During coverage of January’s US Presidential inauguration, many learned about Kamala Harris’s time at Howard University (HCBU), a renowned historically Black college and university in Washington DC. At Howard, Harris – the United States’ first woman and African American Vice-President – was also a member of the country’s oldest Black intercollegiate sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA). In an interview on CBS This Morning, three of Harris’s sorority sisters described AKA as a ‘secret weapon’ that cultivates leadership, learning, and social justice. One interviewee, Carla Mannings, said that AKA (along with the other historically Black ‘Divine Nine’ sororities and fraternities) help make ‘sure that everyone has a chance to be a part of the economic mainstream of this country.’
Outside of the US, fraternities and sororities (collectively known as ‘Greek Life’) are somewhat mysterious entities, often associated with drink-laden parties, hazing or initiation controversies, and raunchy comedy movies like Animal House and Neighbours (Bad Neighbours outside the US). But within the US, these societies are institutions at the centre of university social life. Commonly organised into individual campus chapters, centrally directed by well-monied and professionalised national organisations, they provide members with potential benefits that extend beyond graduation. Most importantly, they offer career networking opportunities with their organisation’s alumni, and possible access into elite social circles.
In fact, Greek life regularly produces very powerful people. According to the New York Times, only about 2% of the US population is affiliated with Greek life but 80% of top executives at Fortune 500 companies and large majorities of US Congress, Presidents, and Supreme Court justices are ‘Greeks.’ And, despite Harris’s political ascendency, the benefits of Greek life disproportionately favour members of historically white, male Greek-lettered fraternities, and reflect the inequities of US society as a whole.
Given this influence, anti-Greek life activists have long-criticised historically white fraternities and sororities for being inherently discriminatory, hierarchical, and for entrenching in students certain modes of exclusionary thinking. During the US’s ongoing reckoning over racial injustice sparked by George Floyd’s murder this has galvanised into the concerted national #AbolishGreekLife movement. Similarly, over the past year, thousands of members have disaffiliated from the Greek-life system due to what they say is its history of racism, sexism and homophobia.
And activists aren’t wrong: historically white organisations were formally segregated and, today, continue to struggle with instances of racism and sexual assault. Even after fraternal integration began following the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling – in which mandated racial discrimination in public institutions was declared unconstitutional – many local chapters continued to privilege white memberships behind the scenes, while others, given their explicitly racist pasts, attracted overwhelmingly white memberships.
Currently, there aren’t equivalent calls for the dissolution of historically Black organisations like AKA, although important questions remain about Black Greek life’s efficacy as well. But distinctions between the roles played by historically white and historically minority Greek organisations on campus are necessary. Like historically white organisations, for example, early Black fraternities and sororities were also explicitly exclusionary. They often had Black-only racial clauses written into their bylaws, for example. But the motivations for doing so were different from their white counterparts that sought to preserve elite and ‘whites-only’ statuses as campuses diversified.
On one hand, exclusively Black frats and sororities allowed members to pool resources and carve out systems of mutual aid and a Black cultural niche within higher education’s white-dominated spaces. Black Greek alumni groups, similarly, helped finance members who could not afford an education by themselves, provided a community for those who felt isolated on a majority-white campus, and helped define a sense of purpose and direction for their organisation, its individual chapters and members. According to proponents of Black Greek life, these organisations forged strong brotherhoods and sisterhoods through racial uplift, philanthropy, and civic and community engagement that have lasted for more than a century.