Why Do All The White Boys Live Together? White Supremacy in Greek Life
By Lubabah R. Chowdhury
I do not want to believe that history repeats itself. When I was younger, I loved studying history for the same reason I obsessively read and re-read “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings”. The strange customs, outlandish clothes and peculiar vernacular proved an intellectual challenge precisely because of their unfamiliarity.
So now, I am faced with a paradox: when history seems all too familiar, when the struggles of feminists in the 1950s and ’60s and the Jim Crow laws of the same decades seem to mirror our modern day reality, I become uneasy. The parallels cause me to question whether this country’s past of violent racism and sexism can ever be truly relegated to the past, or whether they have become an intractable part of our society.
Of late, many events have compelled me to pose this question to myself. The expulsion of two Sigma Alpha Epsilon members from the University of Oklahoma for their part in a racist chant may be unimportant compared to the Eric Garner case or the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. But taken in context, the chant “There’ll never be a n****r in SAE” is not merely an anomaly, as some writers and critics have claimed. When do individual “anomalies” point to a larger pattern? How many racist chants and misogynistic slurs do students and reporters have to uncover before we admit there’s a fundamental problem with Greek life on American campuses today?
In this series of articles, I want to discuss and explore three claims that are often made about fraternities and sororities. One: by its very nature, Greek life excludes potential members along race and class lines; two: fraternities are generally hostile towards women and the ideals of feminism and women’s rights; and three: the charitable works of individual chapters cannot and do not compensate for the damaging role they play in campus communities. Due to the events at the University of Oklahoma, I want to discuss institutionalized racism in the Greek system first.
The Roots of Institutionalized Racism The history of fraternities and sororities is tied to the history of the university. As such, it is unsurprising that at its inception, Greek life was severely lacking in diversity both in terms of race and socioeconomic status. As Nicholas L. Syrett of The Daily Beast notes, “For most of the 19th century, fraternities were exclusively white because the colleges and universities at which they were located were also all white.” Considering the homogeneous nature of the university’s student body at the time — and, to a certain extent, even now — fraternities could not help but become a microcosm of the university’s social structure. If anything, they exacerbated the pre-existing divisions between university men of means and students on scholarship; fraternity members had to pay dues and other expenses that were often unaffordable for lower-class students.
Far from condemning this formalization of social stratification on their campuses, university administrators, deans and presidents claimed that to force fraternities to open their doors to a more diverse set of candidates would constitute an infringement on students’ freedom of choice. In his immensely helpful and comprehensive work “Fraternities without Brotherhood”, published in 1955, Alfred McClung Lee notes that “administrators who openly stated this laissez-faire policy included Edmund Ezra Day, then president of Cornell University”. Day’s words, however, are indicative of more than a hands-off approach: “As for national fraternities…they are free to create whatever standards of eligibility they wish individually to create and to take the consequences of. Some of them have conditions set forth in their constitutions barring certain minority groups. Well, if that’s the kind of character they want to have, I would say that that’s their privilege….If they want to say, ‘We don’t like your looks and we don’t like anything else about you,’ that’s their privilege, and it doesn’t occasion any resentment in me.”
In the face of American history — as a reminder, Cornell was founded in 1865, the same year that marked the end of the Civil War and two years after the Emancipation Proclamation granted minimal rights to slaves in the North — Day’s statement upholds and re-inscribes a status quo of implicit fear and repulsion and explicit discrimination and violence. “We don’t like your looks and we don’t like anything else about you” sums up the attitude most sharecroppers held towards emancipated Black Americans during Restoration, and indeed how most white Americans felt about African-Americans during Jim Crow. In fact, Day’s language belies the poisonous resentment, fear and repulsion that permeated post-Civil war America. And Day was not the only university president to condone this attitude on his campus and amongst his students; the heads of University of Michigan and University of Rhode Island held similar views and allowed their universities to reflect rather than challenge the institutionalized racism of their time.. As other immigrant communities arrived on college campuses en masse, they faced similar exclusivist attitudes; in 1951, members of the Alpha Xi Delta sorority debated fiercely over whether or not to admit a Native American student of the Narraganset tribe.
