“Not being aware of the song does not exclude us from ownership of the situation,” executive director Blaine Ayers said at a press conference. “So I want to apologize to everyone for pain that has been caused by this incident.” Shortly after, OU said its investigation indicated the song had been learned at a national SAE fraternity leadership cruise a few years prior and brought back to campus.


This reaction from the national headquarters of SAE mirrors the reactions of the national headquarters of every other sorority or fraternity where these incidents have occurred (and been noted). (The hotlines, education programs and so on are also also very similar to SAE’s anti-hazing plan, which it implemented to change its other long-standing, deep-rooted issue.) What it hasn’t included, at to this point, is any acknowledgement of what has occurred during SAE’s actual history as an organization.

The overt offensiveness and the discriminatory recruiting are part of the same mindset: that tradition wins above all.

When the news of the racist pledging system at UA first came out, many tried to assign blame to the national headquarters of the given sororities. Nationals all vehemently denied being involved. As soon as my first story about UA went up, I got an email from a woman at Pi Beta Phi nationals who was concerned that I’d implied that it was the greater Pi Beta Phi organization that had threatened to pull funding from the UA chapter if they pledged a black woman, not just the local alums of that particular chapter. She asked me to clarify the language immediately, with a kind of urgency that spoke to the fear national Greek organizations have about getting negative press. Individual chapters with flaws can be closed so as to not weaken the fabric of the overall organization, but it must be done swiftly.


That kind of denial happens at individual schools as well. Many members of Greek organizations are quick to defend their own chapter, while distancing themselves from other chapters. “There was a girl in my pledge class who was from Alabama and transferred to UA after freshman year to be closer to home,” one Tri Delta claimed. “She came back for the spring semester because the Tri Delta chapter there was awful and she was miserable. She told us horror stories about how they treated her, but they mostly wouldn’t talk to her. And this was a sweet, stereotypically Southern girl from their home state. So I can’t even imagine how badly they treat women who are not exactly like them.”

While national headquarters of fraternities hold the responsibility of penalizing their local chapters, the whole Greek system wouldn’t exist without the colleges their chapters live at. But college administrators deem fraternities and sororities to be private entities, separate from the universities.


Though most students in Greek organizations are technically legal adults, anyone who has attended college or knows a college student gets that they’re really not treated that way. While this is the first time many of these students have lived away from home, removed from their own family and familiar community groups, they’re still spoon-fed food in their dorms and given comfy group living situations; any truly desirable fraternity has a house they call a home.

Some of those students bring with them racist tendencies, passed down from generation to generation. Those can be the same students who find comfort in the hierarchical nature of the Greek system and who are often predestined to join a certain Greek organization because their parents were members.


University officials, for their part, need those students to have a great time in college—or at least enough of a great time to eventually donate to their alma mater. They may not outright encourage racism in Greek organizations, but they historically haven’t done much stop it—or to force change.

But when they choose to, they can have a large impact. As one Vanderbilt alum wrote:

My favorite was when the most “traditionally Southern” (wink wink) fraternity [Kappa Alpha] got kicked off campus, the school administration renovated their frat house, made it gorgeous, and gave it to one of the traditionally black fraternities on campus [Ed. Note. It was actually given to three of them to share]. So, the asshole bros in the “traditionally Southern” fraternity acted racist as fuck, but the administration was like, “HAHAHA NO get off our campus.”

That said, several sororities at my Southern university were pretty diverse, compared with the segregation I see in articles like this. I was in a traditionally white sorority, and we had a ton of non-white members, I’d say in numbers representative of the school’s overall racial/ethnic mix. Our president my senior year was black and two officers were of Asian descent, and not once did our alumni make a peep about it. One of my best friends was in the same sorority that I was but at a different Southern university, and she is black. I think a lot of it depends on the pan-hel culture, which is often dictated by the administration. My university has for years been trying to shake its traditionally Southern mantle, so perhaps that’s why the Greek system is a little different there.


She went on to say, “My point… is that administration does have a significant degree of power in addressing racism on campus, including in Greek life, and administration sets the tone of what is and is not acceptable.”

It was once considered a big deal to close a fraternity, or to kick out a member, for bad behavior of any sort. That’s despite the fact that shutting down a fraternity is often pointless; organizations often come back a few years later, when what their former members may have done is long forgotten.


In a 2001 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas Bartlett outlined the trend of Southern frat members putting on blackface for parties. Many incidents resulted in the suspension or closing of fraternity chapters. Yet over a decade later, all but one of the organizations are active at their given college. The one exception is Sigma Chi at George Mason University, which has been permanently removed from campus following concerns about drinking, hazing and sexual assault. Sigma Chi then sued the school, and won.

Historically, administrations haven’t been able to afford to isolate the same portion of their student body that they’ve allowed to be so powerful and so successful for so long. It’s in a college administration’s best financial interest to keep students happy and give them what they want, and sometimes, that means letting a once-racist fraternity or sorority return. Some of those students may be the ones who who come back for every homecoming. Some of those students will have money and will give that money back to the place that they had such special memories.


