Long before the emergence of a video this past weekend showing students from the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity shouting racist chants, universities have struggled with the integration of minority students into traditionally white Greek organizations.
For example, students at the University of Alabama—the school that President John F. Kennedy forced to desegregate in 1963—have been divided along racial lines when choosing who to admit into fraternities and sororities.
In 2013, the school’s student newspaper, The Crimson White, published an exposé revealing that the school’s sororities denied membership to black women because of their race.
Alumnae and advisers of the school’s sorority chapters interfered with the voting process to block one black woman from joining any of the 16 sororities she rushed. She was the salutatorian of her high school class and had family who served in local public office.
“Not a lot of rushees get awesome scores,” a member of the school’s Delta Delta Delta sorority told The Crimson White. “The only thing that kept her back was the color of her skin in Tri Delt. She would have been a dog fight between all the sororities if she were white.”
This kind of informal segregation is not limited to the University of Alabama campus. Sociology professor at the University of Connecticut Matthew Hughey studies race and university fraternities. He published a 2010 study looking at the experiences of nonwhite students who were admitted into traditionally white Greek-letter organizations, and found that their racial identities still distinguished them as inferior compared to their white peers.
“The bigger point here is that the Greek letter system—all over the United States, not just in the deep South—has traditionally been based on exclusion,” Hughey told the online publication, Inside Higher Ed in 2013. “We shouldn’t think organizations based on exclusion will all of a sudden become inclusive.”
Since The Crimson White’s story was first published, several sororities at the university have since accepted black women. The school’s Sigma Delta Tau, a historically Jewish sorority, even elected its first black president.
But the recent incident at the University of Oklahoma demonstrates that acts of racism haven’t disappeared from Greek organizations.
William Bruce James II, who said he was only the second black man to ever enter the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity back in 2001, has told the media that he never experienced acts of hatred toward him when he was attending the school. But the racist video has left him disillusioned with the brotherhood he once claimed.
“I can have no association with this organization as a BLACK MAN [James’s emphasis],” James wrote in a post on his personal blog. “I know these were ‘kids being kids’ and maybe they aren’t the hateful ignorant lost little boys I think they are, but I will not stand behind anything that allowed this to happen,” he added.