A revoked charter. Public condemnation by a University president. A pair of expulsions. The reactions to the now-infamous video of members of fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon singing “There will never be a n*gger in SAE” have been swift and damning. Despite the public shock, though, this isn’t an isolated—or new—phenomenon. Such issues are reflective of the broader nature and roots of Greek life at colleges and universities across the southern United States, explains the Washington Post with help from work by UConn sociologist Matthew Hughey.
SAE, for example, was founded over 100 years ago in the Antebellum South. During the Civil War, 369 of its 400 members fought for the Confederacy. And along with the most recent incident, SAE chapters have been castigated for racist events including a “Jungle Party” at Texas A&M and a “Cripmas Party” at Clemson University. The Washington Post quotes Hughey’s study of southern Greek organizations: “law prohibits race-based exclusion in college sororities and fraternities in the United States… [but at Mississippi State University] racial segregation prevails.” That’s because these organizations were historically homogenous and exclusionary. Hughey went on, “Until after World War II, U.S. Greek-letter societies reflected the dominant portion of the college population: white, male, Christian students of ‘proper breeding.’”
Since Greek organizations are so self-consciously steeped in history and tradition, it’s not easy to get away from their pasts. So while “nonwhite membership in white Greek-letter organizations is often hailed as a transformative step toward equality and unity,” according to Hughey, the word “fraternity” is unlikely to conjure images of “Southern hospitality,” let alone diversity or inclusivity, anytime soon.