American Liberalism and Greek America in the Times of Black Lives Matter

by Despina Lalaki

Paper presented at the webinar “Between Race and Ethnicity: Greek America in the Times of Black Lives Matter” (March 22, 2021).

Black Lives Matter (BLM), the movement that rose in 2013 to challenge police brutality at home, has evolved into an international movement calling into question the legacies of slavery and colonialism, white supremacy and global racial and cultural hierarchies which have been built into place for hundreds of years now. Indigenous groups, inner-city communities, disenfranchised youth of various creeds, racial and ethnic groups, fed up with injustices, marginalization and outright oppression rise up in protest. In their mobilization they target statuses and symbols of the oppressive past—many of them set in place as a calculated reaction to counter the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In response, governments around the world and supranational blocs such as the European Union vie to take a tougher stand against racism while allegedly committing to take a closer look at their histories of racism and oppression at home and abroad. In Greece, the movement has brought forward discussions about a whole generation of Greeks—the Afro-Greeks—whose lives are largely ignored by mainstream identity narratives. It has also given rise to another message in connection to yet another political issue in the country: “Refugee Lives Matter.”

Slavery, colonialism, genocide and racism have been from the outset bound up with liberalism, a philosophical position and ideology which against all its assertions historically has espoused the most illiberal policies and practices. Liberalism is defined as a framework for the fundamentals of political life that prioritize the value of individual rights and liberties, limited and representative government, private property and free markets, constitutionalism and the rule of law, always open to contestation and change. In its name the West vied to civilize the world’s Rest for over four centuries while, following the Second World War, invocations of the free world and talk of Western values were meant to assert Western democracy’s superiority over communism and socialism. Placing private property over any other individual right and drawing a wedge between individuals and society, liberalism has served to perpetuate inequalities and racism.

In this brief presentation I will not attempt a theoretical analysis of liberalism but, instead, I will try to shed some light on its particular applications on the historical relations between Greek America and Black America. I will try to show how liberalism—the variant largely developed after the Second World War—has shaped Greek identity in Greece as well as in the diaspora, while it has also undermined the liberation struggles of African Americans.

National and Ethnic Identities—Hellenism as a Cold War Construct

Ethnic identities in the diaspora selectively capitalize and build on national identities which further resonate with their host countries in order to valorize their position in it. In the Greek case, a special variant of Hellenism, this convoluted relation between ancient Greek culture and Western modernity—one largely constructed in the aftermath of the Second World War to legitimize the Cold War American civilizing mission—has also been employed by Greek America. The community, already since the early twentieth century, has undertaken great efforts to reconcile its ethnic identity with the demands of Americanization; a kind of Americanization based on the fundamental values of the middle-class and on “whiteness,” and in contradistinction to working class consciousness, the labor movements and the “minorities” struggles for recognition and justice. While in the 19th century, Hellenism in the spirit of German romanticism was employed as a critique of the effects of modern civilization, in the second half of the 20th, under American influence Hellenism became an expression of instrumental rationality, cultural commodification, and liberal capitalist democracy.

In 2013, I was attending a screening of a documentary, American Radicals: The Untold Story at the Stathakion Cultural Center in Astoria. The film generated some very interesting reactions. Strongly opposing the narrative of the film that tells the story of Greek American participation in the labor movements of the country, the antifascist Popular Front during the Spanish Civil War and anti-McCarthyism, an elder guy from the audience picked up the microphone to very emphatically say that “A Greek can never be communist” and that “Greeks, either in Greece or in New York, were never communists.” Hellenism, according to his view, alongside that of the neo-Nazi group of Golden Dawn that later, even more emphatically intervened in the event, is incompatible with communism, working class consciousness and any form of radicalism.

The defeat of the Communist-led National Liberation Front (EAM) in Greece with the help of direct American intervention and the subsequent persecutions of Communists, the public McCarthyite trials and expulsions that terrorized and fractured American society, served to formulate Greek American identities and suppress the history recounted in the documentary. Greece as the “cradle of democracy” was employed to shape new ontological and epistemological distinctions between the Democratic West and the Communist East, normalizing the postwar political and economic status quo and offering legitimacy first to the American hegemony and later on to the European integration project. Postwar Greece as the “cradle of democracy” had to be secured and propelled into modernity. A state-sustained capitalist system was offered as a bulwark against totalitarianism and guarantor of democracy and modernization. Under the threat of communism, modernization was promoted with great urgency emphasizing the need for economic development, which would rely on tourism and the rationalization of the country’s cultural heritage management while fostering the “immutable” values and ideals of Hellenism.

