Monthly Archives: March 2015

I don’t need “clarification,” Governor Pence. Indiana’s RFRA is state-sanctioned discrimination.

Governor Mike Pence (R-IN) signs his state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, in the presence of   orthodox religious leaders and far-right lobbyists who championed the bill. Photo: twitter.com/govpencein

Governor Mike Pence (R-IN) signs his state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, in the presence of orthodox religious leaders and far-right lobbyists who championed the bill. Photo: twitter.com/govpencein

In what the Indianapolis Star calls “the deepest crisis of his political career,” Mike Pence, Indiana’s Republican governor, continues to support his state’s recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Speaking to the paper on Saturday, Governor Pence said that whilst he will seek legislation “clarifying” the intent of the law, he stands behind it. The massive backlash, he insists, is due to “misunderstanding driven by misinformation.”

This has been a common refrain among supporters of the RFRAs popping up in state houses throughout the country. To date, 19 states have passed laws similar to the federal one which, as conservatives like to use as a trump card, was signed into law by that Democratic darling President Clinton. (You know, the man who also signed the Defence of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?) Indeed, Governor Pence couldn’t help but mention this fact in a statement released after a private signing of the law, while also citing similar laws in neighbouring states Illinois and Kentucky.

Now, as chance may have it, I live in Illinois, which passed an RFRA in 1998, a year after the Supreme Court ruled the federal RFRA did not apply to the states. However, as the Chicago Tribune reported earlier this week, Illinois lawmakers have balanced RFRA with statewide protections for LGBT people. Before moving to Chicago nearly four years ago, though, I lived a decade in Kentucky, the state I still call home.

Kentucky’s law—passed in 2013—was initially vetoed by Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat. It became law when the General Assembly, including the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, overrode the governor’s veto. But some conservative activists said the law would not have any real consequences for LGBT Kentuckians. This law isn’t going to have an effect they think it’s going to have,” Martin Cothran, of the right-wing Family Foundation of Kentucky, told the Associated Press at the time. “All of the case law is going in the other direction. It’s not going in the direction of over-protecting people’s religious freedom. We’d like to see something a lot stronger than this.”

A year later Cothran’s wish was granted. In a landmark—and now infamous—decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that crafting giant Hobby Lobby could not be mandated to provide contraception to its employees, as it violated the company’s First Amendment right to free expression of religion. In this brave new world where corporations are people, states such as Arizona, Mississippi, and now Indiana were emboldened to pass their own RFRA laws, which broadened the scope of protection to include corporations and businesses. These laws were worded so vaguely that even some Republicans, such as the mayor of Indianapolis and, most famously, former Arizona governor Jan Brewer came out in opposition, the latter vetoing her own state’s RFRA because of fears it could lead to “unintended and negative consequences” and hurt businesses, something that is beginning to happen in Indiana.

But the ability to discriminate against LGBT people is a very intentional consequence of the Indiana bill, despite what Governor Pence says. As Buzzfeed reported, Indiana’s law allows for a RFRA defence even when the government is not party to a lawsuit, which is something the federal RFRA doesn’t do. It also allows this defence to be mounted against any state or local law, which as the potential of invalidating the citywide fairness ordinances a handful of Indiana jurisdictions have passed. This means the potential exists for landlords, hotels, and restaurants to openly discriminate against LGBT people, something which has already begun. A restaurant owner called Ryan phoned an Indiana radio station to say that not only has he already discriminated against gay people, but he intends to do so in the future, as the law allows.

And while Governor Brewer feared “unintended consequences” in Arizona, this was very much the intended consequence in Indiana. Governor Pence invited several right-wing lobbyists who worked to pass the bill to the private signing. One of them was Micah Clark of the American Family Association of Indiana (AFAIN). The Southern Poverty Law Center considers the AFA an anti-LGBT hate group, and AFAIN’s website shares many homophobic and transphobic stories. It also includes a quote from then-Congressman Mike Pence, praising the organisation and its Indiana leader. “I have known and worked with Micah Clark for over a decade,” Pence is quoted, “and I can tell you that you’re standing behind a pro-family, pro-life leader…” (“Pro-family” has long been a conservative dog whistle meaning “anti-LGBT”.)

Another of the lobbyists present at the singing was Eric Miller of Advance America, which not only has a history of transphobic and homophobic rhetoric, but actually posted a blog on its website following the bill’s success, which read in part:

[RFRA] will help protect individuals, Christian businesses and churches from those supporting homosexual marriages and those supporting government recognition and approval of gender identity (male cross-dressers). Here are just three examples:

  • Christian bakers, florists and photographers should not be punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage!
  • A Christian business should not be punished for refusing to allow a man to use the women’s restroom!

