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What Roma and American Black Males Have in Common

I recently had the honor of traveling to Budapest to participate in the Open Society Youth Initiative's annual Youth Exchange 2012. The gathering welcomed people from across the Open Society global network to discuss youth rights in transition. Participants shared their unique experiences and examples of how they were advancing youth rights and youth engagement in their respective countries.

It was a welcomed opportunity for the Campaign for Black Male Achievement to hear what other international colleagues were doing to address issues facing marginalized communities. Since the launch of the campaign in 2008, comparisons have been made between African American youth and the Roma.

There are many differences between the plight facing African Americans and the Roma, including the most obvious of race and ethnicity as well as geography, history, and other social, economic, and political realities. Yet both face racial discrimination, high unemployment, poor educational outcomes, and negative perceptions and stereotypes. Speaking with colleagues from the Roma Initiatives, it was clear that there was a great deal we could learn from from each other. We both address embedded discrimination and hate due to stereotype. And both initiatives have made addressing perceptions and using communications critical components in addressing the issues plaguing each population.

Like the Roma, African Americans face a precarious situation where stereotypes translate into a tragic reality of racial biases and attitudes that fuel the creation of discriminatory and harmful policies. The manifestation of this reality for black male youth was very publicly revealed though the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin. Trayvon, like all black male youth live in the conscious and subconscious minds of most Americans as violent and as criminals. The Opportunity Agenda report Media Representations and the Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys found that portrayals of black males in the media can be expected to “promote exaggerated views related to criminality and violence.” Roma youth live in the conscious and subconscious minds of many Europeans in the same way. Today, Roma youth are chased and hunted down by neo-Nazis simply because of their appearance. How can we begin to break these long histories of deep seated hate due to one’s racial or ethnic identity?

In December 2010, the Open Society Foundations’ partnered with the American Values Institute and the Knight Foundation to host a three day convening called Black Male: Re-Imagined. In attendance were key media influencers, like Charles Blow, Spike Lee and Andre Harrell, as well as advocates like Rashad Robinson of Color of Change and Biko Baker from the League of Young Voters. The convening also included researchers and scholars such as Open Society Foundations’ U.S. Programs Board Chair Sherrilyn Ifill, Drew Westen, and Robert Entman. The convening provided CBMA with a framework to shape a strategy addressing bias toward black males.

The framework included steps to: 1) use implicit bias tests and research to change perceptions of black males; 2) develop an effective communications campaign and media partnerships with advocates to influence positive perceptions of black males; 3) use traditional organizing tools along with new social media applications to reach broad audiences to advance black male achievement; and 4) apply the best branding and marketing models for non-profit and social advocacy to reach targeted audiences.

As our friends at the American Values Institute have taught us, bias that is learned can also be unlearned.  There is hope that the realities for Roma and black male youth can be re-imagined. For Roma and black male youth, changing negative perceptions and stereotypes could be one great leap forward to ensure that their ultimate success and inclusion in the broader society.

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