Cold War Liberalism

In the exceptional 1945-1975 period, the time of the second greatest migration wave from Greece to the United States, this new variant of Hellenism found fertile ground. The unprecedented growth of U.S. capitalism alongside the expansion of the welfare state enabled the creation of “middle-class” America and its concomitant myths of which newcomer immigrants aspired to become part. At the heart of this myth were liberty, equal opportunity, and rugged individualism.

Escaping the Jim Crow in the South and in search of this proverbial liberty and opportunity a second migration wave of Black Americans would also flock in the urban centers of the North. The branding of the country as a nation of immigrants, however, during this same period would not pay homage to this migration movement which was met with resistance, segregation and outright violence. The emergent suburbanite middle classes and the white ethnic enclaves would be proven far from welcoming.

Following the Second World War, however, and while the United States was featured as the new cradle of democracy and the protector of the free world, racial inequalities seized to be an exclusively national matter. Subject to pressures from abroad—especially the Communist Bloc—and mounting dissent from Black Americans at home, the political establishment was forced to take some kind of action. The answer was what became known as Cold War liberalism, a political framework that capitalized on the notion of equal opportunity—created through legislation—and promoted hard work ethics, individual resilience, and mobility as counter values to the alleged impoverished Soviet bloc which relied on planned economies and infringement of freedom. Elected officials in both parties continued to demonize social welfare as socialism or communism. Accusing the government for going too far in its welfare policies, they were demanding for at least some partnership with the private sector. Their approach placed racial inequality outside any frame of political economy.

The social sciences at the time—heavily funded by private institutions such as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and directly engaged with social engineering at home and abroad—promised to offer a different explanatory framework: they tapped into a new variable, that of culture. Left wing liberal anthropologist Oscar Lewis, primarily concerned with poverty in the developing world, in his ethnography book Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (1959) identified more than sixty traits shared from among slum dwellers of Mexico City to inner city Negros in the United States. Ranging from resignation, dependency, and strong feelings of marginality, these traits developed over time into mechanisms that tend to perpetuate the value system which he called the “culture of poverty.” The concept proved particularly attractive to U.S. public policy makers and politicians. It strongly informed documents such as the Moynihan Report (1965)—as well as President Lyndon Johnsons’s War on Poverty. The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, more commonly known as the Moynihan Report, written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a sociologist serving as Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Johnson, argued that the ghetto culture was responsible for the high rate of families headed by single mothers, something that would further hinder progress of blacks toward economic and political equality.

Neither of the two studies sufficiently accounted for the structures of political economy that the Black freedom movement of the 1960s would identify. From Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X and the Black Panthers Party they all identified public and private institutional practices associated with employment, housing and education throughout the United States as responsible for racial disparities forging in the process a different understanding of Black inequality directly related to capitalism, militarism and imperialism. The Black freedom movement pushed mainstream politics to the left and contributed to an expansion of the welfare state. Johnson’s Great Society programs included job training, housing, food stamps and other forms of assistance that inadvertently helped to define Black inequality as primarily an economic issue.

The conservative backlash of the 1970s and 1980s with the War on Drugs and the curtailment of the welfare state served as a counter-revolution that explicitly targeted Blacks, minorities and the most disenfranchised. The liberal establishment in the 1990s continued in the same direction with policies such as The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 essentially capitalizing on the argument made by Oscar Lewis almost forty years earlier and the liberal mantra of personal responsibility and freedom from government constrains. The prevailing argument suggested that race-conscious policies formulated by postwar liberals constituted a new form of reverse discrimination that, like Jim Crow predecessors, represented an exceptional violation of basic principles of American liberty. A color-blind approach, such as the one that even Barak Obama would introduce in his governance was the American thing to do.

Greek Americans: Struggle and Success

In 1960, second generation Greek Americans reportedly had the second highest income of any census-tracked group. Today the community features as a model minority for its social mobility largely forgetting in the process the hardships of the earlier years as well as its history of radicalism and engagement with social struggles. The grave embarrassment that the recent economic crisis in Greece and the ensuing social unrest caused to the Greek diaspora is telling. The crisis, hardly an economic one alone, brought to the surface a series of unsettled cultural questions. The modern people of Greece were seen as indolent and cunning, sharing little with their sophisticated and industrious ancestors or the “civilized,” urban, industrial, and secular Europe of the time. Similarly, from a western perspective the Greeks of the 21st century did not live up to the expectations that the European Union had set for its member states. Some parts of the Western world expressed their discontent, while others showed solidarity with the Greek people. The Greek public has also been divided in its reactions. Many people have accepted and internalized the accusations and seek explanations in the primordial ills of the national culture, which they strive to renounce. Others have found recourse in various expressions of good old-fashioned nationalism, xenophobic outbursts or outright fascism. And while this is only a very schematic picture of a much more complicated situation, it reflects nonetheless recognizable behaviors and old, all too familiar identity patterns.

