Sunday, July 8, 2012


Dear Sirs:

National Geographic has been an international and socially welcoming institution for so

many years, presenting the often wrongly maligned Roma, a sprawling people who’s identity

has and still remains shrouded in mystery, in nothing if not a positive light. It is a delicate and

difficult task to educate the public on a society so hard to penetrate as the Roma, who, much

like a lost civilization, supply little evidence of their true inner-workings as a society. However

the program American Gypsies,
slated to air later this month on the National Geographic

Channel and which purportedly takes a peak inside the New York-based Johns family, is at

risk of being a conflict of interest not only for the Roma but also for National Geographic

because this family, as detailed further in this letter, is far from representative of the Roma

community. It is without a doubt that any viewer of this show will see this family as a model

for all so called “American gypsies”, and this would indeed be a tragedy, damaging both the
image of the Roma and that of National Geographic. The show’s description already starts

out on the wrong foot with a stereotype of gypsy-as-fortune-teller with the line “how to make

a fortune in the fortune-telling business”.

Perhaps it is not the Roma who are looking to make a fortune here, but the minds behind

this program at the “Golden-rectangle”. It is probable that National Geographic is aware

that “Gypsy culture” has been a popular subject in the media recently, and it seems possible

the Channel may want to feed off of this trend at the expense of the people involved despite

its not-for-profit status. The only possible outcomes of airing the program are that it would

provide a poor understanding of who and what the Roma are, and the knowledge that the
Romani American population is not sufficiently equipped to combat racial stereotyping legally.

Furthermore, if one were to consider the making of a series presenting a family of American

Jewish crooks as Jews

generally, or a black street gang were presented as representing Africa Americans

generally, there would be a massive outcry, and such projects would die aborning.

The proposed
American Gypsies is no different from these hypothetical, backwards, examples.

Already a proposed series on an American Muslim family has been cancelled, presumably

for fear of legal backlash.

It is claimed that this is not a documentary about Romani Americans, but just about one

family. Does this mean that the words “Gypsy” and “Roma” or “Romani” don’t occur anywhere

in the series? They will be, of course. But will there be a disclaimer? Will there be

a statement to the effect that this family is criminal, this family is not representative of the

hundreds of thousands of Romani who live in our country, and in fact has been ostracized

by that population? Will our history be presented factually? Reference to the 550 years of

slavery in Eastern Europe, from whom the Johns family descends? Will there be reference

to Himmler’s genocidal Final Solution of the Gypsy Question in the Holocaust? Or will all

of the real history be put aside in favor of fishing trips to Florida and visits to the

to the mall?

Hundreds of thousands of Roma live in our country. Most stay in the background for fear of
racial discrimination. State and county laws specifically aimed at Roma have existed until as

recently as 1989, some of which are listed in my book

Danger! Educated Gypsy. Although we are protected from this as a class under the terms of Title VII

of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, few Roma are aware of it or use it as a means of legal redress. One

organization, however, called Romani Zor, with a Romani American attorney, Joseph Nicola, has

recently been incorporated to monitor the present situation, and anticipates a class action suit

following this series. I am a Romani. I am a senior faculty member at a leading university. I am a

former White House appointee. I am a state commissioner. And I am deeply insulted by

this. If there is doubt about the extent of racial bigotry targeting Romanies in our country,


Use of the word “Gypsy” is problematic. It is a word we dislike, and which was officially

dropped from all of its internal documentation at the Second World Romani Congress in

in 1984. The use by journalists of its equivalent in other languages (e.g. Zigeuner in German,
Cigan in Serbia) has been banned. The “Gypsies” in the British and TLS series “

My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding

” are not in fact Romani at all, but a white population of Irish descent. The

definition of “Gypsy” (or “gypsy”) is already vague in people’s minds, most of whom think it

is a behavior rather than an ethnicity, and National Geographic’s imprimatur will only serve
to reinforce that misconception. If the general public’s exposure to “American Gypsies” is

presented under National Geographic’s trusted name, then disrespectful and inaccurate

perceptions of our people will have been confirmed.

The Johns family has a very bad reputation, and is shunned by the community. It is the

focus of the series only because of the entertainment value their ignorance and bad behavior

provides. If we as a people are not taken seriously, then the problems we face cannot possibly

be taken seriously.

It astounds me that National Geographic’s standards have fallen so low, have succumbed to

the overall downward drift of our country’s academic standards. Our real story is a fascinating

one; indeed, NG produced an entire beautifully illustrated book about it edited by Bart

McDowell in 1970 entitled Gypsies, Wanderers of the World. What has happened since?

Both the United Nations and the Council of Europe list the situation of Roma as the most

serious transnationally in terms of human rights abuse. I have included a number of references

to this below.

Roma remain to date the most persecuted people of Europe. Almost everywhere, their fundamental

human rights are threatened. Racist violence targeting Roma is widespread in the

last years. Discrimination against Roma in employment, education, healthcare, administrative

and other services is observed in most societies, and hate speech deepens the anti-Romani

stereotypes typical of European public opinion. (European Roma Rights Centre, 2001: 5).

Romanies in Europe were ‘at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator: the poorest, the

most unemployed, the least educated, the shortest-lived, the most welfare dependent, the

most imprisoned and the most segregated.

(The Economist, 2005).

Roma are the most prominent poverty risk group in many of the countries of central and
Eastern Europe. They are poorer than other groups, more likely to fall into poverty, and more

likely to remain poor. In some cases poverty rates for Roma are more than ten times that of

non-Roma. A recent survey found that nearly 80 per cent of Roma in Romania and Bulgaria

were living on less than $4.30 per day … even in Hungary, one of the most prosperous accession

countries, 40 per cent of Roma live below the poverty line. (World Bank Report, 2006).

In September 2001, the council of Europe ‘issued a blistering condemnation of Europe’s
treatment of the Roma Gypsy community, saying they are subject to racism, discrimination

and violence … the United Nations says they pose Europe’s most serious human rights

problem. (BBC, 2001)

On 1 February 2008, the Associated Press issued a statement released by the European union

beginning, ‘the Roma, also known as Gypsies, remain frequent targets of racist attacks, abuse

and police harassment.’
If American Gypsies is aired, even though it concerns the life of just one family, it will undoubtedly

give a false impression of the Roma as a society. Considering the racial issues faced by

the Roma, especially in recent years, this show, already in violation of civil rights laws, would

only foster further problems for the Romani people. Furthermore, it can not be ignored that

National Geographic Magazine
has previously published illuminating and educational editorial

content on the Roma and that the intent of

American Gypsies is counter to the positive spirit of curiosity already firmly established by the

magazine, thus causing this program to be in conflict with the interests of both the National

Geographic Society and the Romani people. Allowing the world to see this footage can be nothing if

not detrimental for both parties involved, and we hope with the utmost respect that the board might

be able to see this and seriously consider the multiple negative outcomes airing of this program

would create.

 BY Ian Hancock and Kore Yoors

Photo: Professor Ian Hancock

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