The national fraternities’ and alumni leadership’s active war against the inclusion of Black people and other people of color only reinforced university authorities’ passive permissiveness. Lee notes that many fraternities were unafraid to make their exclusionary goals explicit: “In 1910 and 1912, [the fraternity Phi Delta Theta] wrote into its constitution: “Only such persons as are contemplated in the Bond of the Phi Delta Theta may be admitted, and only male, white persons of full Aryan blood not less than sixteen years of age, shall be eligible’”. Leadership enforced the exclusion clause well into the 1950’s, resorting to expulsion of local chapters that refused to comply. When the Phi Kappa Psi chapter at Amherst wanted to recruit Thomas W. Gibbs, a Black student and an active member of both the track team and the student council, the executive officers of the national fraternity “exerted pressure designed to result in his ‘depledging.’ Just prior to the July 1948 national convention, the executive council of the fraternity held a special session, without asking the Amherst delegation to be present to state its case. The council decided officially that the fraternity’s traditions of exclusiveness had the same effect as fraternity laws; and these traditions did not permit the admission of Gibbs”. When the Amherst chapter stood by its’ decision, the executive council expelled the chapter from the national organization.
While expulsion on these grounds may seem like a blessing — who would want their organization to be at the mercy of such draconian overlords? — It is important to remember that access to fraternity leadership and alumni are a significant incentive to rushing and pledging. As Robert Jenson writes in his book “The Heart of Whiteness” (2005): “Not only have fraternities been the breeding ground of those 120 Forbes 500 chief executive officers, they also have spawned 48 percent of all U.S. presidents, 42 percent of U.S. senators, 30 percent of U.S. congressman, and 40 percent of U.S. Supreme Court justices, according to data from The North-American Interfraternity Conference.” The men making and enforcing these exclusionary rules along racial grounds were the same men who could help a current fraternity undergraduate member start a successful career or obtain a prestigious scholarship. Even though there were highly conspicuous exceptions, most fraternities toed the party line because of such advantages.
The Height of White Supremacy This discriminatory reality had larger ramifications than the continued exclusion of students of color and scholarship students from Greek life. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report “Ku Klux Klan: A History of Racism and Violence,” the founding of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) eerily resembles the founding of many of the “social clubs” that led to the formation of fraternities: “It was the boredom of small-town life that led six young Confederate veterans to gather around a fireplace one December evening in 1865 and form a social club…The six young men were full of ideas for their new society. It would be secret, to heighten the amusement of the thing, and the titles for the various offices were to have names as preposterous-sounding as possible, partly for the fun of it and partly to avoid any military or political implications.” The similarities between the two organizations — the secrecy, the apolitical orientation, the emphasis on social bonds and masculine camaraderie — are numerous and thought-provoking. They cannot simply be explained away, especially in light of both groups’ interest in excluding, or in the case of the KKK, exterminating people of color.
Lee helps to further connect the dots between Greek-letter organizations and one of the most notorious terrorist organizations in America: “A group of former Confederate army officers, who were all fraternity men, in 1866 formed a convivial society to which they gave the name of Kuklos, the Greek word for circle. For alliterative purposes, the word Klan was added, and Kuklos became Kuklux or Ku Klux. The organization shortly began to emphasize ‘patriotism’ and white supremacy. It originated in the desire to keep alive the horse play, hazing, and camaraderie of the truncated college days of the members; but these impulses were shortly twisted and magnified to extensive terrorist proportions.” It is important to note that the KKK and fraternities were not always two distinct organizations. In 1906 — ironically, the same year the first Black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, was founded at Cornell University — students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign founded a Ku Klux Klan student chapter, and in 1919, students at the University of Wisconsin formed the Ku Klux Klan Honorary Junior Society. Considering the rapidity of the Ku Klux Klan’s devolution from a social club to a violent, racist organization, racism within the Greek system seems to have been latent rather than non-existent. Within the 19th century academic bubble, it is understandable that a group of wealthy white men excluding poor white men and Jewish men from their parties and pranks would seem harmless, if rather snobbish. But when applied to the contentious and racially charged world that was Restoration America, white elitism became militant white supremacy.
Self-imposed Segregation or Reaction to Racism? The founding of fraternities and sororities that cater to minorities during the twentieth century led many to claim that people of color had opted for voluntary segregation and suspicion of established fraternities and sororities rather than integration. Notwithstanding the explicitly exclusionary and racist clauses in most fraternities’ and sororities’ constitutions, testimonial evidence suggests that minorities created their own Greek-letter organizations out of necessity as much as out of a desire to live with like-minded people. In discussing this issue, journalist Howard Whitman in January, 1949: “In a bull session of fraternity men at the University of Wisconsin, I heard a towheaded lad jump up and cry, ‘To hell with this talk of democratization! They’ve got their own fraternities!’ I had heard that phrase often. When I tried it out on Wilbert Whitsett, president of Alpha Phi Alpha…at the University of Pittsburgh, he replied, ‘If we are not permitted to join other fraternities, we must form a fraternity of our own. We have no other choice.’”
