Harvard FXB to Explore Romani Realities in the US

Thanks to a grant from the Cummings Foundation, the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University (Harvard FXB) is launching a new research project focused on the situation of Roma in the United States. Since 2012, Harvard FXB has implemented an innovative research and capacity-strengthening program related to the Roma, who have long been an ill-treated minority, facing persecution and, in the past, even slavery. Up until now, the Harvard FXB Roma Program has worked with Roma living in Europe where they form the largest ethnic minority group. Romani Realities in the United States: Breaking the Silence, Challenging the Stereotype will enable us to contribute much-needed quantitative research designed to understand the struggles of Roma in this country.

The United States lacks studies assessing the structural, social, and economic challenges of its Roma communities. Most of the existing studies are ethnographies, many of which reflect romantic characterizations of “gypsies” as colorful palm readers and performers, stereotypes that trivialize and falsify the nature of the community as a whole.  Many Roma regard the word “gypsy” as a racial slur that derives from those stereotypes.  Scholars have chosen to focus on what they identify as “traditional” lifestyles—what they like to think of as the genuine core of Romani people— and highlighted limited aspects of community life which fit with that narrative while ignoring the variety and complexity of Roma communities.  As Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, former UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, noted in 2016, scholars, advocates, and policymakers outside Europe should “learn about the number of Roma people and their socio-economic situation, and design effective legal and policy responses.”

In this context, the Roma Program at Harvard will work toward advancing new knowledge and quantitative data about this hitherto neglected geography for Romani studies. “We are delighted to invest in this important program that involves Roma communities in the US, including in Massachusetts,” said Joel Swets, Cummings Foundation’s executive director.

The project will explore three topics in particular: (a) quantitative data with and about Roma in the US; (b) a comparative exploration of theories of stigma and discrimination as they apply to Roma populations in the USA and in Europe; and (c) an inquiry into the nature of the Roma diaspora.

The Harvard FXB research team consists of Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, director of research, Dr. Margareta Matache, instructor and the director of the Roma Program, and Arlan Fuller, executive director. They will work with five Roma rights organizations or academic centers to shed light on the realities of 500 American Roma in California, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Texas.

Romani Realities Project at Cummings “100K for 100” Celebration: Dr. Margarate Matache, director of Harvard FXB’s Roma Program; Laurie Gabriel, Community Trustee, Cummings Foundation; Arlan Fuller, Harvard FXB executive director. Courtesy of Cummings Foundation

The Cummings Foundation grant to Harvard FXB is part of this year’s “$100K for 100” program. The grant builds on earlier funding from the Cummings Foundation to support Harvard FXB’s Roma Program. The Cumming Foundation’s $100K for 100 program supports nonprofits based in Massachusetts. This year’s diverse group of grant recipients represents a wide variety of causes, including education, homelessness prevention, elder services, healthcare, and food insecurity. Most of the grants will be paid over two to five years. The complete list of 100 grant winners is available at www.cummingsfoundation.org.

Top Photo: Roma Family Picture, about 1937, Maspeth NY
By Carlos de Wendler-Funaro, from his Research Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History