It’s been almost nine years since I started blogging about the structure and politics of Fraternity/Sorority Life. Many things have changed in the years since I launched “BondFraternal.org” in 2011. I think I am better at naming websites, for example. A more recent revelation came in my understanding of fraternity corporations, Civil Rights, and desegregation.
I have, with hesitation, written about the topic of race and fraternities.   Recently; however, I started to see the relationship between modern, inter/national fraternities and desegregation in a new light. I marinated on this post for a couple months, but MLK Day seems like the best day to put it out.
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.
Some studies suggest that there are benefits to homogeneity in a group or society. That is not to say anything of the cost(s), just that there are observed or perceived benefits. Homogeneous societies are often still 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. The secretary would make sure that each man met the basic expectations of membership, and give the chapter the “OK” to initiate them.
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. We just expected our members to adhere to those expectations above and beyond their peers.
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 programming 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. So, 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 the segregationist standards (society accepted those), 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. 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, campaigns at fraternity conventions to desegregate our organizations were led primarily 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 and policies of fraternities to this day: whatever it takes to protect the inter/national corporation and its name.
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, because religious affiliation was as much a part of our former identities as ethnic homogeneity.
Every Action Has A Reaction
Let’s dive further into what inter/national fraternity leaders “lost” in the battle over desegregation and what fraternity leaders did to “correct” what was lost.
First, they lost simple, objective standards of membership – ones which were reinforced by a members’ parents, school, and place of worship – segregationist as they were.
Second, desegregation effectively invalidated the existence of inter/national fraternities and their umbrella associations – they lost their purpose. 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 remedy these losses and protect inter/national fraternities, [mostly the white] fraternity leaders had to exert some control. How?
- Establish legally sound (read: complex) standards which would replicate simple, segregationist standards.
- 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, particularly when one considers the federal structure of a fraternity.
It is unrealistic to expect that a college fraternity could replace the communities which naturally reinforced the old standards of membership. But our standards are too esoteric, too abstract, and too sloppily translated into “public values” to make sense to the outside world.
Every requirement of fraternities is rooted in the 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 student’s right to association. Instead, our actions work to over protect our inter/national entities at the expense of our students. (An increasing expense.)
An Unintentional Legacy
I do not believe that modern fraternity leaders are in favor of old-time segregation. Nor do I 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 between the various components of inter/national college fraternities.
Consider the NPC – the most unaltered and compliance-oriented of the fraternity umbrella associations. Any [realistically, white] woman who does not find appeal in the activities or rules of NPC sororities has little to no alternative organization [with an inter/national footprint or reputation].
To protect existing NPC member organizations, [white] sorority leaders have effectively prevented young [white] women from establishing a modern sorority with modern values since 1917 (the last year any NPC member organization was established). None of this is to suggest that bad intentions are in play. Umbrella associations exist to protect and strengthen their member organizations. But NPC tweets and press releases advocating for “free association” for college women do not align with NPC policy/ies
These posts and articles shed light on the racial segregation of fraternities past and present. Suggest other thoughtful articles to me on Twitter (@FraternityNik) and I will check them out. (Thanks!)
- New Republic Article about segregation at the University of Alabama (and in fraternities in general)
- Wikipedia page for “Racism in United States College Fraternities”
- CNN’s “Fraternities a form of American Apartheid”
- Delta Gamma, “Racism, Prejudice, Bigotry, and Delta Gamma”
- Phired Up, “How Racism Lives in Modern Fraternity Joining Processes”