The University of Alabama exemplifies the way that Southern colleges in particular long ago set themselves up so that Greek life is an critical part of the college community. At UA, that connection is deeply rooted in the student political system, which is dominated by the Machine, a secret yet well known Greek organization. The Machine anonymously chooses, or appoints, student members—often those who are studying political science, and always those who are in fraternities or sororities. Those students commanding the Greek system as a voting block make sure certain candidates get elected to student government, therefore ensuring Greek domination over school funds and agenda.

The power of The Machine has trickled up into all levels of Alabama politics, the purest example of an Old Boy’s Club that was eventually forced to include white women, as Phillip Weiss explored in a 1992 Esquire article on the group.


According to Amy, when she was at Alabama, the person in charge of the National Panhellenic Council, the organization that governs most of Greek life at UA, told her that “these issues go in waves” and that NPC and the University tries to stop them.

In March, students elected SGA’s first black president since 1976, which Amy notes is “the first time in years that a non-Machine candidate has won the position,” signifying, to her that there might be pushback from the sororities who are uninterested in voting traditionally and are looking for more power. (“There were rumors when I was a student that the last time that happened, it was because the sororities were demanding more power from the Machine,” she says.)


It’s an interesting turn of events; a year ago, Alabama’s student government voted to integrate their fraternities and sororities, a pretty basic bill that required a great deal of work to get passed even though it basically required nothing be changed.

The University tries to regulate its students, but “try” is a loose word. “There are COUNTLESS examples of The Machine alone breaking rules and laws for generations, and the university has pretty much completely ignored it,” Amy told me, a pattern that has been outlined by others. “So why should they start caring about racial and gender equality now? They won’t care until the pressure for change outweighs the support they receive from these people.”

In a stilted video released more than a year ago, University president Judy Bonner addressed Alabama’s attempts to eradicate racism in the Greek system. “We are going to create and sustain an environment that enables our students to be successful in the academic and social aspects of their college life,” Bonner said. “This will fulfill our primary mission to prepare and equip them to be successful throughout their lives and careers.”


It was only the second video like this that Bonner had ever released; the first featured the president discussing whether the accusations of racism published in the Crimson White were “real or perceived.” This past fall, the school followed up with a video from Hannah McBrayer, the head of Panhellenic, who said that “inclusion has always been important” to Greek life at UA and that the sororities had become “much more intentional about our education.”

“[We’re] educating members, reaching out to alumni, current members, even who we’re recruiting. I would say we’re just being a lot more proactive this year in making sure that the pool is diverse in making sure that we are including everybody,” McBrayer said, explaining that each sorority would have a national representative overseeing rush to guarantee the “integrity of the membership selection process.”


During rush, AL.com reported that the university was “limiting media access to rush organizers and providing little information on changes made” and that “no representatives from the Office of Greek Affairs, Panhellenic Executive Council or any sorority would be available for interviews during rush, a departure from previous protocol.”

In response to an email requesting comment about the status of integration at UA currently, Cathy Andreen, the school’s spokesperson, sent the following statement:

All 16 Panhellenic sororities participating in recruitment at The University of Alabama in fall 2014 offered bids to African-American women and every young woman identifying herself at African-American received a bid. Through the mutual selection process, the women who were offered bids selected the sororities that they wished to join. In addition, many Interfraternity Council fraternities have pledged African-American men. While numbers are not the only measure of success, they do indicate that we are making progress. We will continue to move forward with resolve, energy and enthusiasm as we focus on creating and sustaining a welcoming and inclusive campus for all students.


The numbers broke down to 21 black women and 169 “other minorities” out of 2,054 who joined sororities. (For some context, 12 percent of the over 36,000 total students—graduate students included—at UA are African-American.)

Image for article titled How to Fix a Racist Frat

The University of Alabama’s Phi Mu after rush in the fall of 2014. (Image via Brynn Anderson/AP)

Despite the decades of reported racism at UA, Bonner’s hesitation to make any bold statements about the history of problem UA faces at first and since made sense, institutionally.


This lack of reaction is substantiated by former students, like alum Chastity Abrom, who was a member of the historically black sorority Zeta Phi Beta and graduated in 1999. “There are millions of dollars poured into the Greek system by pledgees, members, and alumni… it is a HUGE deal at UA,” she wrote. Much of that money goes straight into the Greek system, but if those former Greeks are wealthy enough to donate to their frat or sorority, they’re wealthy enough to give back to the university community at large as well.

The Alabama university system has an endowment of over a billion dollars; in 2009, UA completed a capital campaign that raised over $600 million. While some of that money was from faculty, staff, and current students, a large portion was the “130 gifts of $1 million or more” from “alumni and friends.” OU’s endowment is also over a billion dollars, and in 2013 (a very good year), it was reported that “the number of private gifts rose to 53,065, an increase of 2,578” from the year prior.


