In 1955, a study published in the sociological journal, “Social Problems,” found that most students in fraternities and sororities were more racist than their non-Greek classmates. That was 60 years ago, but it explains precisely the origin of the Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity’s racist chant last week about hanging Black people and not letting them in its organization.
A culture of racism, euphemized as exclusivity, has existed from the beginning and, in fact, was part of the principles on which frats were created: no Blacks. To wit: SAE was founded at Alabama in 1856 in the “Deep South,” it boasts on its website. That’s code for “racist South.”
In that 1955 study, a student interviewed said: “Fraternities are supposed to be exclusive; they just don’t admit every fellow who comes up, especially if he is a Negro . . . Once you begin letting everything in, then the frat loses ground because most of the guys don’t want to belong to a frat that has a lot of Negroes or foreigners.”
SAE’s chant, six decades later—“You can hang him from a tree, but he will never sign with me. There will never be a ni**er SAE.”—fell right in line with that thinking from a supposed bygone era.
It seems white fraternities represent a haven for racists. Always have. National organizations wrote into bylaws that Blacks not be admitted into their groups. And that segregation led to the founding of Black fraternities and sororities, starting with Alpha Phil Alpha Fraternity, founded at Cornell University in 1906.
On the surface, white Greek organizations were glad African-Americans formed their own organizations, even as the law by 1940 forbade their exclusionary codes.
Not allowing Black members allowed them an exclusive environment where they could spew their hatred and venom among like-minded bigots, without repercussions. Imagine the countless number of racial slurs, parties, incidents that were not reported to authorities. SAE was just stupid enough to capture its bigotry on video.
But sometimes their hostility spills over into public viewing, as they make no attempt to conceal their hatred with Black-face skits or staged lynching ceremonies or straight-up racist attacks.
At Clemson three months ago, the Daily Beast points out, the SAE chapter was suspended after white students held a “Cripmas” party, where students dressed mockingly in bandannas and Tupac t-shirts and wore fake “Thug” tattoos. At Washington University in St. Louis, the SAE chapter was suspended in 2013 after members sang racial slurs at Black students pledging an African-American fraternity.
At Arizona State, members of Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity held an “MLK Black Party,” where students dressed in sagging jeans, basketball jerseys, gaudy jewelry and sipped drinks out of a watermelon cup. And on and on.
“Given fraternities’ history as organizations designed to enhance the prestige of members through exclusivity, it should come as no surprise that at least one chapter defines that exclusivity in racial terms,” Nicolas L. Syrett wrote in the Daily Beast.
An interesting dynamic about all this is that Black fraternities and sororities on white campuses never are cited for racist acts. They do not insult their classmates with ugly chants, songs or supposed-to-be-funny-and-clever theme parties. They do their thing, cognizant of the tangible racial divide while often choosing to ignore tension created by their white counterparts.
Sounds like an ideology white fraternities should follow.