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Broken Bonds: Are Black Greek Organizations Making Themselves Irrelevant?

IT IS RARE THAT ONE FINDS A VENUE TO ADVANCE BALANCED, YET CRITICAL, DEBATE OVER Black Greek Letter Organizations, or BGLOs. BGLO members, on average, seem unwilling to seriously raise and discuss issues like hazing, non-Black membership or class-elitism, and non-members seem largely indifferent or overly critical.

As of December 2006, these organizations, collectively, are now 100 years old. With the recent hazing cases, the passage of Florida’s “Chad Meredith Act” that made hazing a felony, the “unauthorized histories” of various BGLOs via Walter “Big Walt” Anderson and the release of a new movie (“Stomp the Yard,” 2007) that further commoditizes (and prostitutes) BGLO culture, it is time to ask how these organizations are to remain relevant in the 21st century.

The founding impetus for BGLOs is intertwined with literary societies, White fraternities and sororities, Black benevolent and secret societies, the Black church, Black World War I veterans and the burgeoning “New Negro” ethos of the Harlem Renaissance that combined to provide a spirit of intellectualism, brotherhood, racial uplift, spiritual foundations, discipline and racial consciousness. Their history speaks of fidelity to the overarching principles that they collectively set forth. For instance, research shows that, when compared to Blacks who are not BGLO members, BGLO members have higher levels of leadership and philanthropic involvement on campus.

To many, this distinguished history is becoming ancient history. Student affairs personnel, BGLO members and their supporters are concerned not about the past but about the contemporary state of affairs. Many also understand that the contemporary moment will determine their future, and frankly, that future looks bleak. It should be no surprise when, within the next 10 to 20 years, at least one of the BGLOs within the National Pan-Hellenic Council (otherwise known as the “Divine Nine”) ceases to exist. Furthermore, we suspect, a number of those that remain will cease to be relevant. The signs of the time suggest that at least the latter is happening.

To be relevant and viable in the 21st century, BGLOs must grapple with a number of external and internal issues. Externally, BGLOs must address how others come to understand them. Popular culture’s representations of BGLOs revolve around a very limited set of themes – stepping and hazing. This is a far cry from the broader elements upon which these organizations were founded. In addition to this public perception problem, BGLOs have also failed to adapt to the changing nature of gender and racial discrimination.

In addition to these external issues, BGLOs are struggling with some difficult internal issues. First, they have yet to adequately address the fissures within their organizations. Though we readily admit that we have no answer to this question, we do wonder whether BGLOs do enough to ensure that their newly initiated members feel connected to one another. It is not that there is too much focus on hazing; rather, there is not enough education of young men and women after they have pledged in order to indoctrinate them and train them as lifelong members. Even more disturbing than these intra-group fissures, there is far too much petty inter-group rivalry that is sadly reminiscent of “divide and conquer” strategies. In addition to the weakening of fraternal bonds, BGLOs must adequately address the growing narrow-mindedness among some collegians about what it means to be a “real man” or “real woman.” Forth-coming qualitative research on these groups suggests that there are growing cultures among BGLO undergraduates that extol anti-intellectualism, hyper-masculinity, thug-gishness and promiscuity over scholarship and gentlemanliness. Third and finally, the overarching dilemma for BGLOs revolves around hazing. In and of itself, it is a sore spot for BGLOs and could spell their ruin.

To address the aforementioned, we suggest first a rethinking of the effectiveness of the NPHC that, as it stands now, is the BGLO version of the United Nations – politically flaccid. Second, we must address the idea of inter-fraternity and sorority cooperation. Third, there is strikingly little discussion of how BGLOs can be political vehicles to resist White supremacy, build economic self-determinism and be catalysts for the revival of the welfare state. Fourth, and piggybacking off the latter, we must carefully and boldly examine how our own elitism may have come back to bite us.

BGLO members and leaders clearly have an incentive to address these issues and others to ensure their organizations’ impact and perpetuity. However, their willingness to engage in critical self-reflection is so limited that the rewards that might be gained sometimes seem impossible to capture.

– Matthew W. Hughey is currently a doctoral candidate in sociology and an adjunct instructor in African-American studies, media studies and sociology at the University of Virginia. Dr. Gregory S. Parks is currently a law student at Cornell University and editor of the forthcoming book, Our Fight Has Just Begun: The Relevance of Black Fraternities and Sororities in the 21st Century (University Pressof Kentucky, 2008).

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