Saturday, March 17, 2012

Racism and Fraternities/Sororities

I was assigned to write an "Anatomy of Racism" paper this past week for my Critical Race Theory class. As a white individual, I found one of the assigned books entitled The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege by Robert Jensen to be the most helpful and illuminating to read. Jensen's admirable lucidity and frankness made so many aspects of this book that much more powerful. This one excerpt about the problem of segregation among U.S. fraternities and sororities on college campuses was really very interesting. Maybe this is due to the fact that I attended an evangelical university where the Greek system was non-existent, but this segregated reality within fraternities and sororities never occurred to me before reading this book. The level of influence and power that is ensured through these particular social networks is deeply problematic not only for the inherent racism therein (as if that weren't enough), but also for the fact that it is a level of corruption in itself. Segregation within the Greek system is yet another (crucial) form of systemic racism that must be uncovered and unmade in order for any level of equality to be actualized within American society. Read on:
"On most U.S. university campuses with a Greek system, fraternities and sororities are segregated. Any Greek organization that enforced such segregation by official policy - a "whites-only" rule - would be bounced off campus. But the continued existence of overwhelmingly segregated fraternities and sororities on many campuses, as a result of traditions and practices that are not overtly racialized, runs afoul of no regulations. But two crucial questions arise.

First, how does the presence of virtually all-white Greek organizations affect the racial climate of the campus? It's reasonable to assume that on a campus where official segregation as abandoned only a few decades ago and non-white students still routinely report they do not feel particularly welcomed on campus, the presence of high-visibility and prestigious groups that remain exclusively or largely whites-only adds to the sense of the university as a white-supremacist institution. Also, the persistence of overtly racist parties at white Greek houses - such as "ghetto parties" in which attendees mock urban blacks, or fake slave auctions - adds to the sense of a campus as a white space. The existence of predominantly non-white Greek organizations, especially black fraternities and sororities, does not change this reality. When unwelcome and/or made to feel uncomfortable in white organizations, it's hardly surprising that non-white students would form their own groups.

Second, Greek organizations are more than just clubs for students while on campus. They create social networks that endure beyond college days and provide entree into business and politics. One study found that a quarter of chief executives at the 500 largest corporations in the United States were fraternity members and that 'once they've graduated, [members] can tap into the network of past fraternity brothers or sisters who litter all tiers of corporate America.' The conclusion: 'A mere 8.5 percent of full-time university undergraduates are members of either a fraternity or a sorority. Not only have fraternities been the breeding ground of those 120 Forbes 500 chief executive officers, they also have spawned 48 percent of all U.S. presidents, 42 percent of U.S. senators, 30 percent of U.S. congressman, and 40 percent of U.S. Supreme Court justices, according to data from The North-American Interfraternity Conference.' The vast majority of these people are, of course, white.

So, the continued existence of a segregated Greek system perpetuates white supremacy, not necessarily because those who support the system have an overt white-supremacist ideology or intend the organizations to have that function. But in a white-supremacist society, the failure to intervene to change the course of the institution means that the institution will perpetuate white supremacy. Racism is no longer official policy of the institution, but its practices are racist. If a university with a Greek system that has this character were serious about creating a truly nonracist university, one easy way to begin the process would be to eliminate the Greek system or enact policies that make desegregation mandatory within a limited time frame. In most universities, either policy is unthinkable" (Jensen, 20-22, emphasis added).