Notes on Contagion

There are of course some important distinctions to be drawn between events surrounding the case of the blond haired girl found by police in a Roma settlement in Farsala in Greece last week, and those of the blond haired Roma children who were removed from their homes in Ireland by Gardai.

Maybe the most important distinction -well, it’s not a distinction but it must be stressed- is that there is no direct relation between the situation of the child in Greece and that of the children in Ireland. The sensationalist media coverage of the Maria case – the ‘blond angel’ supposedly held prisoner by the dark Roma demons – was suffused with racism, and in particular, racist tropes about gypsies who steal the children of white people.

That there might be something remarkable about a blond haired child from a Roma family is, in itself, founded on racist presuppositions. It’s no exaggeration to say that these are precisely the kind of presuppositions that guided Nazi racial science. By such definitions, it’s impossible to have blond haired, blue eyed Roma children. Nazi racial science would classify Roma among the dark races of the earth, whose spreading was cast as a cancerous threat to the noble Nordic Aryan master race of Europe.

When Ireland’s media apparatus became abuzz with the news that a blonde haired child had been removed from a Roma family, the reporting conflated events in both Ireland and Greece in terms of the fact that in both cases it was Roma families involved. That is, in terms of a suspicion on the verge of being confirmed, that it was indeed characteristic of Roma that they abduct blonde haired children.

As we can see now, however, the similarities do not lie in the actions of distinct Roma communities, but rather, in both countries, Greece and Ireland, the propensity of police, media institutions and significant proportions of the population to become enthralled by paranoid racist fantasies, and speculation about what is right and wrong for the State to do, given the sense that such fantasies are real.

So, what common ground is there, in Greece and Ireland, for such fantasies to circulate with such ease? Racist paranoia is nothing new to either country, and the situation in Greece is markedly worse – at the moment. However, the intensification of Troika austerity policies; the destruction of social rights; the dismantling of already meagre welfare states; the failure of political institutions to respond to the material and human needs of the population and the evisceration of any kind of concern with social equality; individualised humiliation, and the resort to nationalistic narratives about recovery, are common to both countries, and are all factors that provide a basis for racism to spread. It must be stressed that the economic policies introduced in both countries have had the effect of increasing inequality and solidifying rigid social hierarchies.

The response of political and media establishments in both countries has been to offer up scapegoats: ‘illegal’ migrants, asylum seekers, ‘welfare tourists’, grotesque and faceless bureaucrats, and so on.

In their responses to the scandal, Ireland’s establishment politicians, from the Taoiseach down, might, if pushed, admit that An Garda Siochána got certain things wrong. But it will be a cold day in hell before they recognise their own role in creating the conditions for such racist abuses to flourish.

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