Sweden: Roma, Racism, Denial, and a ‘Dangerous Wind’
by Ritt Goldstein
Copyright October 2013
Dalarna, Sweden – Throughout history, there have been many mistaking a willingness to commit wrongdoing as courage, not to mention respecting the rights of others as weakness. Recent years have seen an increasing elimination of rights pursued by those citing ‘demands of state or security’, and sometimes we have only discovered the effective elimination of such rights after they are gone. But as terrible a rip in the very fabric of society which this is, perhaps worse still is the phenomenon of ‘denial’, a phenomenon which insulates wrongdoers from perceiving the nightmares they may pursue, simultaneously blinding others to the societal malaise raging among them.
Decades ago, in 1939, American philosopher John Dewey saw the most serious threat to democracy as “the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions similar to those which have given a victory to external authority, discipline, uniformity”, emphasizing that the fight for our freedoms “is accordingly here - within ourselves and our institutions”.
In November 2012, the Swedish government published a report titled ‘Främlingsfienden inom oss’ – I believe one might translate that as ‘The xenophobe within us’. And, my translation of the last sentence in the report’s summary reads: ‘We must begin with ourselves.’ (Vi måste börja med oss själva.)
Fear and ‘comparisons to the Nazi era’
At the end of August, Swedish representatives were questioned by the ‘UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’ as to what actions had been taken to diminish intolerance. Prior to the UN committee meeting, Social Democratic MP Aleksander Gabelic (head of Sweden's UN Association) was reported as charging that the last decade had seen little progress, a late-August report the UN Association was party to finding that Sweden’s “indigenous, ethnic and religious minorities continue to suffer discrimination in all areas of life." And on 23 September, this nation was rocked by a scandal whose nature brought comparisons to the Nazi era.
Police in Southern Sweden were found to have compiled and kept a registry of Roma, a registry even containing the names of over 1000 young children (as young as two), a registry which reportedly runs contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights (among other laws), and a registry for which Sweden’s Justice Minister has apologized to the Roma community. Meanwhile, The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, commented on his Facebook page: “With this file on Roma people, the Swedish State contributes to alienating from society both its Romani communities and other minority groups. The past has taught us that this is a very dangerous path which risks fuelling racist movements. The police should preserve a democratic State, not endanger it.”
The Swedish ‘paper of record’, Dagens Nyheter (DN - The Day’s News), broke the story, and in a 28 September article addressing events, 'The man who broke the Roma registry scandal', The Local’s (Sweden’s major English-language news site) first paragraph began with the translated DN quote, "Many are scared and worried. Many think of Hitler, which I have noted that a great deal of opinion-makers consider to be tasteless. But the Roma were a part of the Nazi genocide, just like the Jews, although this is less well-known".
Attitudes vs actions
The major directory in question contains over 4000 names, broken down by relationships and family-trees, and includes over 1000 young children. Questions of ‘ethnic-profiling’ and discrimination exploded with the ‘Roma Registry’s’ revelation, the registering of very young children sparking particular concern.
Highlighting the gravity of what’s occurring, DN published an English-language article titled ‘Over one thousand children illegally registered’. A quote from it reads: ”This is what Hitler did. First they register us. Then they get rid of us”
Sweden is a country which consistently scores well when its residents are surveyed as to their attitudes regarding pluralism and tolerance, yet, it has been argued that there exists a ‘disconnect’ between Swedish attitudes and actions. The ‘Roma Registry Scandal’ might be seen as highlighting what this can mean, and an August article in The Local, “Structural racism 'still a problem' in Sweden”, provides further facts upon the reality those not of Sweden’s ‘majority community’ face. Providing harsher comment, a 2011 OpEd News article, “Sweden and its dark side, Stieg Larsson, and Hollywood's 'The girl with the dragon tattoo'”, observes of the Roma that earlier, in some areas of the country, “Roma were sterilized simply for being Roma”.
This journalist knows members of the Roma community here, but was unable to contact them since the scandal broke. They have blond hair, blue eyes, and shared the fact of their Roma heritage only after quite some time. My impression is that their heritage was something that they felt needed to be hidden from most, to my eyes highlighting the effects of discrimination. Notably, earlier requests to discuss Roma issues had been politely rebuffed, my interpretation of this being that the subject was ‘too difficult’ for them to address.
Of course, not all Swedish Roma are blond and blue-eyed, and on 27 September a Stockholm Roma registry, a registry discontinued in 1996, surfaced. The Local’s summary of the article they did, ‘Stockholm city kept Roma registry until 1996’, reads: ‘Stockholm city council had its own Roma registry as recently as 1996 which profiled people based on their intelligence and cleanliness, with records kept in a so-called "gypsy inventory" (zigenarinventeringen), the Dagens Nyheter newspaper revealed on Friday.’ The Local cited one of the ‘registry’ entries describing a woman, an entry which observed, "She's as black as the night." The article also quotes Swedish Integration Ministrer Erik Ullenhag as noting he was ”ashamed” by the revelations.
Reality, denial, and a dangerous wind
On 13 September, two of the big national papers, Expressen and Aftonbladet, ran an op-ed article, ‘Sverige räcker till för oss alla’ (Sweden is enough for all of us). It was an initiative against what was termed ‘a dangerous xenophobic wind blowing across Sweden’, a promise by a substantive number of ‘celebrity Swedes’ that they would speak out against xenophobia, that they would no longer remain silent. The last time I checked, over eighteen thousand had pledged to support the initiative (there are about 9.6 million Swedes). Not all the news from here is bad. And, this journalist was both surprised and gratified when the Roma registry story actually broke - it was reported that police had initially denied the Registry’s existence. But, perhaps the problem here isn’t based upon the kind of ‘denial’ that police reportedly initially exercised, but upon the kind that allows many to dismiss anything sufficiently unpleasant before them.
In 2012, CounterPunch published ’Living as a “Sub-Human” in Sweden’, which observed of some, that were pursuing arguably ‘inappropriate’ beliefs, that “the most disturbing aspect of these incidents — each occurring quite separately from the others — was the complete lack of malice among those embracing such absurdities. These ‘otherwise good people’ completely failed to recognize the wholly inappropriate nature of what they were saying.” In March of this year, in an interview with a senior Swedish civil servant who had run the Government’s 2005 inquiry into ‘structural discrimination’, Paul Lappalainen, it was emphasized to this journalist that the “problem here is the big disconnect between actions and attitudes”. Elaborating further, Lappalainen explained that “denial, for me, is the key issue”, observing that too many Swedes ”haven’t really dealt with racism that’s part of their structure”.
For the last years, this journalist has ‘lived as a subhuman in Sweden’, leaving my life and health severely shattered - what's described above is all too accurate. But, even if I should soon die, the truth will remain.