The diaspora, or at least parts of it, attempted to distance itself from their Greek co-patriots while capitalizing on its successes and progress in the context of a system that values resilience, hard work ethics, and meritocracy. They also condemned what conservative intellectuals have described as a “culture of protest and violence,” a hallmark of metapolitefsi, the period that followed the fall of the junta in 1974. Images of thousands of angry protesters on the streets of Athens clashing with the police, against some kind of burning background set on fire with molotov cocktails went up against their liberal sensibilities. These images constituted, as I already mentioned, a source of great embarrassment. The crisis reflected badly on the whole Greek American diaspora which has crafted a conflict and clashes-free identity for itself, an identity in synch with the American Dream of individual self-realization and accomplishment.

The much-celebrated image of Archbishop Iakovos (1911-2005)—whose portrait decorates today the National Museum of African American History and Culture—marching next to Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama on March 15, 1965, further enhances the image that the Greek American community has constructed. Martin Luther King Jr., the black liberation leader and Baptist minister—once in the FBI list as the most dangerous enemy of the state—entered our school textbooks in his Sunday suit and tie with a doctorate degree from Boston University as the lone hero of a movement meant to be largely forgotten. Removed from the defiant aesthetics of the Black Panthers or the separatist politics of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King has been reduced to his nonviolence, a philosophy for which he faced the wrath of both the conservative and liberal establishment when he started advocating it with regard to American foreign politics and Vietnam. Remembered for his self-efficacy, strong morals and character along with his pacifist approach for the achievement of social justice and equality, in the most abstract terms possible, he has been given a position in the American republic’s pantheon of heroes, a tokenistic gesture forced by history.

We remember by way of forgetting. By commemorating Dr. King—and alongside him Archbishop Iakovos—for his charisma and individual perseverance the collective mobilization and organizational feats behind the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, the Birmingham campaign and the March on Washington in 1963, or the Selma voting rights movement in 1965 are largely obscured. The emergent image fits that of the liberal individual striving to remedy racial inequality, an image most skillfully crafted by media moguls such as Oprah or political figures like Michelle Obama in her recent book Becoming. In the process, the movement itself, the violence against it, its victories and the unfulfilled Dream which millions of workers, teachers, farmers, students, servants, nurses and others dreamt was erased from public memory. The Greek community in the United States appears to be forgetting as well.

Black Lives Matter—Greek American Responses

Other than the information about Archbishop Iakovos’s march on the side of Martin Luther King, we have little knowledge about Greek American attitudes towards the Civil Rights movement. We know that his actions were met with applaud but also strong criticism for exposing the community, especially in the South, to grave dangers as Greek Americans had already been targeted by the Ku Klux Klan. We certainly lack ethnographic and systematic comparative studies that could shed some light on the racial attitudes of the community at various parts of the country. Yiorgos Anagnostou has been one of the very few scholars, who, drawing from various sources has managed to provide us with a complex and deeply interesting picture which ranges from various instances of internalization of the host nation’s ideology of whiteness to instances of empathy and solidarity. As far as I know, we also have little information or analysis regarding Greek American attitudes towards the most recent African American struggles and the Black Lives Matter Movement. This discussion today I think is an excellent start!

Moving to that direction I will briefly discuss two different events: the Archbishop Elpidophoros’s march at the BLM protest in Brooklyn, in June of 2020, and the participation of a small group of leftist NY-based Greek Americans, Greeks and African Americans in the mass protest of the movement in Manhattan back in December of 2014 with the message “From New York to Greece, We Revolt Because We Can’t Breathe.” Since I was part of that group, I will provide some background information while situating the group’s work in the broader transnational context of social mobilizations of that period.

“I came here to Brooklyn,” Elpidophoros wrote in a FB post, “to stand in solidarity with my fellow sisters and brothers whose rights have been sorely abused. This was a peaceful protest, one without violence of any kind, and I thank all of those involved, because violence begets only more violence. We must speak and speak loudly against the injustice in our country.” Earlier on at the protest he had stated that “It is so important to be all here together. We are all Americans and we are protecting the American values … human dignity, freedom, against racism and any kind of discrimination and violence.”

At a time that the Orthodox Church in Greece systematically engages in Islamophobic, antisemitic, and misogynist discourses, Elpidophoros’s symbolic gestures and statements are a breath of very fresh air. And while symbolic gestures matter deeply, it is important to read more closely and between the lines of the above statement while also placing it in the broader context of the institution’s racist history and reluctance for self-criticism in Greece as well as the United States. The emphasis, before anything else on the peaceful character of the protest is striking and speaks directly, I would argue, to the liberal’s enduring fear, inscribed in the liberal political philosophy, of civil violence. In the liberal thought there is a core tension between containing civil violence by empowering the state, on the one side, and containing state violence by constraining the state, on the other. Historically, it has been the violence of the civil society that has been considered as the most challenging to the established order turning a blind eye to the fact that it is the violence of the oppressor that is responsible for the violence of the oppressed.

