Friday, August 28, 2009

Romania

I saw two recent news items that reflect on Romania.

Lance blogs about the ISI Web of Science. I first heard of this thing a few years ago, when the Romanian government instituted paper counting as the means for promotion in any public university. The flavor of paper counting was that you only count "articles" in ISI "A-ranked" publications. This means, for instance, that I could not get a job there, since all my journal papers are in special issues (so they don't count, plus I don't really have a clue which TCS journals are A-ranked).

Now, the basic idea of the Romanian government was not bad. The Romanian university system is fundamentally screwed up on all levels (I will post about this later). Anything that will force them to engage with the rest of the world is generally a good idea. For instance, I would support the idea of having committees that decide minimal area-specific requirements. Say, "you may not apply for a faculty job in TCS group before you have at least 2 papers in STOC, FOCS, SODA, or SoCG." The idea would not be paper counting, but forcing people to notice the outside world (they might like it, and stay involved). Anything except a formal requirement is unlikely to work (since all senior faculty never heard of the outside world, you cannot base the system on recommendation letters, or the idea that a hiring committee will make intelligent decisions).

But the ISI implementation of the idea turned out to be quite wrong. It does not work in TCS, for instance, and it is abused in the other disciplines, as well. The common strategy is to fight hard to get some Romanian journal in the ISI list (say, "Modern Metallurgy" as a somewhat fictional example). Then, accepting papers in that journal is no longer a question of merit, but one of connections (yes, of course your cousin's daughter will get a job in our department) and bribe (yes, editor, of course I will be glad to have you as co-investigator on my compiler optimizations grant). The journal starts being filled with articles like "Red-Black trees with Faster Deletions, and Applications to Steel Production."


On to the second piece of news. BBC and others ran articles on how Madonna was booed at her own concert in Romania, when she spoke against discrimination against gypsies. I thought it would be good to discuss some context for that.

Discrimination against gypsies has its roots in the vanilla-flavored discrimination against any minority which is poor, uneducated, and prone to engaging in criminal behavior. As with the black community in the US, the most frequent critique that you hear in Romania is that the "uneducated" feature was by choice, i.e. it stems from the traditional values of the community. There is probably more of a case for this in Romania (where the communist regime made education mandatory, showered students with fellowships, and made all decisions based on anonymous written exams) than in the US (where many inner city schools are in disarray).

As far as I can tell, education or a stable job eliminates discrimination; we certainly had gypsy teachers in high school, and I never heard any negative comment about it. Again this is different from the US, where affirmative action programs have created a way to rationalize discrimination, even, say, against black MIT alumni.

In any case, contemporary discrimination against gypsies is driven by something quite different: a certain segment of the European media and politicians. Today, there is wide-spread (and very vocal) discrimination against Romanians in some European countries, with extremist politicians calling for mass deportations and things like that.

Again, this is vanilla-flavored discrimination against the large immigrant group who is willing to do more work for less money. But as wage and unemployment numbers don't make good ratings, the media show is built on specific examples: the accordion-playing beggars with 3 naked children in their arms, the pick-pockets, the guys who ate the swans from some park, the shanty houses outside Rome...

The problem? These people are usually gypsies bearing Romanian passports. These highly publicized examples have created a great deal of resentment among Romanians, both towards the Europeans who fail to understand the local ethnic differences, and towards the easier target, the gypsy community.

To illustrate this feeling, I attach a song from a well-known Romanian hip-hop band entitled "Message for Europe." (Warning: strong language, especially in Romanian; the English subtitles are not too good, and nothing can really do justice to the brilliant lyrics -- but you get the idea.)

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Mihai:

"Again this is different from the US, where affirmative action programs have created a way to rationalize discrimination, even, say, against black MIT alumni."

--Do you mean that people assume black alumni from MIT have only gotten there because of affirmative action and therefore they discriminate against them? (I didn't understand how AA leads us to rationalize discrimination.)

