What it meant to be born and brought up as a Burakumin is exemplified in the case of Risa Kumamoto, a celebrated professor at Kindai University in Osaka. While growing up, Kumamoto would alight a few stations ahead so as not to send any signal to her classmates about her Burakumin background. It was only after she left the country to study abroad in Canada that she decided she would challenge this discrimination by publicly expressing her identity. Similar experiences have occurred among Roma communities (discussed in detail in the next section of this chapter) where those members who managed to ‘make it’ are frequently reluctant to acknowledge their past due to social anxiety around the consequences of announcing their background assertively.
Kumamoto’s childhood experience of shame and concealment is far from unique. Many Japanese with Buraku ancestry still choose to keep it secret or (if their parents had successfully kept this information from them) are unaware of it. While the Japanese government long denied that Buraku discrimination still existed, pointing to the fact that Buraku and non-Buraku people were physically indistinguishable, in reality their secondary status persisted. This was highlighted in the 1970s when reports emerged of a secret registry of Buraku neighbourhoods being used by some employers to identify and blacklist applicants from these areas. This information continues to be disseminated online by individuals seeking to ‘expose’ Burakumin. There are currently 4,600 Buraku communities across Japan. Recently, one Japanese publisher published a list of locations where Burakumin live.
Indirectly, too, the structural legacy of casteist discrimination against them means that many still undertake the most harmful jobs. After the Fukushima disaster in 2011, for instance, some reports suggested that a large number of Burakumin had been hired to clean the toxic waste: perhaps unsurprisingly, recruitment for this dangerous and difficult work focussed on the poorest Japanese neighbourhoods, many of which are formerly Buraku. This reflects a broader reality of disenfranchisement for Burakumin who, according to past surveys by the Buraku Liberation League (BLL), are employed disproportionately in precarious and informal work.
Despite these ongoing challenges, some Burakumin have openly expressed their identity and publicly advocated for a societal shift in how the community is perceived. The community in fact has a long and vital history of resistance, beginning with the foundation of the National Levelers Association in 1922. Though disbanded during the war, immediately after Buraku activists came together to establish the BLL. The resistance is held strong by the Burakumin community who joined forces to launch a National Committee for Buraku Liberation, which eventually came to be known as the BLL. These activities served to undermine the stigmatizing stereotype inflicted for centuries on Buraku people. They were led by a number of remarkable and inspiring figures, such as Jichirō Matsumoto, a frontline leader, internationalist, organizer and successful businessperson who led the BLL. His work in the Buraku liberation struggle earned him the title of ‘Father of the Buraku Liberation’ much like Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is credited as the father of the Dalit movement. Matsumoto and his influence cannot be overestimated in the arc of Japanese democracy.
To further their work, the Buraku liberation movement formed the Buraku Liberation and Human Rights Research Institute in 1968. This institute is responsible for producing impeccable research material, including a monthly magazine called Human Rights. They also publish research reports on the condition of Burakumin. The institute is also engaged in pedagogical and educational work under whose auspices they organize training programs, leadership courses for businesspeople, state and nonstate agencies and governments. One of their flagship programs is to organize human rights training for various stakeholders from the business sector to media, religious organizations and local bodies of government.
As is seen, Burakumin have been asserting their agency on their own terms without explicitly relying on the standards set up by the non-Buraku groups. This assertion is sophisticatedly expressed at the national and international levels. The BLL presents memorandums and submissions to important international conferences. To elaborate on their international human rights work and cement international solidarity work with other minorities, the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) was launched out of Japan in 1988 and holds UN ECOSOC consultative status.
Young Burakumin are also reclaiming their history and taking pride in their identity. For example, an initiative called Buraku Heritage, launched in 2011 by Tami Kamikawa, organizes study tours and workshops on Buraku culture. Due to the language barrier, much of the literature and information on Burakumin life is not easily accessed by non- Japanese. However, a limited number of Buraku scholars who write in English are well-known intellectuals internationally. This activism and visibility are crucial to challenging the covert discrimination in employment, marriage and other areas that Burakumin still face.
The ‘othering’ of Roma in Europe
The Roma population is one of the most oppressed minorities in Europe. The community’s origins trace back to South Asia and a process of transcontinental migration, possibly triggered by the invasion of Afghan ruler Mahmud of Ghazni in the eleventh century. Some records trace the transcontinental migration to a much earlier date during the first millennium 1,000 C.E. Though comprising a diversity of different subgroups, including among others Romani, Sinti, Manush, Calé, Kaale, Romanichals, Boyash/Rudari and Dom, their distinct language and ethnicity meant that wherever they settled in Europe they were marked out as ‘separate’ to the pan- European standards of whiteness.