Whitsett’s sentiments are echoed in the mission statements of the present-day fraternities and sororities for minorities. Alpha Phi Alpha’s website rather candidly states that were it not for the exclusion and discrimination minorities faced on early 20th century college campuses, the fraternity would not have been in existence: “The fraternity initially served as a study and support group for minority students who faced racial prejudice, both educationally and socially, at Cornell…Alpha also recognized the need to help correct the educational, economic, political, and social injustices faced by African Americans.” Fraternities formed by minority students not only served as a refuge from the racist reality of studying and living in a majority-white campus, but it also allowed students to celebrate their history, history that often involved anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist activity. Phi Iota Alpha’s website recognizes the achievements of Simon Bolivar, who liberated Venezuela, Columbia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia from Spanish rule, and Benito Juarez, Mexico’s first president. While the development of fraternities for minorities may have well been sparked by bigotry and racism, they allowed those previously without a voice to tell their stories and celebrate their cultural heritage.
While empowering to its members, these organizations speak to the intense isolation and discrimination students of color felt on American college campuses, and their continued existence suggests that little has changed. Though many fraternities for minorities have opened their doors to all students regardless of race, class or, in some cases, gender, they rarely have the same pull or recruitment numbers as the larger, more established and more white fraternities. And most importantly, the culture of increased tolerance and inclusiveness evident in fraternities for minorities have succeeded in creating a more understanding culture within these organizations that has yet to rub off on mainstream fraternities. I remember the distinct differences between events held at fraternities historically for minorities and events held at the older frats; while the former would host dry events centered around learning about other countries and cultures that were open to the public, the latter primarily hosted exclusive parties where a non-Greek lifer would have to “know a brother” to gain access, let alone enjoy themselves. Fraternities for minorities have not truly changed the status quo; though they have created more welcoming spaces within their organizations, the same isolating, exclusive and racist influences remain without.
History Is Not In The Past What does this chronology tell us about fraternities today? How does this history help us understand racism within SAE? If we understand the historical context of Greek life and we accept that this context shapes the way Greek letter organizations function today, the shaky ten-second video that has received over three million hits on YouTube cannot simply be written off as “boys being boys” or an isolated incident of racism in one chapter of one fraternity. SAE in particular is notorious for incidents such as these (including the house mom’s use of the n-word repeatedly in a Vine), but this video received attention because it documented what is prevalent and widespread. During my time at Cornell, the university placed the Sigma Pi chapter on interim suspension when boys sitting on the fraternity’s roof threw bottles and hurled racial slurs at several Black students who were passing by.
The prevalence of such incidents would be justification enough to discuss the history of Greek life, but the historical parallels are too disconcerting to dismiss. As Robert Cohen writes in his article “The Historical Roots of Fraternity Racism”: “What astonished me was how reminiscent this chant by Oklahoma fraternity members in 2015 was of the chant of segregationist fraternity members at the University of Georgia in January 1961. Though separated by more than a half century in both cases a lynching reference was combined with the chanting of a pledge to keep the segregationist fraternity tradition intact.” How is it that nothing has changed in over fifty years — not the language, the intent or the sentiment of these groups, like SAE, that claim to create “true gentlemen”?
It is this echo of history in the present day that worries me. It is the echo that Tracy Clayton described in her article “A Black Girl’s History With Southern Frat Racism”:
“The first and only time I saw one of my schoolmates dressed as a Confederate, I was alone, walking the paths through the impossibly green courtyard lawn. I saw him in the distance, wearing pale blue from head to toe, and I chuckled and shook my head thinking about how crazy it would be if he were dressed as an actual Confederate soldier. The closer I got, the deeper my heart sank until my sadness was interrupted by a cackle that started at my toes and bubbled up and around my teeth before thudding heavily into the ground. What else can you do but laugh when you see someone in this century dressed as a Confederate soldier? What does anyone do in the face of absurdity? You laugh. But it wasn’t funny.”
It is the echo of history that Johns Hopkins students vigorously protested when they saw the skeleton pirate dangling from a rope noose in front of Sigma Chi’s “Halloween in the Hood” party.
This discussion is not purely academic, and it is not relegated to purely academic spaces. At some point, fraternity brothers graduate and move on from their college campuses. Many of these young men will be moving on to positions of power and influence, considering the disproportionate percentage of senators, presidents and CEOs fraternities have produced. What prejudices are they bringing with them into our boardrooms, law firms and halls of power? How are they exerting their influence amongst their younger cohorts, amongst the young fraternity men who look to them for personal and professional advice? People can move on from their college days, can grow out of partying and drinking. But given the incessant nature of racist incidents like the one at the University of Oklahoma, I wonder if people can ever “grow out of” racism and bigotry, and whether institutions such as Greek-letter organizations can ever fully divest from their exclusionary, white supremacist pasts.