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US Fraternities Must be Required to Disavow Racist Roots

At one time, the biggest problems associated with college fraternities were raucous house parties, puerile pranks or grim hazing ceremonies.

This year, far more controversial issues have confronted these staples of US campuses – and of light-hearted Hollywood comedies from Animal House to Old School and Neighbors. And these issues have challenged the popular notion that fraternities – as well as, to a lesser extent, female sororities – are little more than harmless social clubs.

In the months since George Floyd’s death in police custody, anti-frat movements have swept across US universities as members decided that camaraderie and promises of post-graduation professional connections don’t outweigh their association’s deeply exclusionary, racist and misogynist roots, which continue to structurally produce harm.

Some called for the removal of these historically white organisations, whose titles consist of meaningless combinations of Greek letters, such as kappa, delta and, above all, alpha. Others want Greek life abolished wholesale, arguing that reform – which would require professionalised national organisations to put accountability before lucrative public images – is impossible.

Walking away from these organisations will be tough for many students. After all, as John Hechinger’s 2017 book, True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities, correctly notes, fraternities became the “unofficial bartenders” of many campuses after the drinking age rose to 21 nationwide in 1984.

Given the troubling racial history of many fraternities, however, it is understandable that many students are doing so – or at least speaking out. In early July, I called for universities to remove from campus those fraternities bound to a post-Civil War social movement that celebrated the original Ku Klux Klan and sought to redeem the Confederacy and the virtues of the slaveholding South.

The Kappa Alpha Order (KA) was a symbol of that movement, and its continued veneration of its “inspirator”, Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, is perhaps the most egregious example of a fraternity refusing to acknowledge its racist past. This refusal was recently illustrated when KA’s Xi chapter at Southwestern University was suspended after it denounced the Confederacy and Lee (officially, the rebuke was because the denunciation contained “threatening and incendiary language” and had not been cleared with KA’s central office).

The reputation of this southern general is, of course, still a contentious issue in the US, despite historians’ agreement that Lee was a brutal slaveholder and committed white supremacist who used his positions to promote racist and structural inequalities. KA, which has about 150,000 members, continues to describe him as a “true gentleman” and “the last true knight”, seemingly unaware of, or unconcerned with, the ways in which these “virtues” reinforce race and gender hierarchies. What’s more, in practice, KA’s guiding principles of chivalry, gentility and the protection of womanhood were used to excuse Jim Crow-era racial violence.

Read entire article at Times Higher Education