Looking Toward The Future
New research helps Black sororities and fraternities consider new governing structures for the next 100 years
By Paul Ruffins
America’s Black college-based fraternity and sorority movement is rapidly approaching two historic milestones. Next year will mark the 75th anniversary of the National Pan-Hellenic Council Inc. (NPHC), and 2006 marks a full century since Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. was founded at Cornell University. And just last month, May 15, 2004, marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of Sigma Pi Phi (The Boulé), the first Black social fraternity of college-educated professional men. Like the NAACP, the Urban League and other groups that emerged in the early 20th century as African Americans battled legal segregation and overt racism, Black Greeks are struggling to define a relevant, positive role in a society where African Americans’ problems are multi-dimensional and many other organizations are competing for their loyalties.
“A majority of the Black Greek community believes our organizations inherently have a ready-made structure and network to help mobilize the larger Black community, with a collective membership of over a million college-educated African Americans and chapters in virtually every city and town in the country,” says Virginia LeBlanc, executive director and CEO of the NPHC. “But if that’s true, we’re just not living up to our potential for being a force for change in the society.”
From a historical perspective, it’s interesting to note that at their 100-year mark Black fraternities and sororities are facing some of the very same political criticisms encountered half a century ago. In his 1957 classic Black Bourgeoisie, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier excoriated Black fraternities and sororities for their snobbery, materialism and disengagement from the problems of the Black masses. In a major address to the Boulé in 1948, W.E.B. Du Bois expressed concern that it was an “old, timid conservative group,” more concerned with congratulating itself as a Black elite than mounting a political challenge to White America.
“The mission and significance of the Black Greeks will be meaningless to Black life overall until the BGLOs (Black Greek-Letter Organizations) collectively work to establish a progressive, social, political and economic agenda,” says Dr. Ricky Jones, chair of Pan-African studies at the University of Louisville, author of the recently released Black Haze: Violence, Sacrifice, and Manhood in Black Greek-Letter Fraternities and a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. “In the last decade can you think of a single local, state or national issue where the Black Greeks took a strong stand?”
Darryl R. Matthews Sr., executive director and chief operating officer of the National Association of Black Accountants Inc., who is an active candidate for president of Alpha Phi Alpha Inc., has a different opinion.
“The people who think that the leaders of our organizations should be out there making statements on political positions don’t understand that we may have as many members who are registered Republican or Independent as Democrats,” Matthews says. “Politically we’re not even monolithic on the things we may all agree on such as the need for better educational opportunities. If I became president of the Alphas and endorsed school vouchers as an option for poor Black children, I would instantly get a storm of protest from thousands of our members working in public education.”
The Black Greeks’ ability to be a greater force for social change is also constrained by the basic internal structures of the organizations themselves.
“In one sense our political actions are limited because the NPHC and its member organizations are non-partisan,” LeBlanc says. “Our major political push will not be to support any specific candidate or party but to be part of the Unity ’04 effort to increase Black voter registration and turnout for the 2004 election.” Adding, “I believe that we can only reinvigorate the influence of the BGLOs by working closer together and combining resources. But the NPHC’s political and social role is limited because we are not a regulatory body that can require our members to take any action.”
Fortunately, the BGLO’s struggle comes at a time when they can draw on an unprecedented burst of writing and research. It is fair to say that in the last 15 years more academic and journalistic attention has been focused on BGLOs than in the past 90 years combined. Before 1990, the major books written on these groups largely consisted of uncritical “in-house” histories of single organizations. The more exceptional and influential works include Charles Wesley’s The History of Alpha Phi Alpha: A Development in Negro College Life (1st edition, 1929) and feminist historian Paula Giddings’ In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement (1988). However, these works were largely historical and shed very little light on the contemporary issues facing BGLOs as a whole.
Breaking the Silence
One of the problems BGLOs faced in assessing their situation was the fraternal tradition of secrecy. Therefore, members who had the greatest access to information were constrained from revealing the secrets of the group’s rituals and initiation processes. The code of silence began to crumble in the popular media when Spike Lee’s movie “School Daze” (1988) showed a fairly accurate depiction of being on line. After 1990, there was a flood of newspaper and magazine articles exposing the deaths, injuries and lawsuits that followed the hazing crisis. More recently, E. Lynn Harris’ books explored the subject of homosexuality and bisexuality among Black Greeks.
In addition, BGLOs became more open to scrutiny at the same time that the largest ever cadre of BGLO members who had become academics, scholars, journalists and administrators, were looking for research topics. One of the most seminal results was John A. William’s 1992 doctoral thesis: “Perceptions of the No-Pledge Policy for New Member Intake by Undergraduate Members of Predominately Black Fraternities and Sororities.”
The 1999 publication of Lawrence Ross’s The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities marked a significant turning point in being the first major book about the BGLOs as a collective. In 2003, Dr. Walter Kimbrough published Black Greek 101: The Culture, Customs, and Challenges of Black Fraternities and Sororities, the first comprehensive work to explore “the culture, customs and challenges of Black fraternities and sororities.” This year, Louisville’s Jones published Black Haze. “It’s sad that so much of the research is focusing on hazing and stepping,” Jones said in a recent interview, “but on many campuses that’s all we’re com(ing) to stand for. We’re doing some small amount of community service, but we’ve completely lost any claim to academic excellence.”
Black Haze is a philosophically and politically dense work and examines the hazing problem through the theories of scholars such as Jurgen Habermas, author of Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society, who Jones admits has nothing to do with fraternities but examines how ideas are transmitted in society. Black Haze examines how wider cultural narratives and political control of the media conspire to convince young people that violent invitation rites speak to some essential part of Black manhood.
