Saturday, April 16, 2011

Explaining Immigrant Mobility: Don’t Neglect the Race Factor

Review of Larry Odzak's “Demetrios is Now Jimmy: Greek Immigrants in the Southern United States, 1895-1965” (Monograph Publishers, 260 pages)

No single story can capture the experience of early immigrant Greek America. Men who toiled in the mines and railroad construction under dangerous labor conditions experienced immigration differently than those who owned small businesses. Men and women interacted with different American publics. Among women, those who were consumed by tradition-bound domestic chores saw America from a different angle than those women who worked as wage laborers. And the experience of those who conformed to dominant ideas cannot possibly compare to those who resisted what they saw as an unjust status quo.

Researchers have started to explore this fascinating heterogeneity. They have been focusing on previously neglected topics such as women, the working-class, cultural and political activists, and artists. At last, there is an interest in recovering views that have been socially marginalized, and in the process understanding the past from multiple perspectives.

“Demetrios is Now Jimmy” contributes to our understanding of one aspect of Greek America’s variety, regional diversity. Of course, the book addresses a well-covered topic, the economically successful male immigrant. But it also takes up an understudied topic with regional focus: Greek America in the American South during the Jim Crow era. This was a period of legal racial segregation (1876-1965) characterized by anti-foreignism and brutal racist violence.

This historical study is based on the author’s doctoral dissertation. Lazar “Larry” Odzak (b.1933) is currently an archivist-historian at the North Carolina State Archives. He received his Ph.D. degree in U.S. History from Strassford University (London, England, 2003). His book, “Demetrios is Now Jimmy,” follows academic conventions. The author sorts through a considerable corpus of scholarly works on immigration and ethnicity, whose citations are dispersed throughout the book. A readable account, the book provides useful archival information and oral testimonies on regional history. Comparative in scope, it dedicates whole chapters to immigrant adaptations in cities such as New Orleans, Birmingham and Tarpon Springs. Furthermore, a chapter exploring the “Formation and Development of Greek Immigrant Communities in the American South” includes discussions and comparisons of the cases of Atlanta, Jacksonville Savannah, Charleston, Raleigh, Charleston, and Mobile.

The book discusses the transformation of the Southern Greeks from immigrants to ethnic Americans through “selective adaptation.” The argument here is that immigrant adaptations must be seen as a process of acculturation, not wholesale assimilation. A key to the selective retention and inter-generational transmission of ethnicity was the early establishment of ethnic and religious institutions. To this end the author discusses the changes that defined two prominent institutions, American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) and the Greek Orthodox Church, up to the mid-1960s. A chapter entitled “Fraternal Bonding and Conservatism: Jimmy Joined AHEPA” situates the establishment of AHEPA and its subsequent development within the region’s racial politics. Another chapter, entitled “From Byzantine Rites to Civil Rights,” discusses the transformation of the Greek Orthodox Church in the South from immigrant to ethnic.

Because “Demetrios is Now Jimmy” is a book published by a non-university press, I will not review it in terms of its scholarly omissions and limitations. Though I will refer to some of its shortcomings, critiquing will not be my main focus. I will not reflect, for example, why a book that situates immigrants in the context of race relations and mobility utterly ignores important academic sources on “white ethnics,” labor struggles, and race. Rather, I wish to discuss the contributions that this work makes to our understanding of one aspect of Greek-American history, namely immigrant socioeconomic mobility, and to illuminate the implications of its findings for future research.

A particular research question animates the author’s project. The primary goal is to test the hypothesis known as the “Southern variant” of the Greek immigrant experience. First proposed by sociologist Charles Moskos, the hypothesis states, “Greeks in the South achieved economic and residential upward mobility faster and in greater proportion than Greeks elsewhere in the United States.” Odzak builds on empirical evidence to prove that this hypothesis is true in regards to self-employed immigrants, but not the working class. He compares the “ratio of Greek-owned businesses, excluding the itinerant vendors, to the total Greek population” in Northern cities to corresponding data in Southern cities, concluding that the percentage of self-employed immigrants was higher in the South. He also cites the early “Greek family formation in the South,” and the Southerners higher rates of immigrant intermarriage with whites as further evidence of mobility. The author believes that the “Southern variant” was caused by a combination of factors. They include: the importance of “timi” (honor), which prodded them to succeed in the workplace, the relentless pressure to assimilate, the acceptance of those who assimilated as “white,” and the smaller numbers of the Greeks in the south, which discouraged the formation of immigrant enclaves.

