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.

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