  • A church should not be punished because they refuse to let the church be used for a homosexual wedding! [emphasis is original]

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Governor Pence can repeat himself until he’s blue in the face, but it doesn’t change the fact that Indiana’s RFRA was clearly intended to and will allow discrimination against LGBT Indianans. The Religious Freedom Restoration Acts being passed now—the next battleground is Arkansas—are not meant, as the federal law and the 1998 Illinois law, to protect religious minorities from burdensome government regulations. They are meant to allow merchants operating in the public marketplace to refuse service to those they don’t like.

This law is nothing more than state sanctioned homophobia and transphobia, and no amount of “clarification” will change that.

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What is institutional racism, and how does it manifest itself on Greek Row?

The cast of the ABC Family show “Greek.” Studies show people of colour account for only 3-4% of membership in traditionally white Greek organisations. (Image: ABC Family)

Last Tuesday, I published a blog discussing the institutional racism inherent in Greek-lettered organisations. The response was heated, with several of my Greek acquaintances and friends chiming in with a rousing chorus of #NotAllGreeks, chalking this up to a few bad apples. This was a sentiment echoed on Twitter, where some people took to using #SAELovesYou to defend the fraternity (and Greek system) as a whole:

But, as Matthew Hughey told John Sutter, writing at CNN.com, the system is more of a “bad orchard,” calling it a type of “American apartheid.” He goes on to say that “largely, these organisations reflect a supersegregated and unequal system that is made up of college and alumni members all over the world.”

Hughey’s words are heavy, but so are his credentials; an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, he studies race and Greek life academically. This week he penned an op-ed for the New York Times indicting Greek letter organisations for the widespread institutional racism I wrote about on Tuesday. His research turned up several examples of how institutional racism manifests itself in Greek life, in everything from recruitment to resources. One of the most jarring facts Hughey came across in his research was that only 3%-4% of Greeks are people of colour in historically white houses. Those who do successfully pledge, he writes, “live a harsh existence of loneliness and isolation”.

Which brings me to my friend Ethan, the “Asian SAE” I mentioned in the opening paragraph of Tuesday’s blog, answered my question about how he reacted; I’m paraphrasing, but essentially “we’re not all bad, and that is not the SAE I know”. His experiences, as relayed to me, do not mirror the ones Hughey mentions, for which I am incredibly relieved and glad. (I offered Ethan a guest post on The Curious American, but he did not respond directly to the request. The offer stands.)

In fact, most of my acquaintances who posted said the same thing. This wasn’t their chapters. They didn’t see any overt racism in their houses, and if they did, it was addressed. There was a knee jerk reaction to defend themselves and their letters, and in response my knee jerk reaction was to try to convince them that they just weren’t looking hard enough, that they didn’t understand. Tempers flared, and despite one Greek alum who now works for his fraternity’s national headquarters asked me for some pointers on how Greek organisations can improve, an important conversation became a vitriolic diatribe.

I’ve stewed over this for a few days, because I left that conversation incredibly disappointed in a lot of people whom I had (and still have) immense respect for. These people, many of whom publicly posted about their outrage at the death of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner seemed suddenly blind to institutional racism. How could my progressive friends, with their good politics, not see what I see?

Finally, two possible explanations dawned on me: either my friends weren’t here for the struggle in the ways that I had previously thought and were unwilling to challenge whiteness on all fronts, or my progressive friends, with their good politics, didn’t see institutional racism in their chapters because in those instances, it was so muted it avoided detection. (I won’t say it was non-existent, because in America the white power structure and anti-Black racism exists literally everywhere.) I choose to believe the latter.

And this makes sense; why would these people stay somewhere that so blatantly stood against their core values, even if those values weren’t the ones they started when when they rushed? If there had been overt racism in their chapters, I believe—at least, I hope—they would have left. But they didn’t. And those are their experiences. And their experiences are valid.

But their experiences, even their individual chapters, do not an institution make. And this is where the differences in overt racism, such as that expressed in the SAE video, and covert racism, such as crossing the street when you see a Black man in a hoodie, are important. Chris Hayes and Ta-Nehisi Coates had a conversation about this very issue on Hayes’ MSNBC show, and they bring up several relevant points about how white people use instances like what happened at OU to let themselves off the hook for institutional and structural racism.

The “ritual cleansing” (to quote Hayes) we go through as a county whenever something so obviously racist surfaces allows us to absolve ourselves of any guilt we have either as individuals or as white people as a class. We’re not using racial slurs and singing about lynching Black people, so we’re not racist. But this thinking, this belief that racism has to be ugly and obvious, is “an essential part of white supremacy remaining with us,” Coates says.

