A few months ago an Ethiopian taxi driver, upon learning that I was Greek and (almost) a co-religionist, launched into a panegyric about Greek-Americans whom, he said, the Ethiopian community has selected as their role models for integrating into America. He talked about our sense of community and our attachment to Church and the Old Country while integrating into the New.
However, what Ethiopians most admired about Greek-Americans was how they enriched the communities in which they worked. Like many other immigrants, the early Greek-Americans set up restaurants, groceries, and other small businesses in many of the poorest parts of every city. When the Ethiopians came they often found themselves living in those same areas. They soon heard from their neighbors that Greek-Americans were in one very significant way different than all the others. Our parents and grandparents invested in their neighborhoods. They hired local people, blacks and others, to work in their stores. They paid them decent wages, treated them with personal respect, carried them when they got sick, gave them credit when they were broke and offered decent products for decent prices. In general, they earned the respect and affection of the neighborhood.
He contrasted this with the behavior of almost every other entrepreneurial immigrant group (political correctness makes it inappropriate for me to report which groups he enumerated) who hired only from their own group, left no money in their neighborhoods and fortified their stores with bulletproof Plexiglas and barbed wire. This paid off for my dad. During the King Riots in Washington in 1968, someone sprayed “Greek Soul Brother” on the window of his bar and it was the only store not gutted in the riots. Like many of his fellow immigrants, he had cultivated the local community and gone down and opened the bar in the midst of the rioting!
Other Greek immigrants distinguished themselves fighting for workers rights and the rights of other minorities, especially American blacks. I have written earlier about this (“National Hellenic Museum in Chicago is Quite Worthwhile,” Feb. 23, 2013) but for those who missed it let me summarize briefly the exploits of those early heroes of our community. Thousands of miners, many of them Cretans and Arcadians, worked in Colorado coal mines under conditions that charitably could be described as inhuman. Cretan immigrant Louis Tikas led a strike that the Colorado State Government, in cahoots with the mining operators, brutally crushed killing almost 200 miners, including Tikas. The Ludlow Massacre, as it became known, became a seminal event for workers’ rights throughout the United States. Other early Greek immigrants championed the fight against slavery. Photius Fisk (formerly Kasavales), an early refugee from Asia Minor, came to the United States in 1822, became a distinguished academic, and a Chaplain in the US Navy. Stationed in New Orleans, Fisk discovered the horrors of slavery and played a crucial role persuading many members of Congress to vote for the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. Another Greek immigrant, John Zachos, a Harvard professor and an educational pioneer, led the fight to educate blacks and women.
The Greeks of Tarpon Springs were the first whites to hire African-Americans as crewmen on their boats. In fact, they even financed black sponge fishermen to start their own businesses in competition with the Greeks. Those of our parents who did not go into private business but stayed in the steel mills knew that unions led to their prosperity.
In my travels abroad, I have learned that this behavior characterizes Greeks living everywhere. Older Turks and older Egyptians remember fondly that local Greek businessmen respected the dignity of their employees and paid better wages than the locals. They almost all lament the fact their own respective governments expelled long-standing Greek communities and almost instantly undermined the lives of there own citizen employees.
And then we got rich. We became one of the wealthiest and best-educated ethnic groups in the United States. I fear that in the process we lost sight of our traditions and betrayed the legacy of our parents and grandparents. In fact, we seem to have adopted the mores and attitudes of the richest ten percent of America’s population where almost all of us dwell. We parrot the anti-union mantra that prevails among that class. Many of us babble about “keeping the government out of business” and then enlist the power of the State to break unions through legislating so-called “right to work laws.” Is not enlisting government to overturn business negotiations the highest hypocrisy? Not a few of you have told me that breaking teachers unions, firing school teachers and lowering the wages of the rest will save tax dollars. Asked if this will improve the quality of American education, many of you have actually told me “we have no responsibility for the children of the poor,” making it clear that keeping your money takes priority over providing an education for immigrant and black kids. So many of us argue that raising the minimum wage will harm our profits, forgetting that an impoverished middle and lower class will stop buying our goods and services. If you want to learn about our attitude towards blacks, I suggest you spend some time with snowbirds in Florida.
We have very short memories and apparently no longer share the “philotimo” that so enabled our parents and grandparents to enable our own success.