Elpidophoros spoke also for the need to defend American values; human dignity, freedom, against racism and any kind of discrimination and—again—violence. His statement, as abstract and politically safe as it is, contains all the contradictions of liberalism.

A less well-publicized protest of the Greek community in New York City in solidarity with BLM was organized on December 13, 2014, by AKNY-Greece Solidarity Movement—a small left-wing group which had been mobilizing for two years already in the United States raising awareness about Greece’s economic crisis and the anti-capitalist movements. In coalition with Greek leftist New York-based groups and the Campaign for Peace and Democracy—an older group in support of progressive and non-militaristic U.S. foreign policy active since 1982—we joined thousands of protesters, racially quite diverse crowds, carrying a banner with the message “From New York to Greece We Revolt Because We Can’t Breathe.” The message had steered some debate within the group, as some argued that it constituted some kind of misappropriation. The quick internationalization of the movement and its message proved, I think, that we had captured something of its essence; systemic racism, police brutality, economic asphyxiation are not solely American society’s ills. “Black Lives Matter” has evolved into a global rallying cry against the legacies of slavery and colonialism, the racial and ethnic hierarchies that the Old World put into place centuries ago and still to this day largely structure institutional inequalities and racism. Against the growing authoritarianism around the world—the handmaid of neoliberal economic violence—the message of the movement resonates with millions.

The message we marched with calls for dissent, renouncement and radical break with a system that has been unable to reform itself since by design safeguards liberty and rights for a select few while excluding a great many. Martin Luther King warned us of the well-intentioned liberal, a warning, which I suggest, we should take very seriously into consideration for unless we take direct aim at the political philosophy that sustains capitalism and economic inequality there will be no real change or social justice.


“They want to overthrow capitalism. They want to overthrow Western civilization, and they see America as the biggest clear and present danger to fulfilling that agenda, and they are using black people to do it.” The words belong to Niger Innis, spokesperson for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)—once in the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement and today a black front for all kinds of conservative agendas—and executive director of Innis has argued that it is Marxism and an LGBT agenda that the leadership of the BLM movement is interested in while usurping Black people’s struggles and using them as a façade. Once again Marxism and anti-capitalism appear to be the ultimate enemies of American patriotism and Americanism, the synonym of liberty, equality, and liberalism at large. Sure enough, in such a critique what goes unnoticed is that the freedoms guaranteed by liberal law, for instance, are constrained by the inequalities and exploitation of capitalism.

Reactionary nationalist Greek American Orthodox blogs and sites picked up on Innis’s warnings and inadvertently criticized Elpidophoros’s unsuspecting support to the BLM movement. And while these voices do not necessarily represent the community as a whole, the Archbishop’s liberal sensibilities have little to offer to the causes of the movement as well. Symbolic feel-good anti-racism gestures of this kind—much like the one by House and State Democrats who with some kente clothe around their necks kneeled at the U.S. Capitol in George Floyd’s memory in June of 2020—merely serve to appease and discipline an imminent revolution, to police its possibilities. The calls for non-violence and abstract pleas for justice and equality have domesticated Black struggles before and weakened revolts that called for economic redistribution and radical change.

The identity that Greek America has assumed for itself—a Hellenic identity that stands for liberal capitalist democracy legitimized as deeply rooted in the classical world’s sanctified legacy—has done away with the history of Greek immigrants’ radicalism or the histories of resistance and the bloody struggles of the left for social and economic justice in Greece. Identified with the American Dream and the white supremacist settler-colonialist heritage, by way of integrating in their adopted new country, the Greek American diaspora hardly makes a natural ally to the Black struggling communities and the BLM movement. Yet rigorous political engagement as well as rigorous historical and sociological scholarship have always operated at the margins of mainstream identities; it is from the margins that social change comes.

Despina Lalaki is a historical sociologist, and she teaches at the City University of New York-CUNY. In her research she focuses on long-term social and cultural changes, changing modes of consciousness, the history of the state and its ideological and cultural foundations. Her publications include articles in collective volumes and peer-reviewed journals including the Histoire@Politique. Politique, Culture, Société, Revue du Centre d’Histoire de Sciences Po, The Journal of Historical Sociology, Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. She also writes for newspapers, magazines and online publications and she is founding member of the collective decolonizehellas.

Listen to the talk here (56:30-1:25:55).

Editor’s Note: Read the presentations of the co-panelists, Matthew Frye Jacobson’s “Thinking about an Anti-confederate Whiteness in the 21st Century,” and Yiorgos Anagnostou’s “Racialization and the Rewriting of Greek America.”