--I found your anecdote about the communist system giving anonymous exams very interesting. I wonder if this actually resulted in more women/minorities studying math/science. (Presently, I see that many women who do math in the US are from Romania, perhaps more represented than many other countries.)

--Your description of the Romanian higher education system is also very interesting. I wonder if it is so different (less corrupt) than other countries in Europe. Also, given how many good Romanians there are in math studying in the US, it seems somewhat surprising that their system is so corrupt, since so many people are getting good educations at the lower level.

Anonymous said...

As there is still strong racism against Afro-americans in the US (and if you think there is not, just look on the 2008 election results in the south) there is probably also racism against gypsies in Romania. The fact that this rises out of some real world problems (poverty, crime, etc), does not diminish this...

Naturally, it is easier for Madona to go to Romania and speak about racism there, then to go to LA and speak about the not-so-wonderful reality of life in the US (Afro-americans having 10x probability to be in jail, etc).

--S

Mihai said...

Do you mean that people assume black alumni from MIT have only gotten there because of affirmative action and therefore they discriminate against them?

Sure. I've heard this argument quite often. I've also met women undergrads who worried that their MIT degree wouldn't be taken seriously because of their gender.

I wonder if this actually resulted in more women/minorities studying math/science.

I thought the main problem is not entrance exams (US universities often admit about 50% women), but the culture, incentives, job requirements, etc.

In undergrad science there are clearly less women in Romania (fewer applicants and no affirmative action). But at PhD level and beyond, I think there are more in the US. This can probably be attributed to cultural differences: you see a large percentage of women, so you apply; it's quite Ok to have kids at any stage; the attitude of your peers is decidedly less "geeky"; etc.

I wonder if it is so different (less corrupt) than other countries in Europe.

How did you get this from what I wrote? Romanian higher education is more corrupt that in most places in Europe. There is a huge gap between high school and university education in Romania, encouraging many people to leave the country.

Mihai said...

there is probably also racism against gypsies in Romania. The fact that this rises out of some real world problems (poverty, crime, etc), does not diminish this...

Most racism stems from real world problems; this does not make it better or worse. For instance, is there any racism against the Irish today? Not really, but there was a lot of it a century ago.

As long as the black community remains, on average, poorer, less educated, and more violent, racism cannot possibly disappear. It's human nature.

jelani said...

Do you mean that people assume black alumni from MIT have only gotten there because of affirmative action and therefore they discriminate against them?

Such people should be directed toward this article:
http://tech.mit.edu/V117/N40/hove.40c.html

In short, as far as I've understood, MIT does not take race or gender into account during admissions, but only during recruitment. That is, they send admissions officers on outreach programs to get more women/blacks/etc. to apply, but once they apply these characteristics are ignored.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a difference between "vanilla" racism that was practiced against the Irish, who were refugees in America, and racism against African-Americans whose ancestors were forced to come here against their will. As evidence, the "vanilla" racism against the Irish has disappeared, but the racism against African-Americans has not. Why not? After a couple generations, you can't necessarily tell if someone is part Irish, but you can usually tell if someone is African-American, so it is a racism based on physical characteristics.

Again, I do not think dismissing racism against black Americans as "vanilla" and "normal" due to poverty and poor education is going to help alleviate it.

Anonymous said...

"As long as the black community remains, on average, poorer, less educated, and more violent, racism cannot possibly disappear. It's human nature."

This is a oft used rationalization for racism and is just isn't true. How do you then explain anti-Semitism in Europe for instance ?

Racism has more to do with upbringing than with anything else. Most racist minded people learn their racism from their parents and immediate surroundings during their formative years -- not through any adult rational considerations. Once ingrained it is rather difficult to correct.

Vivi said...

I recently wanted to send the same song to some friends of mine from here.

I used to think highly of Paraziții, but the anti-gay message in there made me loose a lot of the respect I had for them.

Mihai said...

How do you then explain anti-Semitism in Europe for instance ?

The implication is one directional, i.e. as long as the black community remains poorer, less educated, and more violent, racism against it cannot disappear.

Will it disappear afterwards? Who knows. Gypsies do not really have this problem, since the skin color is not sufficiently different.

From personal experience, antisemitism in Europe is mainly among people who have never seen a jew in their lives. I wouldn't call it racism, it's more like folk tales.

Anonymous said...

"The implication is one directional, i.e. as long as the black community remains poorer, less educated, and more violent, racism against it cannot disappear."

As most non-European origin people in the US will tell you -- the most overt forms of racism comes from the white blue-collar class -- for instance, police officers, border agents etc. As a rule the general educational levels of these people (i.e. bottom most rung of high school graduates) is not superior, and in fact mostly inferior to those against whom they are racially biased. Same goes for income level. These people got their racism from their families when they were growing up -- it has not much to do with the socio-economic status of blacks, Asians etc...

"From personal experience, antisemitism in Europe is mainly among people who have never seen a jew in their lives. I wouldn't call it racism, it's more like folk tales."

They have never seen a Jew because their parent's generation saw to it that this is the case. It only reinforces my point that racism is imbibed during childhood from immediate surroundings -- parents, family mostly. It has not much to do with socio-economic status of the victims -- visible or invisible (such as the European jewry).

Anonymous said...

As there is still strong racism against Afro-americans in the US (and if you think there is not, just look on the 2008 election results in the south)

It is more reasonable to assume that people in the south did not vote for Obama because of his views and policies, i.e., because he is a democrat. I do not see any substantial evidence against this.

Anonymous said...

Specifically about Madonna getting booed, she wasn't booed because Romanians are pro-racism.

She was booed because, with a Romanian audience, she is perceived as a rich person from a rich country, who pays the people who do her manicure several times over what the average wage in Romania is. The audience perceived her as lecturing them - the same audience that is buying the concert tickets that enable her lavish lifestyle.

Do you think Madonna would see it fit to lecture a Los Angeles audience?

Do you think Los Angeles is less racist that Romania?

How would you react if President Obama would land in your country and lecture you on how bad it is to invade other countries?

:)

Mihai said...

the most overt forms of racism comes from the white blue-collar class -- for instance, police officers, border agents etc. As a rule the general educational levels of these people is not superior, and in fact mostly inferior to those against whom they are racially biased.

Right. The white police officers are pissed about the superb education that most black people are offered (far better than theirs).

I do not particularly care about the vague traces of discrimination that the high-tech Indian immigrant might feel. The real discrimination (with real consequences) are against people at the bottom of the ladder, who are trying to get jobs, rent apartments, etc.

Greco Mascara said...

"Your description of the Romanian higher education system is also very interesting. I wonder if it is so different (less corrupt) than other countries in Europe. Also, given how many good Romanians there are in math studying in the US, it seems somewhat surprising that their system is so corrupt, since so many people are getting good educations at the lower level."

Coming from Greece, a country with a highly dysfunctional university system, I can provide an explanation: Self-selection.

Most professors are horrible educations but enjoy having impossibly difficult questions for the final exams. So, students that are eager to learn start studying and learning on their own. These are also the students that apply for graduate studies abroad. The sample of students that are continuing their studies abroad is hardly representative of the general level of education provided.

I would not be surprised if something very similar happens in Romania.

val said...

The Romanian university system is fundamentally screwed up on all levels (I will post about this later). Anything that will force them to engage with the rest of the world is generally a good idea.

same is true about russia; they don't even recognize degrees earned abroad

Anonymous said...

"you may not apply for a faculty job in TCS group before you have at least 2 papers in STOC, FOCS, SODA, or SoCG."

I know several TCS professors in much more "developed" countries (e.g. Italy) that do not have a single paper on STOC, FOCS, SODA, SoCG (or equaivalent)...