Is The Fraternity System The Legacy Of A Racist Past?

BY SERAPHIM SPARROW

(Gary Coronado / Houston Chronicle)

(Gary Coronado / Houston Chronicle)

A few weeks ago, the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at the University of Texas was vandalized with the words “rapist” and “racist” spray painted on their property. Several days ago, Kappa Sigma at Baylor University hosted a Cinco de Mayo party at which guests were allegedly dressed as maids and construction workers. In 2015, Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Oklahoma was recorded chanting a horrific, racist song. CNN’s John Sutter claims that this event “hints at the inner workings of certain Greek organizations, and…shows the persistent racism that still exists in the United States.” The recent graffiti at the house of Phi Gamma Delta confirms that Sutter is not alone in believing that fraternities are racist.

Before addressing this claim, let us first look at the history of collegiate fraternities in the United States. The first Greek-letter fraternity in the United States was Phi Beta Kappa. There were other fraternities before, but Phi Beta Kappa was the first to use Greek letters for their name. Phi Beta Kappa was responsible for many of the rituals that modern-day fraternities embrace, such as “an oath of secrecy, a badge, mottos in both Greek and Latin, a code of laws, an elaborate form of initiation, a seal, a bond of friendship and camaraderie, and a special handshake known only to members.” Inspired by Phi Beta Kappa, a new fraternity was formed in 1825 called Kappa Alpha. Kappa Alpha “encouraged the exposition of outrageous ideas and became an early exponent of the idea of ‘Progress,’” and, “while many social fraternities have abandoned ties to their academic beginnings, Kappa Alpha continues to embrace their appreciation for literature, intellectual debate, and music today.” While there are fraternities with professional focuses such as pre-law, pre-med, etc., the ones that receive the most attention are social-oriented.

Fraternities in the United States do not have a racist beginning, yet during the Civil War, there were restrictions on joining fraternities based on race. Although it became more difficult to place such restrictions on membership in the 1950s and 1960s, “Phi Delta Theta suspended its William College chapter for pledging ‘non-Aryans”’ in 1953. This Aryan-only stipulation was revoked the following year, but clearly there was an issue with race that needed discussion.

Although not every fraternity has a racist history, there is still a great deal of anti-fraternity sentiment because the actions of some fraternities are linked to fraternities in general. For example, an article published in 2015 by MSNBC in response to several instances of sexual assault and racism in fraternities claimed that “these incidents aren’t outliers or cases of individual impropriety, but data points in a clear historical pattern showing the fraternity system to be a structurally flawed vestige of the 19th century.” Another claimed that racist events in fraternities “are never isolated incidents. It’s the same strain of DNA.” Clearly, not every fraternity is racist, yet this generalization still occurs. What is it about fraternities that allows for such a stereotype to exist?

One possible culprit is the depiction of fraternities in the mainstream media. For instance, movies such as Animal House and The Neighbors portray fraternity members as party-loving fools who do not seem to add much value to society. Additionally, stories constantly emerge detailing how fraternity members are guilty of sexual assault. When such negative associations are formed with fraternities, the idea that fraternities are racist becomes much more plausible. After all, when fraternities are portrayed in an overwhelmingly negative manner, it is certainly easier to associate fraternities with one more negative aspect.

The news coverage and the outrage when a fraternity displays racist behavior is a great sign. It demonstrates that people in the United States are not going to put up with such ignorance any longer. However, let us not fall into the trap of stereotyping. Not all fraternities are racist and it is unfair to treat them as such.

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