Not Everyone Can Buck the Trend

The son of Nigerian immigrants, Giannis Antetokounmpo has won acclaim in Greece, being named the NBA’s most valuable player. But Giannis’s story doesn’t prove that anyone who works hard can make it — rather, it shows how insane it is to let our parents’ nationality determine our life chances.

NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo speaks at Nike at The Grove in Los Angeles on July 13, 2019. Rodin Eckenroth / Getty Images

Last month, Giannis Antetokounmpo was named the NBA’s most valuable player. Considering the NBA’s status as the world’s premier professional basketball league, this distinction effectively marks him out as the best player worldwide. This is just one of the many awards the twenty-four-year-old Milwaukee Bucks forward has achieved in his short professional career.

However, Giannis’s life has not always been so glittering. His parents, Charles and Veronika, arrived in Greece in 1991, making their new home in Sepolia, a neighborhood in north-central Athens. Around the time of Giannis’s birth in 1994, immigrants in Greece faced many obstacles, and his family was no exception. Racist insults and attacks were an everyday experience, and while they had come to Greece in search of a better life, their financial situation was always precarious. From childhood, Giannis and his two brothers had to contribute to his family’s budget by hawking watches, bags, and sunglasses in the streets.

Other problems stemmed from Giannis’s nationality. Despite being born in Athens, as a child he had no citizenship — he was considered neither Greek nor Nigerian. When he turned twelve, he started playing basketball. Only then did he gain a purpose in life and a reason to dream of a better one, even as he battled the anxieties and daily struggles of a stateless immigrant.

Today, Giannis is being held up as a reason for Greeks to be proud, with even forces on the center right of the political spectrum praising him as an example of a young man who fought for his dream. Yet to promote Giannis as one of the few sons of migrants who “deserves” to be Greek is a willful distortion of his life story. If the deportation threat that loomed over Giannis’s family during his childhood risked stopping him from fulfilling his potential, no one else should have to face it either.

Embracing an Icon

Giannis’s recent achievement in becoming the NBA’s MVP brought him to the center of Greek public debate, as dozens of articles by journalists and pundits praised his feats. TV stations extensively discussed his story, and politicians sought to jump on the bandwagon of adulation. Newly elected prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis — leader of the conservative New Democracy party — posted a tweet emphasizing the Greek nation’s pride at Giannis’s achievements, noting that he had not forgotten his roots. His aide Konstantinos Kyranakis said that Greece owed a big “thank you” to the Milwaukee Bucks player. Even the vice president of New Democracy, Adonis Georgiadis — a politician with a clearly far-right background — tweeted to praise Giannis’s accomplishments.

Given the nature of these reactions, anyone not familiar with the Greek context might reach the conclusion that New Democracy defends a pro-refugee and pro-immigration policy. This could hardly be further from the truth. In fact, in 2015, Mitsotakis and his party colleagues voted against a law that aimed to grant Greek nationality to children just like Giannis who were born in Greece to migrant parents without Greek nationality. Invoking a common far-right conspiracy, MPs opposed to the reform argued that this was a manipulative bill designed by Syriza in order to benefit electorally from the “pro-immigrant” vote. If the law had not passed, this would have left major barriers to citizenship for children born in similar circumstances to Giannis. Indeed, he himself remained stateless until he reached adulthood, and only thanks to his potential success as an outstanding basketball player was eventually “rewarded” with citizenship.

In the run-up to the July 7 general election, Kyranakis and other leading figures in New Democracy rammed home this same message. Kyranakis tweeted a statement insisting that the new government would pay benefits only to the children of Greek parents. This rhetoric is not very different from the narrative (and, indeed, practical measures) promoted by the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, which has repeatedly advocated for a policy to distribute food parcels to “Greeks only.”

Even the adulation for this migrant success story is of rather recent vintage. Last year, Georgiadis appeared on a local TV station and deliberately mispronounced Giannis Antetokoumpo’s name, claiming that he was born in Nigeria. The Greek Basketball Players’ Union issued a press statement defending Giannis, heralding him as an “icon for millions of kids and an advertisement for our country abroad,” indeed one “born and raised in Greece,” declaring the union “proud of Giannis and every Greek basketball player and athlete in general.” The statement ended on a biting note: “Sports are making Greece proud. What about its politics?”

