WASHINGTON – No one should excuse, diminish, defend or make light of the deplorable racist remarks of the University of Oklahoma undergraduates that may cause repercussions and possible reforms in fraternity behavior on campuses across the nation.
That having been said, it is important to remember some important aspects of college fraternities and sororities.
First, they are discriminatory by nature. They are made up of young men and women of similar compatible cultures and attitudes who bond together to enhance the social and academic aspects of their higher education experience – to give those who are away from home for the first time a family like experience. Being “organized” presents an empowering sense of privilege and belonging. It is a highly selective process.
My father’s boyhood in the early 1900s in a rural setting was not easy but he found solace and camaraderie in his college fraternity and remained loyal to it the rest of his life. My own experience in fraternity life was short lived when I decided being hazed and demeaned for nine months in a chapter with a long history of drunkenness and mistreatment of pledges was a bit too much. I broke it off despite the fact my mother, sister and brother and uncle were all “organized.”
Second, fraternal characteristics are self perpetuating. Each new class is enrolled by those who already are members and the result often is a reflection of the chooser’s likes and dislikes. So a tendency for a certain type behavior is passed through generations. What is particularly troubling about the scandalous action in Oklahoma is that it is not just an incident triggered by too much alcohol but a deep-seated attitude that stems from earlier upbringing.
Even more worrisome is that 50 years after the great Civil Rights’ achievements much of them bolstered by college activists this intolerance appears to be growing in our colleges and universities, offering challenges to what we naively like to think of as an age of enlightenment in racial relations.
Third, the Greek system is for the most part a product of the 19th century and it retains some of the fundamentals of that time. It’s major players were founded just before or after the Civil War. Two national fraternities – Sigma Nu and Alpha Tau Omega – actually were founded as a direct result of the war when cadets from Virginia Military Institute, were forced into private housing in Lexington, Va., after their “barracks” were destroyed by Union artillery; A third – Kappa Alpha – also was founded in Lexington at Washington College.
Despite the obvious reaction to the smear on his university’s reputation caused by the members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Oklahoma president David L. Boren’s quick response by expelling two students and closing down the chapter may be challenged on constitutional grounds.
Like it or not, legal scholars have opined that the racist song by SAE member on a bus may be protected speech under the First Amendment. They opine that it becomes actionable only if that speech is aimed at a specific person or persons or is considered an immediate threat. The racial slurs obviously did not reach that level.
The two leaders of the song, who had resigned before their expulsion, have not indicated any desire so far to pursue reinstatement. The local SAE chapter at Norman has hired a prominent defense attorney, Stephen L. Jones, who has said he would seek some other resolution or sue.
Some observers believe Boren’s move was more political than legally defensible and was designed to dampen any possible accusations that the university was at fault or encouraged such an atmosphere. The long time OU president, they note, was a savvy U.S. senator in another incarnation.
However this is resolved, the national fraternity system may face new pressures to initiate stricter oversight of the local chapters to enforce reforms their leaders contend already have taken place despite evidence to the contrary. National Charters for these institutions have eliminated past prohibitions based on race, but African Americans and Jewish students are in fact still not generally pledged by many white chapters. They long ago established their own fraternities and sororities.
Smaller schools especially rely on fraternities and sororities to provide a percentage of their housing, lessening the requirement for expensive new dorms.
One thing seems sure. No one is going to put up any longer with “boys will be boys.”
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.