This racialized othering of the Roma population was easily assimilated into the policies and approaches of the modern European state. Its administrative and bureaucratic frameworks served to amplify the separateness of the Roma population, thereby creating greater barriers to integration in work and employment. Discriminatory stereotypes served to associate Roma with specific jobs while barring their participation in other areas of the state economy. Before the colonization of the Americas, Roma were subjected to enslavement in Wallachia and Moldavia (in present-day Romania), with many still living in forced servitude in the nineteenth century. In Western Europe, following Portugal’s imperial expansion, historical records show Roma in Portugal were subjected to mass expulsions to its Brazilian colonies. This historic and longstanding abuse, like many other episodes in the community’s history of persecution, is still relatively unknown. There is limited awareness, too, of the atrocities perpetrated against them by the Nazis, who designated Roma as ‘asocial’ and forced them to wear inverted black triangles on their uniforms. As many as 1.5 million Roma may have died in what is known as O Porrajmos or The Great Devouring.
Despite the progressive rollout of human rights protections in the wake of the Second World War, many of the 10 to 12 million Roma living in Europe still face racial ‘othering’ by their governments and fellow citizens. A 2016 survey published by the European Union (EU) Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) presented an alarming picture of the situation faced by Roma in a selection of nine countries in the EU: 80 per cent of Roma surveyed were living below the at-risk-of-poverty threshold, many in substandard living conditions without access to running water or adequate nutrition. Their predicament is underpinned by widespread segregation and discrimination, reflected (as with India’s Dalit population) in low levels of educational attainment. For example, among Roma aged 6 to 24 years old enrolled in education, only 1 per cent attend school at a higher level than the one corresponding with their age, while 18 per cent were in a lower level than the one corresponding to their age. In some countries, significant numbers leave school without completing any level of formal education. In Greece, the worst performing of all the countries surveyed, this was the case for 42 per cent of 16 to 24 year olds, a proportion that almost doubled to 82 per cent among Roma aged 45 or older.
In this context, it is not surprising that only a tiny proportion of Roma manage to access higher education. Many Roma who have succeeded in completing high school have credited non-racist peer support as one of the major factors in their success. Thus, one important step for change is an institutional mandate that needs to promote inclusivity and robust pro-Roma culture in the syllabus and classrooms. Some researchers have proposed going beyond a minimalist emphasis on ‘equality’ and instead adopting an active policy of ‘anti-racism’ in education as a possible way out.
Having been sidelined by the education system, as adults Roma face a lifetime of employment challenges. Many, without the qualifications to access formal employment, are self-employed or engaged in precarious informal sector activities. Discrimination also persists, creating a further barrier: for instance, a 2019 FRA survey of thousands of Roma and Travellers in Belgium, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden found that close to a quarter (22 per cent) of respondents reported having experienced discrimination in the previous 12 months when looking for work. Yet it is insufficient to respond to these disparities through purely ‘technical’ interventions that do not acknowledge the need for a justice-based approach to address this ‘racialized poverty’, underpinned by institutional discrimination.
While perhaps less explicit than India’s caste-based hierarchies, it is nevertheless the case that the exclusion of Roma in Europe is underlined by the persistence of Gadje (non-Roma) archetypes of white civility, against which Roma are counterposed. For example, the marginalization of Roma is perpetrated from an early age by pedagogical structures that through a combination of ill-equipped teachers, underfunded educational infrastructure and a lack of peer support imprint a sense of inferiority on the minds of Roma children. Class, gender and sexuality may create further obstacles for Roma already confronting the hegemonic forces of European whiteness. This unsurprisingly creates a challenging environment to gain entry into the labour market that, along with a lack of state support and ignorance of Roma participation in the nation’s economy, results in the intense poverty faced by Roma communities across Europe. Drawing on Amartya Sen’s influential work on poverty, analysis by Matache and Barbu locate Roma communities in a multidimensional poverty index. This shows that there is an intrinsic link to how societies function when social forces determine their attitudes. Thus, poverty is linked to the injustice Roma face and Gadje-oriented policies that often fail to acknowledge the relationship between racism and the power relations that are at play.