And that’s the crux of the issue here. We have a fundamental misunderstanding of racism, not just as Greeks (and the people who love them), but as Americans. Unless we see a cross burning, it’s not racism. And that completely ignores the microaggressions which keep Greek row (and for that matter cities like Chicago) segregated.

I got together with Ethan to further discuss and debate this issue. There were two key points raised which I want to address here, as well as an ancillary point which merits further discussion:

1. Is Greek life institutionally racist, or is America just a systemically racist country?

2. If America is a racist nation, is it really fair or even useful to pick on fraternities and sororities?

America is a country founded on white supremacy, and that legacy lives with us today. We would be hard pressed, I told him, to find an organisation in this country that isn’t institutionally racist. But does that then mean we shouldn’t speak of specific organisations or institutions which have demonstrated a particularly sad history and pattern of racist behaviours? Absolutely not. White heteropatriarchy isn’t going to fall over night, and if we want to ever refashion a truly egalitarian world, we’re going to have to start somewhere. Greek life—particularly fraternities—are as good a place as any to start, considering they often serve as conduits for the intergenerational transfer of white privilege and power. “Not four years, for life,” as they say, and these men and women pass down their values to their little children who become their literal “legacies” who often get preference in bidding, which adds further exclusion to an already exclusionary system.

And that can be hard to hear, because nobody who is a decent human being wants to think of themselves as complicit in oppression. Sometimes that oppression isn’t a slur, or a burning cross, or a song about lynching, though. Sometimes it’s so insidious that we don’t even notice until a pattern emerges (which it has).

Institutional racism is covert racism. It is sneaky and works in ways that aren’t obviously racist, which makes it so much easier to miss. And we don’t want to see it—in ourselves, our friends, our institutions—because of what that might say about us. But to ignore the problem, or to prioritise or centre our feelings in the conversation, is not only counter-productive, but makes us even more complicit in oppression. And nobody wants that.

This isn’t just about SAE. Greek life has a problem with racism.

Photo: Flickr

Photo: Flickr

Content warning: racism, racial epitaphs, lynching, and violence against Black people

One of my dearest friends, Ethan*, is a Sigma Alpha Epsilon (colloquially known as SAE). He is also a person of colour. So as I watched the Oklahoma Kappa chapter gleefully chanting they’d lynch a Black man before they’d let him pledge their fraternity, my friend—someone I’ve known since we were freshmen living in the same residence hall, someone who has stood by me for over a decade now, whom I’ve grown even closer to since we both moved to Chicago, someone I’d rank as the sweetest, kindest man I know—must have felt when he saw the sheer vitriol and unadulterated racism of some of his brothers:

Warning: this video contains graphic, racist, violent language; viewer discretion is advised

I’ve frequently written about Greek life in my career. When I was working at Rise Over Run I did a feature on a sorority’s homecoming queen candidate. I interviewed a closeted fraternity president. And after the now-infamous (and largely discredited) Rolling Stone piece on rape at UVA, I dissected Phi Kappa Psi’s response. I consider myself something of an expert.

This is also because, as I wrote for Salon earlier this year, my college years—spent in Kentucky, not Oklahoma—were defined by Greek life. I rushed, but never pledged, encountering a different bigotry (homophobia) along the way. But I stuck around. My best friends are sorority women. My ex-boyfriends are fraternity men. Aside from paying dues and participating in ritual (some of which I still learned; drunks like to tell secrets), my collegiate experience was the Greek experience. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it.

Which makes me wish I could say I was surprised by the SAE video. That would be a lie, though. Because the truth is that white Greek life, at least in the South, is a bastion of white privilege and segregation.

I say white Greek life because there is also Black Greek life. The “Divine Nine” fraternities and sororities of the National Pan-Hellenic Council were founded at the turn of the last century to redress the racial segregation enforced by white chapters. Today, most of the houses on Fraternity Row belong to the North-American Interfraternity Conference, while the National Panhellenic Conference serves as an umbrella organisation for what can safely be called the “historically white sororities.”

And never the twain shall meet. It wasn’t until some time into my college career that the Divine Nine began participating in Greek Week, which was still largely dominated by the white organisations. At some point after the university began selecting Homecoming pairings, white and Black Greek organisations would team up, but before then there was little mixing and mingling. I don’t remember a single instance of a mixer between an IFC fraternity and an NPHC sorority or vice versa.

There were a couple white kids in some of the Divine Nine organisations, and a smattering of Black people in white houses, but they were rare enough to become somewhat famous simply for existing; everyone knew who the Black AOP was, even if we didn’t know her name. There was, after all, just the one. And I can’t count the times I’d mention Ethan, only to get blank stares from white faces until I rolled my eyes and said “the Asian SAE?”