Demonizing Minorities

Of course, this demonization of minorities is not just a Greek phenomenon. Around the world, the neoliberal offensive against social spending has built its hegemony by mobilizing a racist discourse against the real or supposed recipients of tax dollars. In his attacks against the social-security policies established in the postwar United States, Ronald Reagan coined the term “welfare queens” to denote African American women, who — he claimed — overdrew on benefits because of their supposed laziness and unwillingness to work. The same discourse was used by the mainstream media in Germany to blame Greeks’ behavior for the economic disaster that hit the country in the post-2008 period. Such narratives were used by political and financial elites to justify the attacks on social spending made at the expense of African Americans and Greeks, respectively.

The next step in this reasoning is the supposed need to limit welfare and public services only to those deemed deserving — those who are poor but visibly embody the Protestant ethic of hard work. Marrying this logic with a more explicit racism, Kyranakis proposed “welfare nativism” — discrimination in the allocation of benefits to families — as a solution to Greece’s low birth rates. If the New Democracy government implemented such a policy, this would deny the children of non-Greek parents — that is, young people just like Giannis — access to the benefits Greeks enjoy, pushing them into the category of the undeserving and stigmatized poor.

In moments of crisis, the neoliberal right uses racist arguments to reshuffle parts of society and form a new, “included” social bloc on a discriminatory basis. This discourse emphasizes the supposed cultural factors behind the aberrant/deviating behavior of the groups that are not, or cannot, be part of the national whole. Following the Puerto Rican sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, this constitutes “a racism without race,” as a heavily racialized discussion is instead displaced onto the cultural level. We see this in the anti-Muslim rhetoric that has built up during the refugee crisis and been systematically propagated by New Democracy.

Historically, neoliberal parties have used this narrative as a glue to bind different social groups in a cohesive narrative about the country’s past and present condition. This helps it map out a vision of the future empty of all the certainties of postwar Keynesian regulation and the rights it entailed. This discourse, today weaponized by New Democracy, also defines who deserves to be included or else excluded from the nation-state.

Struggling to Succeed

For the evangelists who promote such arguments in the public sphere, the only acceptable and deserving people who rightfully belong to the nation are, paradoxically, the very individuals who overcome all the structural obstacles posed by the society and state they happen to be living in. This is, in a sense, the extension of the liberal logic that presupposes everyone today has the same chances of succeeding in life, so long as they take advantage of the opportunities they have — they just need to act “rationally.”

In this view, such people deserve admiration because their behavior conforms to a version of the American dream — indeed, in an even more difficult situation, where most of the institutions that aid upward social mobility have been dissolved.

In New Democracy’s imaginary, Giannis was one of the few who succeeded because he worked hard and used his talents to distinguish himself as a basketball player. The Greek right can praise Giannis because, after his success, he is now considered deserving enough to be “one of us” — a member of the Greek community. No longer counted among the ranks of refugees — considered by the Right to be “one of the main causes for the nation’s disasters” — Giannis is held up as an example of which Greeks can legitimately feel proud. This is, however, merely magical thinking, which erases the structural causes that explain the living conditions of refugees in general, as well as the specific political responsibilities behind their predicament.

Should the anti-racist left not be proud of Giannis and what he has achieved? Certainly, we are proud of Giannis for humiliating the far right and the way it presents “outsiders.” With the support of his family, Giannis stood on his own two feet, leapt over the structural racism inherent in Greek society, and did something almost unimaginable. His story would be an incredible achievement not only for a socially excluded refugee deprived of the necessary material and cultural platforms for success, but even for someone from a much more privileged background.

Yet Giannis’s individual success is not alone cause for satisfaction. Alongside him, there are thousands of refugees who continue to experience the consequences of social exclusion, facing racism in their everyday lives and being pushed to the margins of society. The basic political demand should be one of social justice. As Erik Olin Wright has argued, we should fight for a just society where “all people would have broadly equal access to the material and social means necessary for living a flourishing life.”

Few of the underprivileged will live the capitalist fairytale of making it in life like Giannis, especially if they, like him, grow up under the shadow of the threat of deportation. Getting rid of such a threat is the minimum for allowing the children of migrants to live flourishing lives. At the same time, social justice is not limited to formal measures like the benefits of citizenship — rather, it must include all the substantial means necessary for every human being to achieve their potential, diminishing the systemic obstacles that undermine their personal development. This is not just a right for those with a chance of becoming famous athletes, but for all human beings. Most people from Giannis’s background are classed among the “undeserving poor.” But we all deserve the rights and resources that will allow us to lead a life of dignity and develop our capacities to the fullest.