The Hazing Problem at Black Fraternities

Black fraternities face different challenges than white ones—but both groups can be corrupted by twisted power dynamics.
Matt Dunham/AP Photo

 I receive a Google news alert by e-mail every time the phrase “fraternity hazing” is mentioned in the press. As one who has studied fraternities and sororities for over two decades, worked in student affairs as a Greek advisor, now a college president, and an expert witness in hazing cases, it is important to stay current. As you can imagine, I get lots of news alerts. Lots.

Last month I received an alert about The Atlantic’s article “The Dark Power of Fraternities.” This critique probably made a number of my colleagues in the inter-fraternal world crazy, as it set off new rounds of conversations about the relevance of fraternity and sorority life on college campuses. They, along with scores of young men and women who work earnestly to live the values espoused by their groups were no doubt disheartened by the latest in a long line of bad press for Greek Life.

And yet, they’re helpless. When an article starts off with stories about bottle rockets in anuses, and then goes into manslaughter, rape, sexual torture, and psychological trauma, no one really wants to hear “but look at how much good we do.”

The author, Caitlin Flanagan, is clear that her focus is “formerly all-white, now nominally integrated” men’s general or social fraternities. Her common theme was the central role of alcohol for social fraternities. From the butt bottle rocket man and numerous falls from houses, to house fires as well as deaths of pledges from forced consumption, alcohol is the key actor. Most of the examples presented would rarely be found in black fraternal organizations (or Latin and Asian groups for that matter).

Black fraternities and sororities don’t share the same peripheral issues. A miniscule number own or even rent chapter houses due to very small numbers. The same is true with alcohol. Studies indicate less alcohol usage for example by Black college students, not so much because of less interest, but less disposable income to provide large quantities to guests at an event.

But there are different symptoms that indicate the same dark power or force exists in black groups, one that also creates tragic problems. It invades undergraduates who have been members of a group for a year or two, and miraculously overnight are the authorities on their group and how one should become a member. Their national leaders, scholars, lawyers, and experts, all who say don’t haze, have no credibility with these young geniuses.

And so they employ an “old school” approach to hazing, and I mean old, as in 1800s when all college students had few resources, so the upperclassmen physically punished freshmen during that first year. In 2014 alone, black fraternity members were arrested at the University of Central Arkansas for paddling and being pelted with raw eggs. Six members of another black fraternity (my fraternity) were arrested for paddling that sent one student to the hospital for a month. And at the University of Georgia, 11 black fraternity members were arrested after allegedly lining up potential new members along a wall and striking them.

They all must know hazing is illegal. They must know it is against their respective fraternity and campus policies. They must know that if caught there could be harsh sanctions, including legal ones. And year after year, they beat people.

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