Last month, thousands of Roma - Gypsies - in the Czech Republic started packing their bags and booking flights to Canada when a television show related the unremarkable fact that, on the streets of Toronto, people aren't routinely attacked because of the color of their skin. Life must be pretty bad for Roma in the Czech Republic.
To be sure, some municipal officials encouraged the exodus, offering to pay two-thirds the cost of air fare to those who would abandon their apartments and return their licenses of tenancy. As one mayor reasoned, since Roma can't live with other citizens, city officials should not hesitate to "help" them leave.
Such attitudes are not uncommon. All over the former East bloc Roma are suffering a wave of racist violence and discrimination which belies the grand claims of budding NATO and EU aspirants to democracy and the rule of law. Worse still, instead of condemning the misconduct, judges and prosecutors continue to explain it away with patently absurd rationalizations.
Last November, a district court in the Czech Republic ruled that racial hatred played no role when two white youths assaulted and threatened to throw four Roma boys off a moving train on the grounds that the train was "for whites only." The court said race was not involved because "just like citizens of Czech nationality ... Roma are members of the Indo-European race." On the basis of this tortured logic, violence against Roma can never be ruled as racially motivated.
Roma in some areas are still struggling to overcome a legacy of slavery as recent as the 19th century. Many Roma children in primary schools attend segregated classes, and few go on to high school or university. Roma are branded as "lazy," "dirty," and "untrustworthy," and blamed for their own poverty and powerlessness.
If Europe is to overcome the curse of racial intolerance, Roma will have to lead the way. Little by little, they are organizing politically, drawing strength from their rich cultural heritage, and using the weapons of the American civil rights movement - litigation, lobbying, and mass protest - to fight back.
In July, lawyers in Hungary won a substantial fine and a public apology from a restaurant owner who had refused entry to any "Gypsies."
Three months earlier, five skinheads were given six-year prison sentences in Bulgaria for the racially motivated murder of a 19-year-old Romani man. As the first success of its kind involving Roma in Bulgaria, the case demonstrates that law enforcement organs and the judiciary can address and punish racially motivated violence.
Notwithstanding these gains, obstacles abound. Even good-willed lawyers are understandably reluctant to risk economic well-being and physical security to support a just cause. Declining a job offer from a local Roma legal-defense organization, a Ukrainian law professor recently explained, "You don't need a lawyer; you need a kamikaze pilot."
Western governments can help. By throwing their prestige, economic resources, and political power behind the movement for racial equality, they can make clear that countries that tolerate racism won't be admitted into exclusive economic and military clubs to which many aspire.
The message? Amend laws that expressly discriminate against Roma; abolish racially segregated schools that relegate thousands of Roma children to second-class educational status; and prosecute skinhead and police violence to the full extent of the law.
Then one day, perhaps Roma won't have to fly all the way to Canada to find a decent life.
* James A. Goldston is legal director of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest.