Alice Scourby, The Vanishing Greek Americans: A Crisis of Identity. Rivervale, N.J.: Attica Editions, 2020. Pp. 9–137. 7 illustrations, Appendix. Paper.
by Donald Tricarico
The Vanishing Greek Americans: A Crisis of Identity, by Alice Scourby, was published posthumously by her family after Scourby’s death in 2009. Scourby was an academic sociologist who both studied Greek American life and lived it, privately and on the level of its public institutions. The book is offered as scholarship crafted by an ethnic insider as well as a guide to ethnic persistence.
The title of the book announces a “crisis of identity” that is intended to spur Greek Americans to preserve ethnic difference. Citing the canonical sociological texts, Scourby generalizes this crisis as a dilemma for ethnic groups in the United States. She asserts that “[t]here is no overarching sociological theory” for the study of ethnic groups (9), ignoring “social constructivism” and “segmented assimilation,” let alone the rehabilitation of classical assimilation theory. Instead, The Vanishing Greek Americans is anchored to the hope that ethnic communities will not vanish “in the foreseeable future” (10). This is predicated on an interpretation of Edward Shils that some “continuity with the past” is necessary for individual and collective meaning (10). For this preservation, Scourby assigns a strategic role to Hellenism, adapted to the needs of subsequent generations. She posits Hellenism as “an ambiguous term connoting both ancient Greek culture as well as elements of the modern Greek world, including the spiritual nexus of Greek Orthodoxy that has come to personify an ethnic/religious community” (34).
The sociological value of this study is Scourby’s focus on social institutions that can transmit Hellenism. This is notable because the classical assimilation model, which predicts a steady “decline” in ethnicity from the immigrant generation onward, as well as the loss of meaningful difference by the third generation, has become the prevailing model regarding European ethnic groups in establishment sociology. Making the case that Greek American ethnicity exists on the level of social institutions challenges the assumption that European immigrant groups are capable only of a “symbolic ethnicity” based on expressive individualism—that is, flourishes or gestures of identity that are not disruptive of mainstream lives because they are compartmentalized in private spheres or in acceptable public ways such as dining in a Greek restaurant. Scourby provides an informative review of the key Greek American public institutions, in particular the Greek Orthodox Church and the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA). In the end, however, she accepts that “modernity” has rendered Greek American ethnicity “symbolic;” Greek Orthodoxy, in particular, is seen as based on “choice” rather than “fate” (103). Since identity and culture are always social constructs, the real problem for ethnic persistence is whether subsequent generations make meaningful choices. Scourby worries that key Greek American institutions, like the Orthodox Church, are too patriarchal for a modern society.
While Scourby has generously contributed to the scholarship on Greek American ethnicity throughout her professional career, in this thin volume, she uses survey data collected in a nonrandomized manner and, therefore, the data is not scientifically reliable. Moreover, the book’s composition is not coherent, perhaps owing to its posthumous publication. For example, an early chapter on “Greek American Institutions” is interrupted by a critique of patriarchy. Chapter 6, which is titled “A Compendium,” is a collective of miscellany that combines ethnic group comparisons with an exposition of the Hellenic College/Holy Cross School of Theology. A conclusion is hastily inserted at the end of this chapter, calling for a “movement” to preserve Hellenism and the fortification of a secular institution that could “articulate the community’s political concerns” (118).
In addition to its incoherent composition, the book is framed and, at times, overwhelmed by an advocacy role on behalf of ethnic persistence. Scourby unapologetically promotes a Greek American subculture referenced to Hellenism and distinctive ethnic institutions. Such a mingling of “science” and “politics” would have confounded Max Weber, who is referenced at the outset to validate the study (9). However, Scourby does not hesitate to take the gloves off. She attacks mass media stereotypes of Greek people, recommending that Greek Americans flex the anti-defamation muscle honed by American Jews. She skirmishes across the ethnic boundary to oppose the expropriation of Hellenism by Martin Bernal for his work, Black Athena, which included the assertion that Socrates was Black (29). She reiterates the question, “Why . . . have American Jews become such vital players in academia and not Greeks?” (35). By doing so, Scourby empowers Greek Americans to apply the same identity politics ushered in by the “new ethnicity” as a response to Black civil rights and shaped “multiculturalist” ideologies of the 1970s and 1980s. While the book is informed by an ideology of cultural pluralism rather than a theory of assimilation, an ethnic identity referenced to Hellenism and religious orthodoxy is in contradistinction to “multiculturalism,” which Scourby vilifies for its inauthenticity, in particular its “political correctness” (28).
