Are Greeks racist?

It’s a simple question but it does not have a simple answer. Twenty years ago, when Greece was a monolithic society, in which 97 percent of the population called itself both Greek and Orthodox, the question would have been met with a unanimous «No!» That was before a million foreigners poured into the country. The immigrants, whether from Albania or Somalia, were something very new and very different in Greek society. Most people accepted their new neighbors, helping them out as much as they could. Others were alarmed. Because of inadequate and arbitrary policing in mixed neighborhoods, tensions grew. At some point, xenophobia, stoked by a sensationalist press, raised its ugly head in the land of philoxenia. Fortunately, the worst seems to be over with regard to general opinion, but state indifference and a hard core of right-wing thugs and hooligans means that we cannot drop our guard. Whereas on a personal level the vast majority of Greeks are reasonably tolerant and easygoing (albeit often with a lack of sensitivity arising from a sense that what they say or do remains a family secret) it is on the institutional level that they have been inexcusably lax and irresponsible. From the beginning of the immigration tide in 1990, nothing was done to allow people to get residence and work permits until 1997. This meant that every immigrant was, by definition, illegal, even as foreign workers saved Greek agriculture and, moving into our homes, allowed both parents to work and the sick and elderly to receive care at home rather than in the woefully inadequate hospitals and old-age homes. This created a climate of insecurity and allowed the cruel exploitation of people who had no rights. When legalization began, grumpy, unskilled and uncaring bureaucrats subjected migrants to a myriad of arbitrary cruelties and pettiness, acting as if the suppliants were an inferior race. (That’s pretty much how they deal with anyone, but the migrants could not know that.) Now, 12 years after legalization began, the immigration system is still a work in progress, as every foreign-born person can attest – and as is most cruelly evident in the indifference to the plight of children born here to immigrant parents. In every sphere, there is a sense that it’s not really urgent to solve migrants’ problems. This has often translated into the inhumane treatment of people detained by the coast guard or police in several documented cases (and who knows how many other such instances there were), with no officers being punished. The police, the judiciary and other state functionaries may be either kind or cruel, depending on the individuals involved, but they are all part of a system that does not care about solving migrants’ problems, let alone trying to integrate them. And yet, except for the fascist thugs of Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn), most people will be horrified to be told that they tolerate institutionalized racism. Even Giorgos Karatza-feris, leader of the extreme right-wing LAOS party, has tried to present himself as anti-racist, while tolerating racists and anti-Semites who fly his party’s flag of convenience. The recent episode in which fans of second-division Olympiakos Volos soccer club taunted Panathinaikos’s French star striker, Djibril Cisse, during a «friendly» soccer match, is typical of officials’ dangerous indifference. Cisse, a player with experience in the English and French leagues, was incensed at the insults. The referee as well as team and federation officials acted as if the incident was hardly worth noting. As we have seen countless times, soccer hooligans can be counted on to disgrace themselves and their country, so we cannot read too much into their actions. But, as with so many other ills in our society, sweeping the problem under the carpet will only allow it to grow until it explodes on the national or international scene. Initiatives such as «Show Racism the Red Card» (Page 5), cannot be praised too highly. They are aimed not at embarrassing Greece but changing it for the better.