And, as Amy explains, the Greek alumni who are often the biggest donors to the University “are also in positions of social, political, and economic power that transcend donations”—positions like government. After the last election, the North-American Interfraternity Conference reported that 39 percent of the United States Senate and 24.6 percent of the House was Greek. Many of those individuals are part of FratPAC, a political action committee “which seeks to provide financial aid to the campaigns of federal office candidates (House, Senate, and President) who support the objectives of fraternity life.” The number one FratPAC funder for 2013-2014 was the Kappa Alpha Order; they raised $29,600. (Chi Omega was seventh, with $12,300.)

Currently, KA counts Southern leaders like Congressman Robert Aderholt (R-AL) who went to University of North Alabama, Congressman Charles Boustany (R- LA) who attended University of Louisiana, and Congressman Steve Womack (R-AR) of Arkansas Tech University among its alums. To negatively come down on Greek organizations threatens not just the purse strings of a college, but its standing as an institution that can propel its students into government positions when they graduate, to say nothing of the numerous others who will go on to work in finance or business.


So what’s the solution? Colleges who do penalize fraternities or sororities for racist behavior can find themselves locked in first amendment litigation, a situation the administration at GMU found themselves in with Sigma Chi a few years before they were finally forced out of the college for the aforementioned issues that were (somewhat) unrelated to their racial intolerance problems. In March, former members of SAE at OU said they were considering suing the college; local news network KFOR reported, “We are told the decision to hire [a lawyer] came after an emergency meeting held by SAE members and alumni.”

To some, the only real way to stop the racism that’s an integral part of Southern Greek life and therefore a part of the institutions they sit within is to dismantle Greek life entirely and permanently, which northeastern liberal arts institutions like Middlebury College and Alfred University have done. If you believe that the students that come in with prejudices (or without them) have their beliefs systematized and worsened by the Greek system, that’s the only clear strategy.


That’s why, at least in the case of Alabama, it’s the recent alums of the sororities that reportedly enforced racist attitudes about pledges, while the new women pushed back. The newer sisters hadn’t yet been indoctrinated into the way things were supposed to be. The longer they were a part of it, the more likely it’d be that their attitudes would shift towards the groupthink.

As one Emory student wrote:

In my freshman year of college, I was fairly naive. I believed that the only people who could possibly be interested in joining the Greek system, i.e., paying for “friends” to judge you and police your behavior, would be the lamest of the lame, and that surely the majority of people would never fall for it. That fall my roommate and I were the only girls in our dorm not to rush.

I still can’t believe that the Greek system ever existed. Furthermore, I can’t believe it STILL exists, laden as it is with racism, sexism, and class-ism. I just keep expecting the Youths to, like, wake up and realize they don’t need it and they never did.

Yes yes, I know that some folks on here probably had 100% awesome experiences with the Greek system and formed lifelong friendships, blah blah blah. Good for you. I mean it. I just think that generally frats and sororities are a net negative.


Amy agrees. “Somehow all this truth about the evils—and I know I’m being dramatic, but I really think the word ‘evil’ is accurate here—of Greek life at Alabama is buried underneath sappy stories of brotherhood, sisterhood, and tradition, and it is painted as the jealous, hyperbolic lies of the poor independents.” (Independents are those who choose not to be part of the Greek community, known as as GDIs, or God Damn Independents.)

“I do think that the administrators mostly ignore problems caused by Greek organizations—I don’t see how you could come to any other conclusion, since problems have been reported for years and they have done next to nothing to stop them,” Amy added. “I think they do this for two reasons: first, they don’t really know for sure how to fix the problems because many of them are complex, and two, they fear a backlash.”


“The Universities and Greek organizations have done cosmetically what they need to to deny legal culpability,” Greg said, “and the dog and pony show will continue until a large number of kids at one time stand up and say, ‘This isn’t right.’

“Right now,” he said, “I truly believe it’s less of a conspiracy and more of a lot of people only thinking about themselves and not being interested in rocking the boat.”


Greek life is too widespread to go anywhere, in the South or elsewhere. It’s given too much to the people who have the most power, and colleges will keep attempting to find a way to fix sororities and fraternities without banning them entirely. The number of schools that shut down individuals or individual groups will rise, the speed at which they do so will increase. We’ve seen that already.

Racism among Southern Greek organizations—or in Greek organizations across America, or American organizations in general—comes down to people; people who want power, people who want their lives to stay the same, people who let a group mentality corrupt their lives. To get anything to change, you’d have to get thousands of college kids to band together and demand it—college kids who, by nature of their designation, are only inclined to care about their community in a whole-hearted way for a brief period of time. “It’s all tribal, it’s all pageantry. It’s people trying to freeze-dry cultural aspects of their life,” Greg told me. It’s working.


* names have been changed

Contact the author at dries@jezebel.com.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.