Scourby also draws comparisons to other European ethnic groups that have become “white.” She offers comparisons to Italian Americans since they share a Mediterranean culture (and then some – “Una facia, una razza”) and Jewish Americans whose ethnicity is similarly based on the intersection of language and religion. Another promising inquiry for Greek American assimilation concerns the possibility of pan-ethnicity based on Eastern Orthodox Christianity, inclusive of Serbian and Russian ancestry groups. This entails the reworking of a sense of peoplehood around religion, subsuming nationality. While Scourby invokes these comparisons, discussion is only superficial. This is just one of the places where her analysis could have benefited from the dominant sociological theories of ethnicity and assimilation.
The author’s concern with assimilation prompts a consideration of Greek American demographic patterns. With a population that numbered only 1.15 million based on the 2000 U.S. census (20), Scourby properly acknowledges the demographic fragility of Greek Americans especially in contrast to other ethnic groups. However, her focus on the third and fourth generations overlooks the ability of more recently arrived Greeks to replenish the attrition in first settlement areas and rejuvenate vernacular institutions. The latter also impart a transnational link, for example, by returning to Greece for summer vacation and keeping the language alive in the home. Attention should also have been given to historic population centers such as Greek American Astoria in the outer borough of Queens.
In the final chapter of the book, Scourby acknowledges that the currents of assimilation grow stronger especially among the younger generations, who are increasingly inclined to intermarriage and are disconnected from the Greek language and the church. Although failing to provide compelling statistical evidence for these patterns of assimilation among the third and fourth generations, she warns about the prospect of dramatic ethnic loss, eventually resulting in ethnic vanishing, as the title of her book suggests. The closing sentence of her book foregrounds what she sees as an immediate threat. She writes, “Greek Americans may find that just as ethnicity evolves, it can also devolve” (118). Scourby laments this “crisis” of assimilation and advocates for ethnic persistence, largely through voluntary organizations, secular and religious, that promote both Greek classical heritage and Modern Greek arts and learning. She notes that the “new preservation movement,” which manifests itself in museums and other repositories of the heritage, has been “initiated primarily by second generation Greek Americans” (115). In the end, she never clarifies the “ambiguous” character of Hellenism let alone how it can matter in the lives of the third and fourth generations beyond “symbolic ethnicity.”
The complex of formal organizations dedicated to Hellenism may not be the best place to look for, let alone promote, a lived ethnic culture. In an earlier publication, Scourby (1989) makes a strong case for the family as the center of a vernacular ethnic culture articulated with local Greek parishes (e.g., as a node for family rituals and an ethnic community). Greek American families have fanned out of initial settlement neighborhoods in New York City to upscale suburbs like Manhasset and Port Washington with new, glossy parishes. These satellite “ethnoburbs” are hardly a “symbolic ethnicity” as in the case of Italian Americans in the suburbs of New York City (Tricarico 2017). In contrast to Hellenism, vernacular Greek American culture is neither “ambiguous” nor elitist. In contrast to a patriarchal religious institution, Greek American familism may be able to absorb cultural change, like the shift in women’s roles, with greater educational attainment and entrance into the white collar and even professional wage economy.
More research is needed into the ways that the group is (re)constructing ethnic difference as it is assimilating. In the role of ethnic advocate, Scourby calls for more exhaustive research of Greek America, which she sees as a necessary contribution to preservation. This book provides a pioneering scholar’s final word on the subject.
Donald Tricarico is Professor of Sociology at CUNY/Queensborough in Bayside. His Ph.D. in sociology is from The New School for Social Research. His research interests lie in the areas of ethnicity and Italian American Studies. His publications include Guido Culture and Italian American Youth (Palgrave Macmillan 2019) and The Italians of Greenwich Village (The Center for Migration Studies 1984). He had the honor of teaching in the same department with Alice Scourby in the 1990s. Each contributed chapters to a book on European-origin ethnic groups. He can be emailed at Dtricarico@qcc.cuny.edu.
Scourby, Alice. 1989. “The Interweave of Gender and Ethnicity: The Case of Greek-Americans.” In The Ethnic Enigma, edited by Peter Kivisto, 114–33. Philadelphia: The Balch Institute Press.
Tricarico, Donald. 2017. “Italian Americans in the Suburbs: Transplanting Ethnicity to the Crabgrass Frontier.” In The Routledge History of the Italian Americans, edited by Wm. Connell and S. Pugliese, 506–22. New York and London: Routledge.