Letters: Is There a Difference Between a Frat and a Gang?

Readers react to Ibram X. Kendi’s essay on the similarities between fraternities and gangs—and the differences in how they’re treated.

Rinzy999 / Atstock Productions / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

What’s the Difference Between a Frat and a Gang?

In a recent essay on TheAtlantic.com, Ibram X. Kendi drew parallels between collegiate sexual assault and urban violence, arguing that America stereotypes, rationalizes, and polices fraternity and gang violence differently.

Let me preface this by saying that this is not a defense of fraternities. Having been a member of a Greek organization myself, I am fully aware of the problems facing fraternities’ ability to be productive organizations on their school campuses. I would even go so far as to say that I am not sure that fraternities necessarily have a place on the modern college campus, at least not in their current design.

I also agree with the underlying argument in Mr. Kendi’s piece, that there is bias and racism in the way that fraternity transgressions are looked at compared with gang member transgressions. There is no doubt that the polo-wearing fraternity member has an easier time garnering sympathy for a hit-and-run DUI, or a date rape, than a poor drug dealer in the inner city. By all means there are many instances where inner city “criminals” facing minor drug-possession charges are viewed as worse than wealthier undergrads accused of far worse crimes. So I am glad to see Kendi focusing on this unfair treatment in his piece.

Where I find cause to disagree with Kendi, however, is in his use of hyperbole and guesswork to advance his argument. Too often, valid progressive stances are undercut by equating things that are not equatable. Kendi speaks of newly beaten fraternity brothers being cheered on by their potential female victims, when only a subset of fraternity members will go on to perpetrate sexual crimes. Imagine reading a serious academic article discuss newly minted gang members screening the crowd for mugging victims and you may see how effectively the author derails his point and distracts his audience by wanting to paint the “other” as disturbed criminals.

At his article’s most extreme, Kendi makes the claim that “the fraternity may be as frequently violent as the ‘savage gang MS-13,’” as if any rational person could make the argument that the murders and dismemberments done by the latter group compare in any way to the crimes that fraternity men are committing. His point is valid—stereotypes of gang members too often assume they are as violent as the worst MS-13 members, while stereotypes of their collegiate counterparts focus instead on the best of the bunch. By reaching for such shock value, however, Kendi does nothing more than 1) excite and enrage those readers who are already fully on board with his argument, and 2) turn away readers who are genuinely interested in being made aware of biases they may not have known they had.

I would challenge Mr. Kendi to try a more toned down approach in the future. The argument is there, without reaching for the types of extremes that too many progressive writers and pundits have fallen back on these days to excite their base of support. Let’s hope that this article is a good jumping-off point for bringing these topics into the mainstream.

Emmett Freedman
New York, N.Y.

Several readers responded on Facebook:

Pam Barbittta wrote: Not a perfect comparison, but a good stimulus for conversation. Question is, why do poor people get harsher punishments? I think most of us know the answer.

Mark Frazier wrote: Did pizza delivery in college. Gang neighborhoods were safer and tipped better than Greek town.

Several readers responded on Twitter: