Fraternities Were Built On Racism. So Why Are We Surprised When They Do Racist Things?

In this March 10, 2015, photo, University of Oklahoma students march to the now closed University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house during a rally in reaction to an incident in which members of a fraternity were caught on video chanting a racial slur, in Norman, Okla. CREDIT: SUE OGROCKI, AP
In this March 10, 2015, photo, University of Oklahoma students march to the now closed University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house during a rally in reaction to an incident in which members of a fraternity were caught on video chanting a racial slur, in Norman, Okla. CREDIT: SUE OGROCKI, AP

Across the country, students of color have increasingly been drawing attention to racist climates on their college campuses through protests, occupations, and other activism. And as the media attention on these issues has ramped up, so has the focus on what exactly fraternities’ roles are in the campus culture.

Fraternities may perpetuate a particularly toxic environment for marginalized students — especially because, unlike other kinds of student groups on campus, fraternities tend to enjoy certain privileges that shield them from serious consequences when racist, homophobic, and misogynist acts do take place.

More attention has been drawn to racism at fraternities recently after Sigma Alpha Epsilon made national news when an entire bus full of members of its University of Oklahoma chapter began singing and laughing along with a racist song, filled with racial slurs and references to lynching, about never admitting black students to the fraternity. Later that year, SAE’s Yale chapter was reportedly also responsible for enforcing a “white-women only” policy at their fraternity parties. Other frats have gotten bad press after leaked emails reveal racist and misogynist conversations among brothers, or after they’ve thrown frat parties relying on racist stereotypes. It’s rare that universities close chapters and suspend members, such as in the case of the University of Oklahoma’s SAE chapter.

Is this incidental? Or does it have something to do with the greater context of fraternities’ culture and history?

The history of race and class dynamics of fraternities

According to Lawrence Ross, author of the newly released book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, it’s important for Americans to understand the circumstances under which fraternities became popular. As campuses began to become more open to the middle class and to black students, Greek organizations resisted class and race diversity. Frats were a way for white upper-class men to separate themselves from an increasingly diverse student population.


“The DNA of these organizations, if you go back, these predominantly white fraternities in particular were created after the Civil War with the expansion of college to non-aristocratic students,” Ross said. “Organizations on those campuses, they started to put restrictive clauses that restricted membership to white Christians and sometimes they would say you had to be ‘Aryan,’ so it was a long fight just to get African Americans to join their organizations.”

“They see themselves as colorblind.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, it became less and less acceptable for fraternities to outright discriminate against men of color, but many fraternities clung on to their explicitly stated white and Christian terms for membership for as long as possible. Although those fraternities eventually had to adapt and admit men of color, they still have the freedom to accept whomever they want as members, which means that although they state an interest in diversity, many of the institutions are still overwhelmingly white. Phi Delta Theta suspended its Williams College chapter for pledging “non-Aryans” in 1953. It sustained its suspension against the chapter but in 1954 changed its membership clause from “full Aryan blood” to “socially acceptable,” Ross explained in Blackballed.

Today, many of the national Greek organizations don’t even keep records of how many people in their organizations are people of color. In this way, fraternities can simply say they’re colorblind and ignore racial inequities, Ross said.

“They don’t want to rock the boat when it comes to race. They see themselves as colorblind,” Ross said. “Whereas young people of color see race. When African Americans walk into a classroom, they can immediately identify every African American in the classroom, because they can identify how small the population is on the college campus. That’s because they see the world as it is, not as some type of mythical rainbow coalition that they want the university to be.”

How fraternities and universities avoid conversations about race

At the University of Chicago, there have been many racist incidents instigated by fraternities on campus — such as brothers hanging a Confederate flag near the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, asking pledges to perform racist caricatures, and playing a prank on a mailman by making him deliver 79 boxes to the fraternity that were labeled with backwards versions of racial and homophobic slurs.


Most recently, leaked emails exchanged between the brothers at the University of Chicago’s chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, a historically Jewish fraternity, reveal misogynist, racist, anti-Muslim, and anti-Palestinian discussions. The emails included jokes about whether or not to use racial slurs as part of a brother’s nickname outside the fraternity, accusations that Muslim students are terrorists, inflammatory references about Palestine, and a misogynist “constitution” for the third floor of the fraternity laying out rules about which women were appropriate to sleep with. In response, various student groups signed a letter asking the university to suspend Alpha Epsilon Pi.

The university has responded to the backlash to say that the emails are “disrespectful and harmful” and “violate the University’s core values.” The fraternity has apologized for the emails and a spokesperson said it is working with groups on campus to address racism among its ranks. But so far, there is no indication that administrators will suspend the fraternity.

Ross said it is common for universities to state that the values of the perpetrators don’t align with the values of the university, and portray the event as an isolated incident — which allows the university to dodge any accusations that there is a systemic racism problem at the university.

“These are never isolated incidents. It’s the same strain of DNA and what happens is that these universities typically treat them as isolated incidents so they play whack-a-mole,” he said.

In this March 11, 2015, photo, Charletteria Mathis, second from left, Albeta Wellington, far right, and her son Mark Wallace, 5, protest outside the family home of a former University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity member Parker Rice in Dallas. CREDIT: Brandon Wade, AP
In this March 11, 2015, photo, Charletteria Mathis, second from left, Albeta Wellington, far right, and her son Mark Wallace, 5, protest outside the family home of a former University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity member Parker Rice in Dallas. CREDIT: Brandon Wade, AP

By addressing incidents one by one instead of treating them as university-wide culture problem, university officials can wait for students to graduate and for the memories of those controversies to become hazier. The institution always outlasts the individual students, which makes it hard to confront the root of the problem.

Hoda Katebi, a senior at the University of Chicago, is one of the organizers of the coalition protesting the way the university is responding to Alpha Epsilon Pi. After four years at the university, she said she’s seen a lot of incidents fostering hate toward marginalized groups on campus. She doesn’t think AEPi is responsible for all of the factors contributing to a toxic environment for students of color, Palestinian-American students, and Muslim students on campus — but she says the brothers do help foster it.


“I just think they’re responsible for creating a climate within their own fraternity that has leaked onto campus,” Katebi said. “And I do think that even if you’re a member of this fraternity and seeing these emails, even people who didn’t have these sentiments before, you’re seeing that these are OK and this is kind of the view you’re supposed to have.”

Unfortunately, universities don’t have many incentives to hold students accountable for these actions — particularly because former fraternity brothers often donate large sums of money to the university, and Greek organizations provide campuses with housing that universities don’t have to maintain. Katebi said that she notices campus police turning a blind eye to underage drinking at mostly white fraternity houses while heavily monitoring students of color who don’t belong to Greek life.

Although the fraternity has launched an internal investigation, Katebi said she isn’t confident it will accomplish anything. She referred to the idea that the frat would conduct its own investigation as “the most absurd thing in the world.”

Ross expressed similar doubts about the nature of these internal investigations. He cited SAE’s investigation into the University of Oklahoma bus chant, which he says was mostly superficial. That effort only identified the three chapters that were responsible for singing the chant, instead of taking a closer look at how to address the laundry list of racist incidents that have occurred at its chapters over the years.

“They weren’t interested in doing that because to do that would be saying as an organization that you have a systemic racism problem. They don’t look at themselves as having a systemic racism problem,” Ross said. “It’s all about minimizing it.”

The harm done to students

There are considerable consequences when marginalized student groups are made to feel like outsiders in their own communities. Racism and other forms of bias within fraternities also means students of color, Muslim students, and LGBT students are locked out of influential networks that could make a big difference in furthering their careers.

Although only 2 percent of U.S. the population is involved in fraternities, 76 percent of U.S. Senators and Congressmen, 85 percent of U.S. Supreme Court Justices, 80 percent of Fortune 500 executives and all but two presidents belonged to fraternities, according to Cornell University. “You’re concentrating power in one particular block of people,” Ross noted. “It’s important for people not to trivialize it because if you’re an African American student on campus and the [fraternity] is pretty much able to dominate student government, well then funds will only go to places they’re interested in. This is a proving ground for how political power actually works and at college campuses, it works the exact same way it does in actual society.”

There is also considerable harm done to white students by fostering a culture that encourages them to embrace racism or stand idly by as fellow white students participate in racist acts.

Ross travels to colleges around the country to give lectures on how white supremacy functions at universities. In many cases, those lectures are the first time that white students realize the fact that they bear some responsibility as a collective group — since white supremacy teaches that white people are always acting as individuals, while people of color are judged as a group.

“Students came up afterwards and said, ‘I didn’t know. I’m so happy that I do know, and now I can take action.’ And that’s kind of the tragedy of these national organizations not speaking bluntly about racism and white supremacy, especially in their ranks,” Ross said. “Being so afraid to do that allows the ignorance to keep on going and so what you have is each year new students come in and perpetuate the same thing.”