Outrage Continues Over Fraternities’
Racially Offensive Costumes
Expert on race relations says the behavior comes as no surprise
By Erik Lords
At a time when most Americans are putting domestic differences aside to unite in the international war against terrorism, racially charged events at two southern universities have reminded the nation that the battle against ignorance and intolerance at home must still be addressed with a sense of urgency.
Aftershocks at Auburn University in Alabama and the University of Mississippi are still being felt weeks after fraternity members at Halloween parties found a way to disrespect and offend millions of people.
In now infamous photos that circulated on the Internet, members of Delta Sigma Phi fraternity were shown wearing Ku Klux Klan robes and one member was photographed in a Klan costume, clutching a rifle and a noose in front of a Confederate flag. He was pretending to hang a member in blackface. At another Auburn frat house, Beta Theta Phi members at a Halloween party blackened their faces and wore clothing with the symbol and colors of historically Black fraternity Omega Psi Phi. Members also wore bulky jewelry and outfits that mimicked the FUBU apparel company. Some members held up gang signs. Pictures from the parties were posted on the Internet by a company that photographs social events.
Shortly after the Auburn photos surfaced, a photograph depicting two costumed Alpha Tau Omega members at a University of Mississippi Halloween party hit the Internet. One student wore blackface and a straw hat and was photographed picking cotton on his hands and knees while another student dressed as a police officer held a gun to his head.
“I was angry and saddened when I saw that garbage on the Internet,” says Gerard Seabrooks, a member of Omega Psi Phi and graduate of the University of Maryland. “In 2001 we have students performing mock lynchings? Wearing Klan robes? That’s madness. I received more than 30 e-mails about it from all over the country. People were in shock.”
But Dr. Jack Levin, an expert on race relations and director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University in Boston, says the behavior comes as no surprise to him.
“Some fraternities have been home to some of the most grotesque and stereotypical acts going back for many decades,” says Levin, who co-authored the 1993 book Hate Crimes: The Rising Tide of Bigotry and Hatred.
Levin said that during the 1980s, when more students of color arrived at universities around the country, “we saw these kind of incidents increase.
“It’s a defensive position from the point of view of these students, who are what used to be the prototypical college student: White, male and Protestant,” Levin says. “But now they have to share with people who are different — Black, Latino, and Asian students — and they don’t like losing their advantage and privilege.”
The Internet postings exacerbated the problem, Levin says. Within hours, the photos were being forwarded and discussed via e-mail and in chat rooms nationwide. Levin says little thought must have gone into the fact that Internet posting would present the photos to a global audience.
“There’s still an illusion of anonymity with the Internet,” he says. “People are far more open in chat rooms than they are in living rooms.”
OUTRAGE, THEN ACTION
At Auburn a flurry of activity followed the revelation about the fraternities’ behavior as counselors, administrators, and faculty and staff moved quickly to quell racial tensions and educate students on the value of diversity.
Among the moves taken:
• More than 200 students, administrators and faculty at Auburn attended “Education and Tolerance at Home,” a three-hour seminar that was part presentation, part conversation.
• At the request of Auburn interim president William Walker, the Southern Poverty Law Center conducted diversity workshops at Auburn, which were attended by dozens of students.
• White fraternity members of both Auburn chapters publicly apologized at a meeting of the Black Student Union.
• At least one of the White students left school voluntarily citing safety concerns, Auburn officials said.
• The national offices of both White fraternities denounced the acts and voted to shut down its respective chapters at Auburn. That move meant that about 200 students who lived in the on-campus fraternity houses were kicked off campus and that the organization would no longer be officially recognized by the university.
• National leaders of Omega Psi Phi, which has nearly 200,000 members worldwide in 750 chapters, moved quickly to express their outrage and concern. National president Lloyd Jordan visited Auburn to meet with Walker and called for the expulsion of the students involved.
• The University of Mississippi suspended the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity for one year.
• On Nov. 16, after the incidents became public, Auburn suspended 15 members of the two fraternities — 10 from Beta Theta Pi and five from Delta Sigma Phi. They were suspended indefinitely and could face more discipline, including expulsion, if they apply to get back into Auburn, university officials said. “I think the continued presence of these students in the university community poses an immediate threat to the well-being of the university,” Walker said in a statement, which did not name the students.
ACTION DRAWS PRAISE
The suspensions were praised by Auburn’s lone Black trustee, Byron Franklin, who had staged an individual protest until Auburn took action. He said he would not wear Auburn colors again until he felt the university had taken a strong stand on the issue. He told the Birmingham News that, “I am probably the most influential Black man on this campus, and this is the time for Auburn to defend me, to protect me.” Franklin, a former Auburn and professional football player, added, “if I were to wear my Auburn stuff right now, I would be a sell-out — to the Black students, faculty and staff here, not to mention the rest of the country.”
After the university announced the suspensions Franklin said: “Essentially, we’re raising the bar for what’s acceptable behavior and kids need to know that. They should have known that before they got to college.”
But the chapter presidents of both fraternities said the discipline went too far. Zac Gibbs, Beta Theta Pi president, told the News he believed the administration could have used the incident to educate its students. “But instead, they turned their backs on their own students and I don’t think that shows the character of a family,” Gibbs said.
Matt Furin, Delta Sigma Phi president, also showed displeasure with the disciplinary action. “How are we going to manage to keep all the guys together since we are stuck without an organization?” he asked.
IMPACT ON RECRUITING
It is unclear whether the incidents will have a long-term impact on Auburn or the University of Mississippi’s image or their ability to recruit minority students. Officials at both universities said they have worked hard at minority recruitment and retention and will renew their commitment in those areas in response to these events.
Auburn, which has had trouble recruiting Black students in the past, already is feeling the impact of the incidents, Walker says. He said some minority students who already had said they were headed to Auburn have called to say they’ve changed their minds. Currently, Black students make up 7.2 percent of Auburn’s enrollment of 22,469. Mississippi has about 9,900 undergraduates, 12.5 percent of whom are African American.
Walker said he has formed a task force to consider establishing a multicultural center on campus and has told campus officials to increase the number of Auburn’s course offerings on tolerance and diversity. “The level of cultural awareness on campus is not nearly where it should be,” he says.
Editor’s Note: To view photos, visit <www.tolerance.org>.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com