I remember watching a television series detailing the rise and fall (or sustainability) of gangs throughout American history. After learning more about gangs I came to a realization: “Gangs are fraternities.”
An article by Ibram Kendi for The Atlantic made a similar point. In Kendi’s case; however, he chose to focus on the similarity being that fraternities and gangs both hurt people. Kendi then pointed to contrasting public responses to such hurt: fraternities are treated with tender love and care while gangs have faced a more forceful hand. Kendi claims that the reason for this contrast is the status and privilege of fraternity men compared to those who join street gangs.
The North-American Inter-fraternity Conference (NIC) put out a simple statement suggesting that the Atlantic’s claim was “preposterous.” (It has since been deleted, but I linked to an archived version – 12/2019) The statement noted that fraternities help improve their communities and referenced several fraternity policy initiatives to combat sexual assault and other violent acts.
A “Meh” Exchange
Neither Kendi nor the NIC made their points in the best possible way. Kendi leans too heavily into comparing fraternities and gangs on the basis of “violence.” It’s too easy to dismiss his greater argument due to that claim.
The NIC, for its part, fell for the bait. It zeroed in on that one element of the argument – as did the general choir of fraternity men on Twitter. Even when the NIC tried to make the case that fraternities “build communities,” as opposed to destructive gangs, it failed to acknowledge that gangs are a part of many communities.
I’ve written before that everyone has their own version of a fraternity. There are; however, a few organizations which share a greater relation to the college fraternities we know today. Religion, political parties, and gangs share striking similarities in structure and culture.
Many street gangs, such as the Latin Kings, have nationalized structures with local, semi-autonomous chapters. The Kings operate over 160 chapters or tribes in cities across the country.
Most gangs have rituals, membership manuals, and initiation ceremonies. Latin Kings, for example, reportedly rise through three stages of Kingism. The lowest stage where one acts from impulse (the “id” in scientific terms, or university administrations if we are talking about hazing) to a sense of self awareness and actualization (the “super ego”).
We’re different because Ritual, man.
Those stages are outlined in the Bloodline Manifesto, which operates as a ritual book would to any fraternity or sorority chapter. Gangs utilize colors, hand signals, symbols, secret handshakes and secret terminology to build camaraderie between members and to better identify friends and enemies.
A King who contributed to a New York Magazine article detailing these practices explained the symbology of placing one’s fist over their heart:
A fist upon our heart. It means “I DIE FOR YOU” for you are flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, son of my mother who is the universal nature and follower of Yahve, who is the Almighty King of Kings.
It sounds like a more poetic version of, “any of these guys will have my back if I need it.” We are all “bros for life,” bound by fancy words in mysterious books explaining how it’s better to stick together. The similarities are abundant, and one might assume that complex, inter/national gangs were influenced by the same organizations which influenced fraternities: Religions, secret societies, ancient philosophers or scripts.
“They Are Out To Get Us”
Back to The Atlantic article. Where Kendi made a misstep in communication (from my perspective and mine alone) was to lean into “violence” as the common denominator. I do not believe it was his central argument, and the controversy distracted many of us. Fraternity men already feel victimized by the news media. It seems to target our members for supposedly irregular activities. That [valid] paranoia only proves Kendi’s point.
Look at the public outrage around fraternity hazing incidents which occurred in recent years. When do most of us reading this feel the same sense of urgency to address gang-related homicides when we read about it? How often do you even read about it? We are willing to acknowledge that gangs are more violent than fraternities, so are we proving Kendi’s point when the only young men we care about are ours.
The tactics employed by “hazing prevention experts” are the same as those which built the underground drug trade/war. They are proving as unsuccessful among historically-white fraternities as they did with Al Capone. We are too distant from the world to learn from it, and too educated to accept that we too succumb to human nature.
You aren’t paying for friends, you pay for the dream, for opportunity
Men join fraternities for companionship and the opportunity to rise through a network. Students are effectively promised a connection to the fast-track every time we tout the number of fraternity men running the free world. Men join gangs for companionship and the opportunity to rise through a network, too.
Their world; however, is not one where a sitting U.S. Senator will host a Q&A with the gang’s lead executive and tell the members that they are lucky and exceptional. Gang violence stems from dealing in black markets, not because their organizations are structurally evil and fraternities are structurally good. No. Structurally, they are about the same.
Appendages of the College, Not the Community
Here is my real point – independent from The Atlantic article and the NIC’s [now-deleted] response: The more fraternity leaders allow our organizations to exist only as appendages of a college, the more they limit members’ ability to grow beyond college. Our organizations are attempting to maintain some sort of status or decorum which died well before Y2K.
It is common for men to join a fraternity – they are bigger than they have ever been. We will; however, disappear if we don’t adapt to the times. We are forces for good, and we improve many lives, but we cannot lift the whole community if we refuse to help in all areas of a community. Fraternity men are described as the leaders of the world, but we distance ourselves from the world’s greatest problems.
To effectively address those problems we must see ourselves as more than just student groups. We must be willing to program events and meetings in the communities we claim to build. Our leaders must define their role as a better man, and it must be something more than a certificate from a weekend leadership conference. How are we to understand the real world if our checklists rarely (if ever) require, let alone allow, students to get away from campus?
We are beacons of friendship. Our goal should be to teach the world how friendship enhances collaborative work and a sense of community. Let the students interact and collaborate with more community organizations. Invest their dues in services to boost their confidence and help all young people develop vocations. Instead, to the most suicidal generation in recorded history, we say. . .
Update – This piece was originally published March 21, 2018. It was re-written to include mention of recent high-profile hazing incidents and for clarity of the message. Many sections were rewritten entirely, and so the post was re-published December 2019.