So I wasn’t the least bit surprised when Chrystal Stallworth, a mixed-race woman, found it difficult to impossible to rush white sororities at the University of Alabama. “I started noticing when I would see all the girls in sororities, there were no minorities,” Stallworth told Marie Claire last year.

There was a reason for this, according to AOP Yardena Wolf: “We were told we do not take black girls, because it would be bad for our chapter—our reputation and our status.”

In what now feels like some great irony, it wasn’t until Stallworth, who is originally from Oklahoma, spoke to a friend from back home that she realised what was really happening, though. “I probably wouldn’t have even noticed if I didn’t have a best friend who is in a sorority at the University of Oklahoma. Her sorority is so diverse… That was the point I realized, Whoa, people still do see race here.”

Which brings us back to SAE, which has a long, sketchy history of racism as reported by Think Progress yesterday. However, on my campus they weren’t known as the racist fraternity (that dishonour went to Kappa Alpha Order, which cites Robert E. Lee—yeah, the Confederate general—as their “spiritual founder”). They were the rich kids, the sons of the upper-middle-class; dressed in Ralph Lauren polos, chino shorts, and Sperry Topsiders, they were basically ripped from the pages of (what I hope to God is the satirical) website Total Frat Move. They were the rich kids, with a reputation for being somewhat snotty and a little coked out. But not racists.

That changed in my mind one night towards the end of my time in my college town. The fraternity house I spent most of my time at was right across the street from SAE. There was a Black pledge at the time, and while I’m not sure what prompted it, I remember sitting with him as he tearfully explained that the SAE’s across the street had started shouting the N-word at him. The entire group was incensed, but I don’t remember anything ever really coming of it, perhaps because it never got reported. I honestly don’t know.

I also don’t know the SAEs who called that kid the N-word, and I probably never will. But I do know Ethan. And I know several other SAEs from my alma mater and elsewhere, and I count a few as friends (and at least one was a brief romantic liaison). They are good men, stand-up men whom have shown me friendship and kindness.

This isn’t (I hope) about them. And that’s important to note, because I don’t ever want to see #NotAllSAEs trending on Twitter. In some ways, it’s not even about the young men from Oklahoma who sang that despicable song. It is, rather, about an institutional racism which is executed and perpetuated through a system of segregation and white supremacist thinking, as Derrick Clifton recently catalogued at Mic. This isn’t an isolated incident. This is a wider issue effecting white Greek life across the country.

Which makes this not just about individuals—though those in that video certainly need to pay—but about the culture which allows this type of bigotry to thrive, from the House Mom who shouts off the N Word all the way up to Nationals, which celebrates SAEs founding in the antebellum south without seeming to consider exactly what that means. Indeed, the message I’m getting is “We deplore racism, but we’re proud to have been founded in a time and place where Black people were chattel.”

It’s as much about these boys’ parents, many of whom were probably SAEs too (legacies, we call them), who in the South at least raised their sons with the expectation of Greek life and the entitlement of white privilege. It’s about the wider Greek system, an institution built on exclusion and supremacy and itself one of the most pernicious and blatant manifestations of white heteropatriarchy in modern America. This is about a nation that has long made killing Black people a national sport, something to be turned into a catchy little ditty sung by some of the most privileged people in our society.

But on a more focused level, if white Greek organisations want to eliminate the racists in their ranks, they’re going to have to first address the racism at their core.

*Not his real name

24 Answers America has for Britain

Over at Buzzfeed, Robin Edds has posited 24 questions his country has for mine. As someone who fancies himself an expert in this matter, I thought I’d do him the favour of answering.

Q 1: Why must we be so patriotic?
A: Cos freedom.

Ron Swanson

NBC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q 2: And why would anyone live somewhere it gets THIS cold?
A: Cos this is freaking awesome:

(As a Chicagoan, I actually laughed that a Brit thinks -31ºC was cold. That’s cute.)

Q 3: Why do so many people give [President Obama] a hard time?
A: Erm. 

Adam Zyglis/The Buffalo News

Adam Zyglis/The Buffalo News

And we’re the lucky ones? Really? How quickly you forget.

Q 4: Was this setting really necessary?
A: Damn straight

Gif: tumblr.com/chaosinconverseee

Gif: tumblr.com/chaosinconverseee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q 5: Does alcohol taste better if you drink it out of a gun?
A: To be fair anything tastes better when you put a gun to my head. And in America, there’s a real possibility that could happen.

