How Desegregation Warped the Role of Inter/National Fraternities & Limited Students' Rights in the Process

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It’s been almost nine years since I started blogging about fraternities and their high-level politics. Many things have changed in the years since I launched “BondFraternal.org” in 2011. I like to think I have gotten better at naming websites, for example. A more recent change is my general understanding of fraternity corporations, Civil Rights, and desegregation.

I have, with hesitation, written about the topic of race and fraternities. [1] [2] But, while [slowly] writing Fraternity Manifesto (a summation of the points made on this blog), I started to see the relationship between modern, bureaucratic fraternities and desegregation in a new light. I have wanted to write this post for a couple months, but MLK Day seems like the best day to put it out.*

Formalities

First, a disclaimer: Nothing is as simple as good and evil. We can acknowledge that the desegregation and erosion of religious affiliation of fraternities are a net-positive. At the same time, we can openly consider that the rapidity of those changes (~10 years) resulted in some unintended consequences. The purpose of this post is not to place blame, because who could be at fault for consequences which were unintended? Rather, I like to explore the racial elements of fraternity history because – as I’ve written before – it is so rarely explored in detail. We know that fraternities were desegregated, but most fraternity histories only highlight the fact that segregation was overcome. There is more to the story.

Homogeneity

Some studies suggest that there are benefits to homogeneity in a group or society. We can recognize those perceived benefits and still acknowledge that diversity is a catalyst for innovation, among other things. Relatively homogeneous societies are still often held on a pedestal – think of how many times your friends wax on about how Sweden or Japan are infinitely better than the U.S.A.

America may be a melting pot, but most of our fraternities were founded at homogeneous colleges and sought to replicate homogeneous families. As they grew, inter/national organizations were established to maintain these standards of membership. A national fraternity would hire a national secretary – the stem cell for our current bureaucracies – to ensure that chapters were maintaining the membership standards of an organization. When my fraternity was Christian, white, and male, for example, chapter officers would send a picture of each potential member, a letter of recommendation, and a summary to the national secretary. He would check to make sure that the men met the basic expectations of membership, and give the chapter the “OK” to initiate them.

Before Consultants

Alumni volunteers would visit chapters in their district or region and ensure that the members lived up to the standards and were generally good representations of the Fraternity. This is an essential element of our segregated, more homogeneous pasts: fraternity leaders and alumni could assume that the social expectations of the fraternity would be reinforced by a member’s family, school, weekly services, etc. Every element of their life reinforced the membership standards of the fraternity, which means that the social expectations of a fraternity member were no different than that of other men of the same ethnicity, religion, and gender.

In this way, fraternities could be lean and simple. My chapter at Stetson University used to put on a play once or twice a year, host weekly literary meetings and social functions, and would throw a banquet at the end of the year (which was a formal dance and recognition ceremony). Those requirements (if they even were required) pale in comparison to what a fraternity man is required to do today.

From “Enforce” to “Protect”

Many state and local governments tried to limit the spread of college fraternities. Chapters increasingly turned to their inter/national leaders to protect their organizations. This need culminated in the creation of fraternity umbrella associations. The National Panhellenic Council (est. 1902 – NPC – white girls), National Interfraternity Conference (est. 1909 – NIC – white boys), and National Pan-Hellenic Council (est. 1930 – NPHC – black boys and girls) were established with such intents.

They rooted their role to protect their respective organizations’ membership standards in the freedom of speech and association. It was, at the time, not out of the necessity to preserve segregationist standards, only the rights of their organizations to exist on college campuses.

Civil Rights Movement: The First Major Inter-Fraternal Crisis

Those inter/national organizations succeeded in protecting their organizations for many decades after their founding dates. But times were changing, and there was a national movement to desegregate colleges and the fraternities which sprung from them. This marked what is probably the first true, inter-fraternal battle to preserve identity rights – they just happened to be segregationist. Although much of the story of fraternity desegregation has to do with court orders to change governing documents, and then later rituals – we should not overlook the heroes of this movement: student chapters and voting delegates.

Faced with “zero-tolerance” policies from their inter/national organizations, many chapters openly challenged their respective fraternity’s membership standards. Chapters would initiate (or try to initiate) men of other religions or ethnicities. More importantly, votes at fraternity conventions to desegregate our organizations were organized by student members – well before the courts took action, in some cases.

A Failure Brought From Within

In this way, inter/national fraternity leaders failed in their role to protect the simple, objective, but segregationist membership standards of their organizations. Worse than that was the fact that much of the damage was done from within. Members organized to flex their legislative muscle, working with external actors like schools and governments to make their voices heard.

Many of us know the horrifying feeling of losing control. It can happen when a car spins in circles on the ice, when one receives a grim diagnosis, or with the loss of a loved one. Fraternity leaders failed in their mission and lost their organizational identities. I believe they “over-corrected” to maintain their standards, reassert control over students, and “save” their inter/national organizations. Those priorities are reflected in the leadership in policy of fraternities to this day: whatever it takes to protect the inter/national corporation and its name.

All-Encompassing Desegregation

The erosion of religious affiliation was a slower, but concurrent process, and can be attributed to similar social factors as ethnic desegregation. As schools opened their doors to students from a greater variety of backgrounds, fraternity men started to make friends with people who weren’t allowed in their organization. So fraternity leaders “lost” religious homogeneity along with ethnic homogeneity. It is important that we treat these two equally when we discuss “desegregation” of fraternities.

Every Action Has A Reaction

Let’s dive further into what inter/national fraternity leaders “lost” in the battles of desegregation.

First, they lost simple, objective standards of membership – segregationist as they were. With the loss of religious affiliation, fraternities were required to replicate the teachings of a weekly sermon. Many relied on their esoteric, home-grown rituals, which were influenced by their religious affiliation anyway. Still, parents, professors, priests, and many alumni are less familiar with the social standards of a secret fraternity ritual than they are with their religious text of choice.

Second, desegregation effectively invalidated the existence of inter/national fraternities and their umbrella associations. So the focus turned from protecting students right of association to protecting the existence of the protectors – inter/national fraternities and their umbrella groups. To do this, [mostly the white] fraternity leaders had to exert some control. They had two priorities:

  1. Establish legally sound (read: complex) standards which would replicate simple, segregationist standards
  2. Replace the role of a community to reinforce those standards in each members’ day-to-day life

To complicate things further, those external actors (colleges) were coming up with “community” standards and advisers of their own. That battle for control continues today, and it shows in how each side manipulates fraternity legislative processes. (See the final paragraphs of this post for a blatant example)

From Protect to Control

Inter/national fraternities still protect their chapters, but the relationship is hostile – even if leaders don’t admit it. Each new policy or addition to the checklist of expectations is accompanied by a threat. Fail to complete the checklist and your chapter might “lose recognition” from the fraternity or school. Violate any of the risk policies and your chapter loses its insurance coverage (and probably its charter).

“The power to protect implied the power to control. And the power to control included the power to destroy”

– Robert Meacham in “American Lion”

We can most clearly see this authoritarian complex in our current fight against hazing. Our efforts to control students fail because they are impractical, but also because fraternities were not designed to micromanage tens of thousands of students at a time. It is impossible for us to replace the communities which naturally reinforced the old standards of membership. Our substituted standards are too complex, ever-changing, and too esoteric to take hold so late in most members’ lives.

Every requirement of fraternities is rooted in this foundational responsibility of inter/national fraternities to protect students. But that role has been warped and manipulated to control them. Our respect for the “freedom of association” has nothing to do with a students’ right to association. Instead, we obsess over protecting our inter/national entities at the expense of our students. And what an expense it is!

An Unintentional Legacy

I do not believe that modern fraternity leaders are in favor of old-time segregation. Our society has, thankfully, moved beyond that point – even if a few outliers who make the sensation-seeking news. I do not believe that inter/national fraternities are irrelevant or that they should be closed down. But I do think that a balance of power needs to be restored.

Consider that the NPC, the most authoritarian of all the umbrella associations, is the most trapped in its 20th Century identity. Any young woman who doesn’t want to deal with the dog and pony show of recruitment, who wants to drink without begging fraternity men for a place to do it, and who wants something founded with modern values has been effectively prevented from doing so since 1917 – the last year any NPC sorority was founded.

A Second Stab At Accessibility – True Freedom of Association

Inter/national fraternity corporations can simplify. They cannot be responsible for protecting students themselves, only their right to associate. Fraternities do not need to teach students anything except to make the most of their respective strengths, networks, and assets. We must move away from our complex, home-grown alternatives to religious and ethnic exclusivity. They have spiraled out of control. Our umbrella associations acknowledge this because they are begging the federal government to place some of that burden (REACH Act) on colleges.

We do not need to re-create the wheel to recapture the simplicity of our past. Instead, alumni and fraternity professionals need to give up some of our control. They must respect students and use persuasion, not coercion, to get students to act. We want the organizational simplicity of the past so that students can learn and explore naturally. But with the moral standards of the present. Those two ideals are connected. Students bring our organizations into the present when they take ownership of our organizations.

Extended Reading

Read at your own risk (lol). I tried to weed out articles where the author blandly states that fraternities are racist and need to be eliminated. Suggest other, thoughtful articles to me on Twitter (@FraternityNik) and I will check them out. (Thanks!)

  1. New Republic Article about segregation at the University of Alabama (and in fraternities in general)
  2. Wikipedia page for “Racism in United States College Fraternities”
  3. CNN’s “Fraternities a form of American Apartheid”

*This post serves as “extended reading” and reference material for FRATERNITY MANifesto. It provides some context to my understanding of “Big Fraternity.” Readers will find a link to this post in the public version of that book.