In his inquiry, the author places the immigrant Southern experience within the context of economic and racial relations in the region. On the one hand, he observes, the vision of an industrialized “New South” brought about dramatic population growth in cities and towns of the region. The example of Tampa, Florida, illustrates the scale of urban transformation. The town’s population grew from about 5,500 in 1890 to nearly 38,000 in 1910. This growth in turn created an urgent demand for a substantial service sector: groceries, cafes, quick lunch stores, dry cleaners and shoeshine parlors among others. The prospect of becoming a self-employed business owner catering to white society attracted to the South immigrants of various nationalities. There is mention of Jews, Italians, Syrians and Greeks, among others, but not of Asian immigrants. Here one must stress that Jim Crow segregation did not extend this crucial opportunity to African Americans. Therefore, it was immigrants who were recruited to fill this much-coveted economic niche.

The author points to the importance of cultural values to explain immigrant success. He covers a well-trod territory when he suggests that immigrants strove for mobility because failure would have compromised their “timi” (honor), shaming them in the eyes of their family and community. Thus, according to the author, it was the cultural dictates of the honor system that fuelled the desire to succeed at any cost. Consequently, hard work to the point of sacrifice, dogged persistence and frugality, are seen as causes that resulted in the much-sought-after financial security, even prosperity, among early immigrants.

One of the author’s contributions rests in showing how erroneous it is to explain ethnic success on the basis of cultural values alone. The discussion makes it clear that one must account how other variables in the host society – institutional and everyday racism for example – may propel some groups to the path of upward mobility, while barring this opportunity to others. Odzak takes into account how the pervasive racism against African Americans in the American South favored immigrant mobility.

In discussing the issue of male immigrant success in the context of economic and racial relations, this book parts from traditional Greek-American historiography. The fresh perspective is that in racially segregated regions it was the immigrants who were seen as the solution to a growing demand for service businesses, not local racial minorities. Odzak suggests that the relatively light tone of the immigrants’ skin provided the ticket for entering this economic niche in white society from which African Americans were excluded. He writes, “skin color helped a large proportion of the first generation Greek migrants to the Southern cities to achieve economic progress.” In other words, the “whiteness” of the immigrants worked as a racial privilege; it granted them a competitive advantage in a labor market that relegated African Americans to menial jobs. Therefore, the roots of immigrant success were partly embedded in a system of racial discrimination.

The historical record is unequivocal here. Immigrant mobility was not achieved in an environment of equal opportunity but occurred at the expense of African Americans. This realization must put to rest the popular belief that immigrants self-propelled themselves to mobility, that they rose exclusively on their own bootstraps. It counters the self-congratulatory rhetoric one hears so often in accounts about “white ethnic” success.

What about Southern anti-foreignism? In what ways did it affect the immigrants? The author makes a strong case that the integration of immigrants was conditional. In exchange for acceptance as “white” they were pressured to publicly display total conformity to the dominant culture. The case of a café owner in Pensacola, a certain Chris Lochas who was accused for violating Federal Law and was ran out of town by the Ku Klux Klan, illustrates the degree of public intimidation. Those who did not conform were targeted as unwanted cultural and racial outsiders.

The result of this climate of fear was the rampant Anglicization of names, adoption of the mannerisms and the ideologies of the dominant society, unconditional support of 100% Americanism, and en-mass joining of American fraternal organizations. It was this ruthless pressure to conform, the author suggests, that contributed to the immigrants’ upward mobility.

However, conformity was not merely limited to outward appearances in manners, dress and speech. Most significantly, the immigrant experience in the American South entailed a momentous historical compromise: compliance with the racial status quo of the region. Acceptance of a system of racial oppression was the tremendous cost that immigrants had to pay in order to ensure their business prospects. In the chapter on AHEPA, Odzak provides examples of the relationship between the all-powerful Klan and the Greek immigrants, showing how immigrants internalized and enacted the racial logic of Jim Crow. In addressing this hugely sensitive issue, the author is ambivalent. On the one hand, he embarks on an internal critique of the organization (the author mentions his affiliation with AHEPA in the dust jacket of the book), expressing discomfort in view of the fact that George Wallace, Alabama’s segregationist governor, became an AHEPA honorary member in the spring of 1964. On the other hand, he rushes to defend the immigrant acceptance of Jim Crow as a pragmatic, “prudent observance of the American Southern custom of segregation.”