By contrast, Kimbrough’s Black Greek 101 is narrowly focused. One of his most important conclusions is that the movement of large numbers of Black students to White campuses, combined with the children of BGLO members’ strong psychological needs to belong to their parents’ organization, have resulted in BGLOs having far too many small chapters. Kimbrough writes that “on campuses with as few as 300 Black students, it is conceivable that as many as four or more Black Greek chapters exist,” adding that, “some chapters exist in remote college towns where the nearest graduate chapter is an hour away.” With many more chapters than unpaid volunteers from graduate chapters can effectively supervise, BGLOs have effectively lost control of both their intake processes and the overall behavior of their undergraduate members.
Kimbrough identifies four specific areas as critical to the future of BGLOs: regaining control of the pledging process; under-advisement of undergraduate chapters; coming to grips with the presence and role of the 15 percent of BGLO’s undergraduates who are minorities including Whites, Asians, gays and lesbians; and competition from a growing number of Latino fraternities.
Some BGLO members and executives might question whether dealing with “minority members” is a critical priority. However, there is virtually complete agreement that regaining control over the intake process, managing undergraduate chapters and coping with increased competition are the most critical challenges BGLOs face at this time.
“In one very important sense, these are almost the same problem,” says Dwayne Dixon, national director of marketing for Iota Phi Theta Fraternity Inc. “Our greatest competition is from other Black organizations on campus like the National Society of Black Engineers. Because of the problems with the pledge process, many of the most academically focused students feel that joining the Black Greeks is actually detrimental to their future success.”
Jones criticizes BGLOs for trying to analyze the hazing problem through structural issues of fraternity and sorority management. He ultimately believes the only viable solutions are structural and institutional, and that colleges and universities must end their “administrative neglect” of the Black Greeks and take a more active role in managing undergraduate chapters. Kimbrough feels that the NPHC must play a more meaningful role in supervising all of the BGLOs undergraduate members. However, implementing either or both of these propositions would require profound structural changes.
Due to their specific developmental histories, and the racial politics of the early 20th century when they were founded, the BGLOs were deliberately structured to be independent of each other and compete for members and prestige. They also evolved outside of the overall structures that govern White fraternities like the National Interfraternity Conference Inc. (NIC), which regulates male groups, and the National Panhellenic Conference Inc. (NPC), which is the umbrella organization for sororities. In addition, since many members feel that the greatest importance of BGLOs is as a lifelong network of adults, each undergraduate chapter has traditionally been more answerable to off-campus graduates of their organizations rather than to local college authorities, or a campus-wide governing council. On many campuses, administrators and other Greeks were more than willing to take a hands-off approach.
However, an increasing number of the Black Greek leaders are beginning to feel that the only practical solution to the hazing and management problems is to empower campus NPHCs to actually regulate and set uniform policies for undergraduate chapters. This feeling seems to be strongest among the sororities and the adult members who are faculty members or campus administrators, who encounter undergraduates on a day-to-day basis.
Matthews of Alpha Phi Alpha notes that there could be a substantial resistance to this development at both the campus and graduate levels.
Richard L. Snow, executive director of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc., agrees with Matthews’ perceptions and notes that in some cities the NPHCs have formed graduate chapters that have taken on a life of their own. However, he says the solution is to bring the NPHC into closer alignment with the management of the BGLOs and notes that today, all the BGLO’s executive directors are automatically members of the NPHC’s board of directors. He also adds that the Kappas already have a long-standing affiliation with NIC.
Whether the national chapters approve of their undergraduates being managed by campus-based Pan-Hellenic councils, it is already becoming a reality on the ground.
“More and more college presidents are demanding it,” says Jennifer M. Jones, who is national first vice president of the NPHC, and the director of multicultural student affairs at Southern Methodist University. “It’s not just hazing,” she adds, “some unfortunate incidents of lewd and thuggish behavior are also making administrators a lot more aggressive in asking whether our groups are really adding value to their campuses.” She sees more universities demanding that BGLOs get control of themselves, and on many campuses no fraternity or sorority can exist unless they participate in a multi-Greek council with the ability to set and enforce standards of behavior. “Black Greeks could learn some good lessons from the fact that on many campuses the NIC and PHC have successfully established clear, uniform rules that most students accept,” she says.
Bonita M. Herring, executive director of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc., holds a similar perspective. Given the limitations on the BGLO’s financial and human resources, she says the most efficient way is to endorse changes that will bring their undergraduates under greater supervision by the professionals who are already getting paid to help manage campus Greeks.
“The Sigmas belong to the Association of Fraternity Advisors who are the Greek advisers from traditionally White schools,” she says. “There is a growing effort to invite them to our conventions and NPHC meetings where we’re holding workshops to teach them our rules and regulations. We’re long past the point where we can afford to have our members fake out White administrators by saying that they don’t understand our organizations and that the pledges being marched around the campus in Black uniforms are only having a little outdoor meeting.”
Herring admits that this represents a major attitude shift from the days when BGLOs resisted and resented campus officials who “interfered” with their members. “However,” she says, “our undergraduate members are adolescents who deserve and require the same structure and supervision that benefits all the other young people. Now, at least some of us are beginning to tell the colleges that, ‘You also have an obligation to better manage these chapters because our members are your students.'”
Paul Ruffins has been a contributing writer for Black Issues In Higher Education since 1996. He and his wife, Fath Davis Ruffins, are currently writing Finding our Story in the
History of the Nation, a history of African American museums.
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