By. Ian Hancok

This is the letter I sent to NatGeo a couple of months ago.  It got no response
 National Geographic’s intention to air the program American Gypsies later this month has come as a blow to the entire Romani American population and is a disappointing reflection on a society committed to education that has been an international institution for so many years.  Stimulated by the recent media attention being paid to “Gypsies,” this has all the earmarks of a sensation-for-profit venture at the expense of the people involved.

In addition to financial gain, 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 well 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 African Americans generally, there would be a massive outcry, and such projects would die aborning.  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, 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 Romanies who live in our country, and in fact is one that has been ostracized by that population? Will our history be presented factually?  Reference to the 550 years of slavery in Eastern Europe that ended in 1864, and from which 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 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 the fact or use it as a means of legal redress.  One organization, however, called Rromani Zor, with a Romani American attorney, Joseph Nicola, has recently been incorporated to monitor the present situation, and anticipates a class action suit resulting from 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, visithttp://www.topix.com/forum/city/texarkana-tx/T97FHETB5P7O16PBA.
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 1984.  The use by journalists of its equivalent in other languages (e.g. Zigeuner in German,Cigan in Serbia) has been banned at the governmental level.  The “Gypsies” in the British and TLC series “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” are not in fact Romanies 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 legitimated.
The Johns family is not representative of Romani Americans.  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 integrity has fallen so low, has 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 one family, it will undoubtedly give a false impression of we Roma as a society, and specifically those of us residing in America. Considering the racial issues faced by the Roma, especially in recent years, this show, which is already in violation of civil rights laws, would only foster further problems for the Romani people. Further, it cannot be ignored that National Geographic Magazine has previously published illuminating and educational editorial content on the Roma and that the intent of American Gypsies appears to be 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 ramifications involved in the airing of this program.

Ian Hancock