Syracuse suspends fraternities racism, but Greek system's prejudice is a national problem

It should come as no surprise that hyper-segregated and racially privileged organizations produce members that engage in racist activities.
Image: Signs at a student sit-in after a series of racist incidents on campus at Syracuse University in New York on Nov. 20, 2019.
Signs at a student sit-in after a series of racist incidents on campus at Syracuse University in New York on Nov. 20, 2019.Maranie Staab / Reuters
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By Matthew W. Hughey, author, "A Pledge with Purpose: Black Sororities and Fraternities and the Fight for Equality"

What is the relationship between fraternities and racism?

The answer to this question could dictate much of the future of higher education, where Greek life remains central to both campus social life and collegiate politics. And while pledging or “rushing” a fraternity or sorority is an annual rite, so now are the yearly stories about these organizations' less than subtle embrace of racism.

From a 2015 incident at the University of Oklahoma, where two fraternity members were expelled after video of them singing a violently racist song went public, to the 2018 release of photos showing members of a fraternity at California Polytechnic State University wearing blackface and dressing as Mexican gangsters, to an incident just this month at Syracuse University that has resulted in the suspension of all fraternity social activities, racial prejudice and frats are often intertwined.

While pledging or “rushing” a fraternity or sorority is an annual rite, so now are the yearly stories about these organizations less than subtle embrace of racism.

In the case of Syracuse, members of one fraternity were connected to the alleged use of a racial epithet, which came in the wake of a string of racist episodes at the university, and even prompted a response from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Days later, students staged a “sit-in” to demand a better response from university officials.

Some contend that these events have been blown out of proportion and that such incidents, while unfortunate, are the consequence of a few bad apples. But as a sociologist and university professor who has studied racism, inequality and Greek life for over two decades, I see evidence that the orchard ground may indeed be poisoned.

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The white fraternity system exists in a protected bubble. These organizations are often granted a host of material and symbolic resources. And when those privileged fraternal spaces are marked by extreme racial segregation, on what are already fairly unrepresentative campuses, racism and particularly anti-black views find fertile ground. For instance, research shows that, on average, members of white Greek-letter organizations hold more Eurocentric ideologies and are less conscious of social injustices than both non-Greek-letter students and Greek-letter members in Black, Latino and Asian Greek-letter organizations.

Why?

They function as designed. And their aim has long been to exclude and function as a vehicle for the reproduction of white status and power.

They function as designed. And their aim has long been to exclude and function as a vehicle for the reproduction of white status and power.

To begin with, the Greek system has historically been marked by intense race and class segregation and inequality. The first U.S. Greek-letter fraternity, academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa, was founded at William & Mary in 1776. As the fraternity movement grew, it reflected the demographics of U.S. campuses: the children of white, male, Christian and generally elite families pledged these organizations.

But as the racial, gender and religious barriers to higher education began to weaken by the turn of early 1900s, many of these de facto white Greek-letter organizations incorporated racial bans into their constitutions. Many did not remove these de jure restrictions until the 1960s, often as a consequence of lawsuits. Simultaneously, African American, Latino and Asian students founded their own Greek-letter organizations over the 20th century. In contrast to many of the old white fraternities, these groups — such as the African American fraternity Phi Beta Sigma (of which I am a member) — served as a clearinghouse for the promotion of racial equality, and attracted members such as Alain Leroy Locke, A. Philip Randolph and Congressman John Lewis.

But while official racial exclusion policies are no longer in effect, racial norms maintain a hypersegregated and extremely unequal Greek system. While few organizations or colleges keep racial statistics on this Greek-letter color-line, research indicates that approximately 95 percent of historically white fraternity and sorority members still identify as white.

This racial separation helped create a deeply engrained inequality. Many colleges and universities afford special housing to white fraternities and sororities, but do not always do the same for their Black, Latin, or Asian counterparts. Some colleges have earmarked positions in student government for Greek-letter members. Moreover, while colleges often employ fraternity advisers, many are ill-equipped to mentor anyone outside of the white fraternity and sorority experience. With little to no cultural competence in advising diverse and multicultural fraternities and sororities, the white Greek-letter system is naturally advantaged. And with such systems in place for the past century, a powerful white alumni system labors to reproduce these privileged organizations with healthy donations to increasingly needy institutions.

I have interviewed hundreds of members of traditionally white fraternities and sororities, from large public universities to small private colleges. Across geographic regions, despite socioeconomic class backgrounds, and regardless of religious or gendered makeup, there is one common denominator: racial prejudice.

Across geographic regions, despite socio-economic class backgrounds, and regardless of religious or gendered make-up, there is one common denominator: racial prejudice.

From sitting inside the vestibules and parlors of Deep South sorority mansions to navigating the beer-can bespeckled porches of northeastern rentals, white Greek-letter members in my experience are all-too agile defenders of their segregated spaces. Often, these defenses come cloaked in coded language about tradition and heritage. People of color “wouldn’t understand our ways,” I heard. Alternatively, people of color, especially African Americans, they feared, would “make everything about race.” “We just want to socialize and have fun,” one white member of a historically white fraternity told me, before he continued “I know black people, and they’ll ruin the reputation we have. Girls won’t want to party with us.”

Even when people of color do obtain membership in historically white fraternities and sororities, these nonwhite members often find themselves relegated to stereotypical roles. One young Latino member told me that when he drank with his fraternity brothers, they would cheer him on by yelling, “He’s got that Latin blood!” One Asian member of a traditionally white Greek sorority said that when she was pledging, some of her future sisters hazed her by paddling. “They had a paddle for me when I joined, it was a joke, but they wrote ‘Yellow Power’ on it. They said I could put up with more stuff than the other [white] girls.”

Why does such racism persist? Greek life breeds social norms that legitimize their own existence. Those that resist are not often granted membership, or if they do, are rarely in a position of leadership. It should come as no surprise that hypersegregated and racially privileged organizations produce members who engage in racist activities. We should be surprised if they didn’t.