A blacked-up white boy with a noose serves as a reminder of who the 'full citizens' are

November 16, 2001

Fake hangings and fraternity members in Ku Klux Klan outfits show the racism on Deep-South campuses. Report by David Jobbins and Deborah Bolling.

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

"Strange Fruit" - Lewis Allen (1939)

Alabama was one of the last states of the Deep South to end racial segregation in its universities. In September 1963, the first black students, escorted by state militia, walked past the symbolic resistance of governor George Wallace at the door of the University of Alabama to enrol. It was one of the enduring images of the civil rights movement. Thirty-eight years later divisions remain - but now between the racially organised fraternity and sorority houses that command the allegiance of thousands of US students.

In 1991, Alabama issued regulations requiring its all-white fraternities and sororities to drop segregation on race lines. But until last year, no black student had joined any of the 21 white fraternities or 15 sororities on the campus.

Now there are signs that the barriers may be coming down. In September, a black woman student disclosed that she had joined a former white sorority in 2000, and last week it emerged that an African-American had been admitted to a previously all-white fraternity at the University of Alabama, at Tuscaloosa.

However, these are likely to remain infrequent departures from the norm, despite the view among many Alabama faculty and students that race relations have improved since 1986, when a burning cross was planted on the lawn of the first black sorority to venture on campus.

The problem nationally is complicated by the fact that although federal legislation bans racial discrimination in higher education, it only allows disciplinary action to be taken if sororities or fraternities discriminate overtly. Having no black members is not deemed sufficient proof. Moreover, anti-discrimination laws may violate the guarantees of freedom of association under the US Constitution, and people of colour may wish to join their own fraternities and sororities rather than entering a white society.

Just why they might take this view is graphically illustrated by events during last month's Hallowe'en celebrations at Auburn University, the largest university in Alabama, which has just 1,600 African-Americans among its 22,500 students.

Photographs emerged of students at predominantly white fraternity parties wearing Ku Klux Klan robes. Some students simulated the lynching of another student who had "blacked up" and had a noose around his neck. This showed an alarming insensitivity - Alabama was at the centre of racist lynchings, that lasted up to the civil rights era and in which the Klan played a leading role.

Members of Omega Psi Phi, one of the oldest and largest black fraternities, discovered the photographs on the website of a local photographer and copied them to its own site. Evelyn Crayton, president of the Auburn Black Caucus, an organisation of African-American faculty, staff and administrators, said: "In the wake of September 11, this is the last thing we would have expected to see."

Other African-American faculty were more resigned. Elijah Anderson, a social science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says:

"Behaviour like that, for these white fraternities, is par for the course. It happens from time to time because every now and then people celebrate their heritage, and for these students that's part of their heritage. It reminds black people that they're not full citizens."

Nationally, Delta Sigma Phi, one of the white fraternities implicated in the Hallowe'en events, has a history of inclusion and was the first fraternity to include both Christian and Jewish religions. Both it and Beta Theta Pi, the other fraternity involved, immediately suspended their Auburn chapters. In Auburn, Beta Theta Pi has suspended 13 members, while Delta Sigma Phi has suspended four and expelled two. The university, whose president apologised for the events, has barred both fraternities from holding social events pending an investigation.

Lloyd Jordan, national president of Omega Psi Phi, is calling on the university to take "immediate severe disciplinary action against the individuals involved as well as the fraternities" and "to develop racial and ethnic diversity programmes for all its students and parents alike".

The Auburn affair is not an isolated incident. There have, for example, been slave auctions and minstrel shows at other universities. Some believe that the response of black students to form their own social networking organisations - the first black fraternity was established at Cornell University in 1906 at a time when black students were banned from many universities - though understandable, means the underlying issues are not confronted by universities.

Several have offered diversity training courses for students to counter the problems, but few of these are thought to have had a significant impact.

Rosalyn Baxandall, chair of the American studies department at State University of New York College at Old Westbury, says more drastic action against the fraternity chapters involved in such racist incidents is needed as well as direct action against racism. She says: "Racism has gotten so pervasive that it is invisible, and especially if you're white it is invisible to you because you don't confront it."

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