Roma, like Dalits and Burakumin, are significantly concentrated in the informal sector. Their job status, statistics and workplace-based experiences do not find a place in many government reports. In many contexts, they face data invisibility. The informal economy is one of the survival modes for these communities, a situation that state officials are often happy to tolerate as it means they do not have to take responsibility for their welfare, care and protection. This sector of the economy is extremely vulnerable and precarious. Residential segregation, along with the gaps in educational outcomes discussed earlier, is a key factor in further marginalizing their access to the labour market.
A central reason why the situation of Roma in Europe has shown little progress is the persistence of anti-Roma politics, structural discrimination and stereotypes that serve to maintain their exclusion from equitable employment and education. The handful of Roma intellectuals, scholars, artists and businesspeople who have been recognized and accepted is proof that the European model of development and democracy has yet to extend its promise of equality and inclusion to Roma generally. Nevertheless, there are inspiring examples of Roma professionals, leaders and scholars who despite these barriers have achieved recognition, including Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, the former UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, and Margareta Matache, a leading researcher and scholar in the field of Roma studies at Harvard University. There is also a vibrant activist movement seeking to challenge the stigma and invisibility that have been so critical in perpetuating their exclusion. In April 2021, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the First World Romani Congress in 1971, Roma organizations across Europe came together to participate in the Proud Roma, Free Europe campaign. As governments across the continent prepared to carry out their national censuses, the movement mobilized Roma to declare their identity in order to highlight the persistent problem of undercounting.
This discussion has highlighted the specific characteristics and experiences of Dalits, Burakumin and Roma, but also the significant similarities between them as ‘outcastes’ in their own countries. Their marginalization is self-perpetuating, with discrimination from an early age in education subsequently determining their ability to access decent employment — a situation that then drastically diminishes not only their own life prospects, but those of their children too. If they try to challenge the state and society to pursue higher education, they are further discouraged by direct and indirect forms of discrimination.
Lack of access to education has created further barriers to employment, decent housing, access to health services and the ability to be heard by the police and judicial system. Moving forward, we need to escape the over-reliance on quantitative indicators to assess the plight of oppressed communities. Treating this as a development issue rather than one of liberation, the highly complex structural and power inequalities of the caste system are framed as a problem for economists and number crunchers. A humanity-centred approach needs to work alongside the data and ensure that we do not simply reduce these uniquely challenging human experiences to a set of statistics. The complexity of caste-based discrimination is such that it cannot be resolved simply through a purely technocratic approach that focuses on improving education and employment indicators without also addressing the entrenched chauvinism and supremacism of dominant communities.
Burakumin and Roma in the formal economy is one way to address caste discrimination. If marginalized groups are brought into formal employment in an inclusive manner as tax paying entities, the state as well as society will benefit from the labour these communities can provide. But for this to happen, they have to be given roles that wield real power and responsibility: this means challenging the entrenched discriminatory attitudes that continue to keep them in poorly paid, subordinate positions. Put simply, Dalits, Burakumin and Roma must be allowed to fulfil their potential as leaders in their field, creating role models that can act as inspiration and offer guidance. An officer, a CEO or a manager from these communities will certainly help alter the lazy and uninformed perceptions held by some dominant groups against these communities as lacking in talent and work ethic. While one must be wary of token representation, societies also need to work together to provide institutional and cultural support for the development of their most excluded populations.
However, this cannot be achieved within the narrow constraints of the neoliberal market. In fact, the neoliberal order has been primarily responsible for widening the gulf between people’s customs, traditions and beliefs and the diktats of the economy. A pessimistic situation has been created wherein the historically oppressed are put at peril for not giving them adequate opportunity to benefit from the market. Given existing prejudices against these groups, and society’s apathy to invest in these communities, a massive underclass of unemployed youth is being created that threatens disaster for any economy.
Fortunately, the extraordinary progress made by the communities discussed here, in the face of overwhelming social resistance, has at least proven their merit to take up multifarious challenges. In the process of finding justice, these communities have not only asserted their own humanity but offered their oppressors the chance to reclaim their own as well, thereby overcoming the dehumanizing attitudes of their countries.
The author acknowledges the comments made by three anonymous reviewers from the Dalit, Buraku and Roma communities.
Photo: The annual International Roma Day community procession through the streets of Govanhill to celebrate Romani culture and raise awareness of the issues facing Romani people. Glasgow, United Kingdom. Credit: Skully/Alamy Live News
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