July 02, 2006

Romani stereotypes

For several decades now Ian Hancock, head of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas, has been trying to make people aware of the anti-Romani attitudes, stereotypes and brutal treatment all over the world. Hancock estimates that a half-million Gypsies were killed during the Holocaust alone. Himself a Romani academic, Hancock fights a lonely battle and can use all the help he can get. To whet my appetite, he recently sent me a January 30, 2006 article in the LosAngeles Times (sorry, I can't get a link),  which describes the annual meeting of the National Association of Bunco Investigators, whose target population is, you guessed it, Gypsies -- although they use some sort of politically correct expressions these days, such as"professional transient burglars" and "transient offenders." These expressions appear to broaden the target category but the main focus of that meeting was the Romani, who, even though there is no demographic evidence to support this claim, are alleged to be the major perpetrators of the roofing and driveway repair scams in this country. Other prominent stereotypes are that the Romani are fortune tellers, thieves, liars, and filthy dirty people. It's scary that such stereotypes still exist.

In the past, linguists have made some progress in first exposing, then helping erradicate other ethnic and culture stereotypes. For example, at the 1971 Linguistic Society of America annual meeting in St. Louis, one session dealt with the then new research on Vernacular Black English, showing how it related to the teaching of English in the schools. At that meeting, some linguists became aware for the first time that minority kids were widely considered to have "cognitive deficits," based only on their use of allegedly non-standard English. Despite the efforts of educational researchers like Siegfried Engelmann and Carl Bereiter, among others, to perpetuate such notions, the cognitive deficit theory couldn't withstand the onslaught of counter-evidence brought by linguists like Bill Labov, the sociolinguists at the Center for Applied Linguistics, and many others. Today this stereotype exists in the minds of only the most backward of educators. But as many Language Log posts have pointed out, the misinformed public always seems to find new ways to express ignorance about language. Minorities are still targets of police profiling around the country. They get pulled over more often, are searched more frequently, and they dominate the death rows of American prisons. Minorities are sometimes still victims of racial steering by some realtors, based only on the sound of their voices when they make telephone inquiries about available apartments and houses. A few racist realtors still refer them to properties and rentals that are only in the minority sections of town. All based on linguistic and ethnic stereotyping. We still have work to do.

Malcolm Gladwell's February 6, 2006 article in The New Yorker (see here) seems relevant to the stereotypes and overgeneralizations that sociolinguists face in their  work. He compared current false stereotypes about pit bulls to the racial profiling stereotypes held and practiced by many law enforcement agencies -- as well as by Homeland Security. It took years for linguists to counter the ingnorance of many educators about the alleged cognitive deficits evidenced by the culture and language of minority kids. Some other progress also is being made but the Romani seem to be way at the back of the line.

Posted by Roger Shuy at July 2, 2006 01:01 PM