But as distressing as the University of Oklahoma story is, it’s hardly an aberration. The American fraternity system has long been the site of pitched battles about racial integration, Confederate symbols and racist language. These incidents happen with such frequency that it’s almost worth looking at racial blowups at fraternities as a lagging indicator of American attitudes, a sign that progress toward racial equality is not the same thing as widespread consensus in favor of it.
In the decades that followed, anti-discrimination rules adopted by colleges began to force fraternities to reconsider their policies. In 1949, Harvard’s Student Council passed a ban on discrimination based on “race, color or nationality,” and the rule withstood an attempt to overturn it. At the time, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the fraternity at the center of the University of Oklahoma controversy, was the only national fraternity with a chapter at Harvard. The national charter said that only “members of the Caucasian race” could be members, and that the fraternity had to choose between changing its charter or losing its Harvard affiliation. The national organization chose to change the charter, and just in time. In 1951, University of Connecticut President Albert Jorgensen began to enforce a 1949 anti-discrimination measure that blocked organizations that barred members based on race or religious creed from using campus facilities.
At colleges that were not already integrated, fraternities sometimes made public shows of their displeasure when black students began to enroll. When Charlayne Hunter-Gault enrolled at the University of Georgia in 1961, “a notoriously racist fraternity lowered the Confederate flag on its building to half-staff, sending an angry message from its members about what would become their second Lost Cause.” And some fraternities held out even when their schools integrated: In 1982, fraternities still hadn’t admitted a black member in the two decades since James Meredith managed to enroll.
The fights to integrate fraternities sometimes prepared participants for larger battles. Michael Schwerner, who, along with his Congress of Racial Equality colleagues Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964, was in Alpha Epsilon Pi, a fraternity rooted in Jewish principles, at Cornell. At his funeral, one of his fraternity brothers, James Garment, recalled their efforts to break the color barrier in their chapter.
“The advocates of black living units often argue that they are asking for nothing more than the right to ‘be with your own’ already enjoyed in fact if not in law, by many all-white or even all-Jewish fraternities,” he reported. “At most of the schools surveyed, Negroes have been dropping out of fraternities and sororities to which they had gained admission some years ago, often after lengthy battles. ‘Every fraternity and sorority wants a negro now — you know sort of the House N—–,’ a Bridgeport student said. ‘I had that for a while and then I couldn’t take it. I got sick of them making me an exception all the time. You know — ‘You’re great; I wish they were all like you.’ ”
And schools that tried to make changes to their fraternity systems in the 1980s sometimes find themselves pulled back into the past, as the University of Mississippi was last year, when the Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter there was suspended after its members became suspects in the placement of a noose and Confederate flag on a statue of James Meredith. The chapter has since been permanently closed.
Looking back into the past makes clear that clashes over race and fraternities have shifted over time. Where chapters might once have ensured harmonious relationships among brothers by tapping men only of the same race or religious background, events like the University of Oklahoma video, the Clemson party or the noose at the University of Mississippi suggest relationships forged by shared racist transgressions. A willingness to joke about lynching or dress up in a stereotypical costume is a way to sort out a like-minded group of students, if not an admirable one.
But as maddening as these incidents are, they also provide us with a useful barometer. We’ll be closer to the ideal of brotherhood from sea to shining sea when the most retrograde of U.S. fraternities no longer need to seal their bonds of brotherhood with racism.
Correction: This post has been corrected to reflect the date that Zeta Beta Tau began to admit non-Jewish members.