Controversy erupted recently at the University of Oklahoma, when a video emerged showing a bus full of students singing a song with violently racist and exclusionary lyrics:
There will never be a n*gger SAE
There will never be a n*gger SAE
You can hang ‘em from a tree
But they’ll never sign with me
There will never be a n*gger SAE
The song refers to Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the largest fraternities in the country, boasting 200 chapters and about 15,000 undergraduate members. SAE is also the only existing national fraternity founded in the Antebellum South.
The video of SAE members gleefully reciting a chant asserting that they would rather see black men lynched than allow them membership was sent anonymously to a black student group on campus, and subsequently posted on Youtube where it immediately gained widespread attention and sparked massive controversy. In the days that followed, two students identified as the “leaders” in the video were expelled, and the OU chapter of SAE has been closed indefinitely.
Representatives from the national headquarters of SAE were quick to distance themselves, claiming that the “incident should not reflect on other brothers because this type of hateful action is not what Sigma Alpha Epsilon stands for…Sigma Alpha Epsilon is not a racist, sexist or bigoted fraternity”. Statements like these—which condemn the actions of individuals while denying a systemic problem—have become the standard response whenever a fraternity makes headlines for deplorable behavior, which happens more than you might think.
In fact, far from isolated incidents reflecting unusual or deviant behavior, a quick Google search reveals a steady stream of shocking headlines involving fraternities. Just last month, a photo of “pledge rules” for new members of Phi Gamma Delta at the University of Texas surfaced which included such mandates as “no fagetry”, “no interracial dating”, and “no Mexicans”. Every year fraternities make news for hosting parties with themes such as “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” and “Blood and Crips”, for the many acts of sexual violence taking place in frat houses across the country, and for the tragic deaths and injuries that befall both members and visitors to these houses related to alcohol, drugs, and hazing.
In a sense, the response from fraternities is understandable. It is surely true that the actions of individual members do not accurately represent the values of all, especially considering that some of the larger fraternities, like SAE, have thousands of members located on hundreds of campuses all over the country. It is also true that the sordid scandals that make the news do not accurately portray the full spectrum of fraternity life. As representatives and members frequently point out, most fraternities are founded with the goal of creating principled and well-rounded leaders, and many have significant community service requirements. Greek affiliated students contribute millions of hours and dollars to charities, and fraternities provide many men with friendships, connections, and resources that serve them well and last a lifetime.
Fraternities are certainly not legions of bad men working together to do evil. Far from it, much good has come from the service and leadership provided by Greek life. However, the idea put forth by fraternity representatives that Greek organizations are no different than any other student groups, and that controversies simply gain more media attention when they involve fraternities is demonstrably false.
In fact, many studies have shown that fraternity (and sorority) members drink and use drugs more often and in higher doses than their non-member peers. One such study found that 75% of fraternity members engaged in binge drinking, as opposed to 48% of their non-member peers. Studies have also linked fraternity membership with increased rape-supportive beliefs, coercive sex practices, and the perpetration of sexual violence. A 2007 study found that 8% of first-year men who joined fraternities committed sexually coercive acts during their first year, compared to 2.5% of men who did not join fraternities. And although there are relatively few studies exploring the relationship between fraternity membership and racism, a recent study found that universities with a high number of fraternities reported significantly more ethnic/racially motivated hate crimes than did universities with fewer fraternities and the prevalence of blackface in southern fraternity culture and its implementation as a form of racial terrorism has also been documented.
As we can see, there is actually a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that fraternities are not simply the unlucky recipients of heightened media scrutiny, but in fact sites of increased risk for substance abuse, prejudice, violence, and sexism. This does not mean that every fraternity member, or even every fraternity is actively or intentionally engaged in discrimination or violence. What it means is that there is a pattern of destructive behavior associated with fraternities, and this pattern must be addressed.
In order to understand what factors have produced the dark aspects of fraternity culture, it is necessary to examine the history from which they have grown. The first fraternities formed in the late seventeen hundreds, created as private clubs for the most privileged among an already small and elite group of young men able to attend university at that time. Exclusivity has always been an essential component of fraternities, and originally that exclusivity was very explicitly based on class and on race. For example, until 1951 SAE’s national charter stated that “only members of the Caucasian race” were allowed membership. Formal segregation has ended, but involvement in Greek life is still largely restricted to students who are white and wealthy. A survey from Princeton University revealed that 77 % of fraternity membership is white and 65% attended private high schools. Only 5% of Greek members come from middle or lower class families, with 25% belonging to the top wealthiest one percent. Another study examined the membership demographics across eight fraternity chapters and found that the average percentage of members of color was less than 4%.
This homogeneity compounds and perpetuates class and race based inequalities and provides an environment in which ignorance is allowed to fester unchecked. Intergroup contact theory states that social interaction with those outside one’s own race, ethnic group, socioeconomic class, and gender decreases bias and discrimination. This theory has been validated by numerous studies, demonstrating that frequent, informal, and collaborative intergroup contact significantly reduces prejudice. The converse is also true; prejudice increases when intergroup socialization is restricted. Fraternities, which are formally segregated by gender, and informally segregated by race and class, have been linked to increased racial prejudice and sexism.
The most recent scandal involving SAE’s OU chapter cannot and must not be dismissed as an unfortunate anomaly; it is the foreseeable outcome of a system which is fundamentally exclusionary, insular and designed to further empower the members of our society who already possess the most privilege. The Cornell chapter of SAE was closed in 2011 after a black pledge was hazed to death, and disturbingly, but unsurprisingly, evidence is surfacing that the racist chant is sung at other SAE chapters. While it is not the case that every member of every fraternity is responsible for the actions of a few, when national concern is repeatedly met with statements like the one SAE released, which denies that a pattern exists, meaningful discussion is made impossible. It is the responsibility of the men who choose to join, lead, and represent fraternities to willingly engage in this dialog, because there is an urgent need for change.