The author sets himself the ambitious goal of covering 70 years of Greek immigrant adaptation in the South. But his discussion of the second and third generation is way too general and often sketchy. The aim to identify historical patterns and to paint history with broad strokes occludes particular events, everyday situations and minute incidents that do not fit the general pattern. One wishes, for example, that the author had dedicated fuller attention to the complexity of the racial situation in the South. It is well known that Greek immigrants elsewhere in the United States were initially classified as non-whites by many social scientists and the wider public. In the racially hierarchical taxonomy of that era they were seen as inferior to whites but superior to other racial groups such as Asian immigrants and African Americans. Scholarly studies on this subject convincingly show that occupation, participation in labor politics, and resistance to assimilation served as important criteria to classify immigrants as non-white in the American West and elsewhere. Unfortunately, the book pays only scant attention to how this racial dynamic played out in the South. It simplifies a vastly complex racial situation into a binary –“black and white” – system, where “the significant presence of blacks tended to raise white immigrants to the next rung.” The author ignores the presence of immigrants from Asia and does not elaborate on the “non-white” classification of and hierarchies among immigrants from Southeast Europe and the Middle East. He provides only a tantalizing example – the case of Lochas whose lack of acculturation was equated with a “non-white” status. But because the focus of the book is on the “successful,” acculturated male businessman, there is no attempt to document what happened to those who refused to assimilate. This inattention is illustrated in the unfortunate choice of words the author uses to describe unassimilated immigrants. In describing them as those who “were not able or skillful enough to show that they were ‘white’ and 100 percent American,” he fails to recognize those immigrants who consciously resisted assimilation.

A number of questions could guide future research. Did sectors within the immigrant community in the South (women, the working class, or wage laborers who eventually became small-business owners, for example) hold alternative visions of success? Did they resist racism and its cultural counterpart, 100% Americanism, embracing alternative visions of a socially and economically just American society? There is tantalizing evidence of resistance, when, for example, the author mentions in passing that “few brave voices (within the Greek community) were openly raised” in support of civil rights in the South. But the reader is left wanting more. Who resisted and how? How did public opposition to the racial status quo affect one’s life?

To answer these questions, researchers must seize the moment and shift attention away from the model of the economically “successful” male toward the study of those individuals or groups whose success entailed a vision and commitment to a more just society. We all stand to gain by identifying these unexplored pasts and by figuring out how these pasts can be of value to Greek America today.

Yiorgos Anagnostou

(Originally published in The National Herald, Book Supplement, Spring 2007)


  1. The dimension of internalized racial oppression seems great. Remember, about a decade ago there was dramatic conflict between the Korean corner store in urban ghettos and the local community. At that time, nobody addressed the equivalent Greek issue. Many of the inner-city pizza stores vacated by Italians were taken over by Greeks. We have a situation where the Greeks were making a living out of the lack of food competition in the ghetto. Some of these Greeks adopted a wild-west attitude, were fully armed, and dealt with their customers as the enemy. I've heard heroic tales of being shot, or chasing robbers. My sense is that this inter-ethnic, inter-class experience is waning with retirement. But the inner-city pizza store seems to capitalize on another economic imbalance and business vacuum.

  2. This brings to mind a passage from Dan Georgakas' autobiography, "My Detroit: Growing Up Greek and American in Motor City" (2006). The following exchange between Dan's maternal grandfather and Mr. Fatachi (Butch), a neighbor from Sicily, captures the racially loaded encounters between immigrant shopkeepers in predominantly black neighborhoods:

    "Their worst spat was over an unlikely topic. Butch had been robbed at gunpoint twice and his market was subject to considerable theft. The thieves were blacks, and Butch wound rant against the 'niggers' with uncharacteristic fury. Rather than sympathize with his friend, papou said that the neighborhood where Butch had his market had changed. Blacks were now an overwhelming majority. They resented outsiders, especially when, as was Butch's practice, they didn't hire any local help" (167).