It is encouraging to see young scholars and emerging Greek Orthodox leaders entering the conversation about anti-racism. In a posting in this forum, Nikolaos Piperis and Stavros Piperis, scholars at the Creighton University School of Law and Youth Directors at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Omaha, Nebraska, contribute to the discussion from a sociopsychological perspective: they single out fear as a key variable explaining the Southern Greek-American reticence to openly side with the Civil Rights movement en masse.
Their position connects social psychology, immigrant material realities, and the violence of white supremacy. The immigrants’ public support of the Southern anti-racist movement, they point out, would have meant risking one’s business and endangering one’s personal and family life. “These Greeks feared their businesses would be blacklisted, their windows shattered by bricks or their loved ones killed,” they write. The authors designate the inhumane cruelty of Southern segregationism as terrorism, asking that our critique acknowledges the Greek-American predicament under Jim Crow terror. Were we in their position, would we have risked the destruction of our hard-acquired possessions? This angle of seeing the issue makes those who did defy Southern racism but also racial injustices elsewhere all the more laudable.
Fear, indeed, was a deep-seated factor, well beyond the South. Evidence indicates that throughout the country there were immigrants who weighed the consequences between refusing the racial status quo and safeguarding personal protection. Credible testimonies point to Greek immigrant business owners who, though they would not consider themselves racist, saw no choice but consent to the rule of white culture in exchange for securing their livelihood.
On full display in this historical dilemma is the intimidating specter of white supremacy to crash those who opposed it. The precarious status of immigrants––readily scapegoated as unpatriotic agitators and summarily punished––works as a powerful mechanism of social control. Immigrants were encouraged to long for the American Dream, but were not emboldened to exercise the civic freedoms promised by that very dream.
Fear, of course, was only one variable among many that shaped relative inaction within the Greek-American community at the time. This inaction applies to the Civil Rights era as well as the urban racial dynamics that drove the so-called white flight to the suburbs. This landscape is barely understood. The extent to which sectors of Greek America internalized racial hierarchies through their socialization in white institutions is not known. Scholarship on this subject is scarce, so one cannot make generalizations about the scale of Greek American private support or opposition to Civil Rights.
Still, no matter the degree of internal opposition to systemic racism, the fact remains that sectors of Greek America did not visibly join the public fight. This recognition is not to incite guilt or shame. Far from it, as this would be unproductive. I agree with Piperis and Piperis that this generation has no obligation to apologize for their grandparents, who, at any rate, were a diverse demographic. There have been notable examples of Greek Americans joining in solidarity with Black Americans, in the past as well as in the present. But if an apology about the past is not due, an acknowledgement of the past is; either way, the articulation of a responsibility in the present is certainly long overdue.
This is a twofold obligation, in my view: to understand Greek America’s complex history vis-à-vis systemic racism and to reflect how this understanding contributes to today’s “struggle for justice”––as the authors put it. We ought to examine, for example, the public stories we tell to ourselves and fellow citizens in documentaries, popular histories, and memoirs in post-Civil Rights America. Do they make mention of the problem of racial hierarchies?
Greek immigrants, among others, toiled immensely for survival and socioeconomic mobility. Their families know all too well the extraordinary sacrifices of parents and grandparents; their labor around the clock left no corner of family life unaffected. It is necessary to recognize publicly the monumental scale of this work ethic. Indeed, our ubiquitous struggle and success story repeatedly foregrounds it amply as heroic.
But the pervasive operation of structural racism in U.S. history must make us think twice before we turn our work ethic into a narrative of bootstrap mobility. The evidence is clear. We did not lift ourselves up through hard work alone; we also got a pass to advance. Structural racism largely spared us, loosening its iron grip particularly after the 1930s––even in some cases staring in the 1920s––though prejudice and discrimination certainly did not disappear. An ethnic name and physiognomy––particularly in the world of theater for instance, as actress Olympia Dukakis has noted––and also throughout the arts, high up in political circles, and in certain social situations still posed obstacles. This explains the trend toward the Anglicization of names and assimilation so that immigrants could pass, or be seen, as white. But these options were not open to Black Americans. It is now a truism in mainstream scholarship that the prejudice Southeastern Europeans experienced, while certainly traumatic, cannot be compared with the systemic racism to which Black Americans were subjected throughout America’s history.
Had Southeastern European Americans challenged white supremacy more broadly, institutional racism would have blocked, traumatized, and derailed their families. A “heritage of fear,” for example, haunted the daughter of a Greek-American family as a result of aggressive surveillance for its racially and politically progressive views (Marianthe Karanikas, “Searching for Osprey,” MondoGreco 6/7 [2001-2002]: 232–39.) Lives were destroyed for resisting social and political conformity. Had we been subjected to the insidious power of institutional racism collectively, immigrant businesses would not have prospered as they have; the route to college for the American born would have been much more cumbersome; bank loans would have been more difficult to obtain; the psychological and social well-being of the community would have been different in many regions of the country.
In the 1980s and beyond, advocates of the bootstrap model argued that the gains of the Civil Rights movement created a society of equal opportunity for all, and therefore mobility depended only on individual effort. If the Polish Americans and Greek Americans have made it, the bootstrap narrative never tired of repeating, there should be no reason that in a liberal state such as the United States others could not as well—unless, of course, it was their fault. The stage was set to explain racial hierarchies in cultural, not structural terms. It endures spectacularly.
But in reality, anti-discriminatory laws in the post-Civil Rights era did not translate into the eradication of racism in the practices of institutions, boards of organizations, real estate agencies, tax collection, and hiring. Public discourse at the time inundated society with stereotypical images of the Black family, forgetting how systemic racism tore apart the social and economic fabric of Black America. This ideology percolated in the ways people, including “white ethnics,” understood race. Although these social realities have been amply documented in research, it is only now that they are brought to the center of national attention.
The power of the bootstrap narrative rests in its capacity to obscure the reason for racial hierarchies without even having to mention the term “race.” Because it posits cultural values as the sole determinants of mobility, it renders invisible the effects of institutional racism as a major cause for the differential mobility between European Americans and Black Americans.
As we contemplate action to combat racism, one responsibility seems within immediate reach. A genuine opposition requires that we abandon the bootstrap narrative of ethnic mobility. How to tell our history differently? Piperis and Piperis acknowledge the notion of usable pasts as a compelling answer, when they point to the importance of remembering notable immigrant ancestors who actively opposed––and paid a high price for, even died in doing so––racial, class, and gender exploitation. They mention Johnny Otis and Louis Tikas, a figure who for a variety of reasons has been claimed as a martyr by both the U.S. labor movement and Greek Orthodoxy. We could add Presvytera Petrakis, Helen Papanikolas, Alexander Karanikas, Father Soterios “Sam” Gouvellis, and more to the list of honorees.
It will be misplaced celebrationism, however, to attach to these pioneers a halo of martyrdom or heroism. The obligation is to understand them as multifaceted historical figures who gave their own battles amidst internal and external opposition. We need to understand who resisted them and why. Moving away from the fetish of socioeconomic success, it will be valuable to know about the lives of visionaries who “failed” in the socioeconomic domain as a price for advocating American ideals of inclusion. Failure in one domain can also translate to moral victory in another. The retelling of our story requires that we expand the definition of what counts as success.
This is to say that we cannot be claiming a meaningful identity without pursuing Greek-American learning. A historical opportunity presents itself to Greek America and Greek Orthodoxy: to open up our civil society––communities, schools, media, organizations––and cultivate a broad public conversation toward our historical self-understanding and a civic vision for the future.
Yiorgos Anagnostou is a Professor and the Director of the Modern Greek Program at The Ohio State University. He is the author of Contours of White Ethnicity: Popular Ethnography and the Making of Usable Pasts in Greek America (Ohio University Press, 2009). He is the editor of the online journal Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.