This is a real thing you can buy here: http://www.mgdirect.co/Alcohol-Shot-Gun_p_2054.html

This is a real thing you can buy here: http://www.mgdirect.co/Alcohol-Shot-Gun_p_2054.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q 6: Why is everything so much bigger?
A: I honestly don’t know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q 7: I mean, it’s a good thing this car park was empty
A: That’s a parking lot for all my American readers. But seriously, there’s nothing hotter than a guy in a pickup.

Lions Gate, c/o Glamour

Lions Gate, c/o Glamour


Q 8: Do you actually have any of your own actors or are you just going to keep stealing ours?
A: You. Tell. Me.

ITV

ITV

tumblr_m4hnq5dR1S1r65l0f

Lime Pictures

Jeremy-Piven-as-Harry-Selfridge

ITV

 

 

 

 

 

Okay, so admittedly your stars are bigger than mine (and I may be the only American not related to PJ Brennan who’s heard of him), but we’d really like Nicole Scherzinger to come home.

Q 9: What do you have against the letter “U”?
A: I’m with you on this one, mate. My compatriots seem to forget that without “U” we couldn’t chant “USA! USA! USA!”

Coed.com

Coed.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q 10: What exactly does freedom taste like?
A: Like chicken nuggets washed down with beer from a gun and chased with a shot of liberty.

Flickr

Flickr    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Actually, this is the closet I ever came to literally tasting freedom. It was saccharine, decadent, and a bit too rich for its own good, which basically sums up America.

Q 11: And why are your streets so boringly predictable?
A: Cos I like to know where to board the bus and how to get from here to there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chicago’s grid is a work of art. And while we’re talking about this…

 

londonbus

Christopher England        

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What the hell is up with this? You’ve got like 10 different bus stops all at one spot, and then you have to navigate which bus to get on? I have literally pissed myself in the middle of Islington trying to find the right night bus. Unacceptable.

Q 12: What’s with the whole “being happy and confident and talking to strangers” thing?
A: Dude that’s freedom. It feels good. Give it a whirl.

Universal/WorkingTitle

Universal/WorkingTitle   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Okay, Joni Mitchell is technically Canadian, but they’ve always had more in common with us than they’ll admit. Just don’t tell them; it’ll hurt their feelings.)

Q 13: Why must you confuse us thankless Brits with the concept of tipping?
A: Shush. You’re starting to sound like this bloke:

meme: keithpp.wordpress.com

meme: keithpp.wordpress.com

Q 14: You know this isn’t bacon, right?
A: I do. I definitely do. Sadly, my own father disagrees.

We haven’t spoken since.

Q 15: Why are your t.v. commercials for drugs so batshit crazy?
A: You lot literally sent a woman over here to sell us poo-covering air freshener. Stop.

(But really, America, can we talk about this one? The NHS sounds wonderful.)

Q 16: Why must all your cups be red?
A:  

Q 17: And why do your toilets have so much water in them?
A: The same reason you sent that woman to spread the gospel of Poo-Pourri; see also my answers to questions 4 and 6.

Q 18: While we’re on the subject, why are there giant gaps in the toilet?
A: I’ve been trying and I just can’t answer this one.

imgur

imgur   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q 19: How do we get in on this whole breakfast pizza thing?
A: You can do what a lot of Americans do and make one yourself. There’s even a recipe for a Full English breakfast pizza!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q 20: Technologically, you’re up there with the best of them. So why do you still have to sign when paying the bill rather than use chip and pin?
A: And let Big Brother Obama watch us even more? I don’t think so!

obama-big-brother

 

 

 

 

 

 

Actually, The Guardian ran a very good piece on just this issue last year.

Q 21. Exactly how many countries take part in the World Series?
A: The only one that matters. 

Contrary to popular belief, the World Series isn’t named for the defunct New York World newspaper. It really is just American arrogance. Who knew?

Q 22: And how is it possible that this is a college football game?
A: Mate, if you think that’s impressive, I want to take you tailgating at an SEC (that’s Southeastern Conference) football game.

It’s basically a giant, inebriated party before every football game, sanctioned by the university and celebrated like its bloody Christmas.

Q 23: How did Miss Florida NOT win Miss America?
A: She slapped a shark?? WTF???? I’m still reeling from the time Miss Oklahoma gave a cow a pedicure. Mind. Blown. 

Also, have you heard about our senator who “grew up castrating pigs on an Iowa farm?” Louise Mensch loves her.

Q 24. And finally, people aren’t actually called Randy, right?
A: Randy Quaid. Randy Jackson. Randy Travis. Yeah, they kinda are. 

Comedy Central/imgur

Comedy Central/imgur

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well Robin, there you have it. God bless you, and God bless these United States.