When I was a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1990s, the Greek system was an entirely foreign concept to me—unsurprisingly, since I was a foreign student. My blonde roommate from Minnesota asked me in a thick Midwest accent if I was “gonna rush,” to which I responded, “Where to?” Observing her desperate courting of numerous sororities—made all the more nerve-wracking because of her fear of rejection for being slightly chubby and “not Texan”—confused me even further. After several months of observation, I concluded that the unspoken purpose of sororities and fraternities on American college campuses was to group into private clubs, by race and class, people who worried about not being able to coalesce into a social circle naturally and who thus felt compelled to rent friends.
These clubs threw a major wrench into my naive impression that the United States was an emancipated nation where people no longer segregated themselves by race or ethnicity—at least not formally. I mostly felt sorry for the young men and women who sported the T-shirts and sweatshirts with embroidered logos of their Greek clubs’ acronyms. I even recall once being invited by a friend to a fraternity party and worrying that I would not be allowed in because I am not white. At that time (I was only 17), I had very little conscious understanding of what was considered politically acceptable, but I instinctively understood the racial boundaries that had been drawn.
The contents of the recent viral video of University of Oklahoma members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) singing a racist and derogatory song should not surprise any of us who have any familiarity with college fraternities and sororities. As several former members have attested, the abhorrent song in question appears to be something of an SAE national tradition. Even the SAE house mother, Beauton Gilbow, who defended her students after the video went public, has been caught spouting the N-word repeatedly on camera with a smile. Her justification that she was simply singing along to a rap song by Trinidad James reeks of the standard racist defense that if blacks can use the N-word, why can’t whites?
While the sanitized version of history tells us that fraternities were formed with “high idealism” and “camaraderie” in mind, the SAE video has prompted deeper examination of the real origins of American fraternities, and the truth is quite ugly. A March 11 Washington Post report pointedly stated that “The American fraternity system has long been the site of pitched battles about racial integration, Confederate symbols and racist language.” SAE in particular has roots in the Confederate South, a fact of which its members appear to be quite proud. In 1949, the fraternity still formally enrolled only whites, and as recently as three months ago, one SAE chapter came under fire for throwing a racist “gang-inspired” Christmas party.
Americans have been forgiving the excesses of fraternities for years, with an unstated “boys-will-be-boys” mentality, overlooking the racism and culture of violence that runs through the Greek system. In January a group of more than 100 Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity members visited two ski resorts in Michigan and trashed them, causing $75,000 in damage to the facilities.
A month earlier, Delta Chi fraternity members destroyed a villa in Maryland and refused to pay for the damage. Imagine the level of hysteria and condemnation such an act would have garnered in the U.S. mainstream media had the perpetrators been people of color, or poor, or both. One need only compare this incident with the coverage of Ferguson’s “looters” in the wake of the Michael Brown killing last year to see the double standards at work.
(The sexism and misogyny in the Greek system, as well as the lethal dangers of hazing, are also a huge part of the problem and have been well-documented.)
Even if not all fraternities and sororities engage in despicable behavior, the fact is that they represent an entirely archaic and inappropriately racialized system of grouping students into old boys’ clubs that provide networks of power throughout life (yes, people of color are admitted into mostly white fraternities and sororities today but constitute a tiny minority). Under the guise of tradition, these clubs seek to benefit their members by strengthening existing connections based on race as well as class, as this study found. Marian Konnikova, writing in The Atlantic, summed it up best:
The fraternity system was a product of America’s elite: the white, the Christian, the wealthy (the early fraternities were expensive—prohibitively so for any but the moneyed), the male. The “innest” of the in-groups the Founding Fathers could have envisioned.
If fraternities and sororities were anything other than private clubs for privileged students grouped by race, they would be like almost any other club on campus. University students today have a wide range of options for connecting with others on the basis of shared interests that can provide just as much sense of belonging and camaraderie as fraternities do but without the accompanying systemic racism, misogyny, violence, substance abuse or exorbitant dues that only the wealthy can afford.
The University of Oklahoma story has emerged at an important moment in U.S. history, when a national dialogue on race is taking place in the wake of the Ferguson uprising. The video of SAE members singing the racist chant was made public within days of a crucial Justice Department probe exposing rampant racism in Ferguson’s city and law enforcement agencies, as well as the 50th-anniversary commemoration of the Selma voting rights march, at which President Obama gave a rousing address, saying, “this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”
Thanks to the relentless activism of the Black Lives Matter movement, more Americans are now aware of the human toll of racial violence. It is an appropriate time to question the bastions of racial privilege on American college campuses.
To his credit, University of Oklahoma President David Boren has taken swift and unequivocal action by immediately expelling two students appearing in the video and shutting down the SAE chapter on campus. Barely had the video made the national news when SAE members were asked to vacate their frat house. The former U.S. senator and Oklahoma governor clearly labeled the behavior in the video as racist and bigoted, drew links with Ferguson and said he supports a zero-tolerance policy on racism.
Boren even spoke at a campus protest, saying, “Would I be happy if they left the university as students and were no longer our students? You betcha. I’d be happy.” It is refreshing to see an appropriate response for once by a person in a position of power to an incident that has caused such deep pain, instead of the usual hand-wringing, excuses of free speech or claims that while the behaviors might have been racist, those involved are really good people who are not racists and actually have lots of black friends!
However, by taking immediate and very targeted action, Boren has deflected criticism of the broader issue of how fraternities and sororities tend to operate with impunity on campuses. He has taken the “few bad apples” approach to a problem that has deep roots and broad impacts.
It is past time that American campuses do away with the Greek system altogether. Sadly, most universities are beholden to fraternities and benefit greatly from the de facto outsourcing of housing and liability, and they depend on the tuition dollars of wealthy students and the subsequent donor base of rich alumni. Still, it can be done—and, encouragingly, it has been. Schools such as Middlebury College in Vermont, realizing that the fallout from fraternities’ dirty deeds was just not worth the trouble, years ago outright banned the organizations. The ban has apparently served Middlebury well and can provide a model for other schools to do the same.
American society would not tolerate the same set of vile behaviors year after year from any other group of students but those who are members of fraternities and sororities. Let’s abolish the whole system once and for all.