Black Fraternities, Sororities, and Violent Hazing: Lots of Causes, Few Solutions.

By Guest Contributor Shani O. Hilton, cross-posted from Campus Progress

The New York Times reports on the stories of two young women—one in California, and one in New Jersey—who were violently hazed by members of their college chapters of Sigma Gamma Rho, a historically black sorority, during the pledging process:

At Rutgers, six members of Sigma Gamma Rho were arrested in January and charged with aggravated hazing, a felony, after a pledge reported that she had been struck 200 times over seven days before she finally went to the hospital, covered with welts and bloody bruises.
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In the San Jose State case, Courtney Howard, a former student at the university, charged in a civil lawsuit, filed Aug. 31, that over a three-week period in 2008 she was subjected to progressively more violent hazing from Sigma Gamma Rho members. Ms. Howard claims in her suit that they beat her and other pledges with wooden paddles, slapped them with wooden spoons, shoved them against the wall, and threatened that “snitches get stitches.”

Gawker jokes: “Hey, hey—how else will she learn to respect her history?” But the joke is a bitter one.

After all, history is a big part of the black Greek experience. The men and women who founded the nine Black Greek Letter Organizations (commonly called BGLOs) are venerated by members, and prospective members are expected to learn the details of the founders’ lives, in addition to organization history and chapter history. And it’s a lot of history. The first black college fraternity and sorority were founded in 1906 and 1908, respectively, and six of the nine organizations were founded before 1920. This was during a time when higher education options for blacks were extremely limited, and the few who had the ability to go to college weren’t admitted into the secret societies created by whites.

I attended Howard University, a historically black university where BGLOs imbued nearly all aspects of campus life, even though only a tiny percentage of the school’s 7,000+ undergrads were actually members. Perhaps this is because Howard was the founding place of five out of the nine organizations that make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), or, “Divine Nine.” “History” was a frequent justification for the abuse that occurred, spouted off by pledges, members, and wannabe members.

But the physically violent hazing—which should be considered distinct from traditional pledging—that keeps making the news has a rather short history. In the Times article, Lawrence C. Ross points out that it was in the 1980s, when violent hazing increased dramatically, that BGLOs started banning the practice outright. Unfortunately, after that, it just got worse, and went underground where it went wholly unregulated. Delta Sigma Theta, the second-oldest black sorority, proactively lists currently suspended chapters—along with the fines they paid to the organization—on its website. But chapter suspensions in all nine organizations keep happening around the country for varying levels of infractions.

In reporting the facts of the two cases, there are a couple of questions the Times piece didn’t really address: Why this kind of abuse keeps happening, and why pledges put up with it.

The reason hazing happens, despite being banned by both colleges and organizations, is multi-fold. In some ways, each BGLO is a loose confederation of chapters, and every chapter has its own history, its own way of doing things, and anywhere from a handful to dozens of members. Sure, each undergraduate chapter has a graduate adviser who is trained by the organization on regulations and the acceptable Membership Intake Process (MIP), but that doesn’t account for the personal baggage of the members conducting the process. Sometimes chapter alumni, who may have undergone an abusive process themselves, even return to pay the abuse forward. And some older, “single-letter” chapters—those that have produced generations of members—receive more scrutiny (or more meddling) than newer chapters. Despite shouting their anti-hazing policies from the rooftops, organizations are essentially powerless to stop the underground hazing done in their names. And unless organizations are doing surveys where there are incentives to answer honestly, there’s just no way to know how widespread the problem is. Lawrence Ross describes how underground hazing happens for The Root:

The underground pledge process is an absurd scenario where “old-school” brothers or sorors who crossed in 1994 tell wives’ tales about what they did “on line” to folks who crossed in ‘03. And those wives’ tales are then enhanced up the ladder until the pledging stories become more and more fanciful to those black Greeks on campus today. And these current black Greeks will use those stories to convince some poor unsuspecting college student that the only way they’ll get respect is by pledging underground. Hundreds of aspirants will do it, hoping that the “pledging” they’re doing will give them the respect they crave.

Now to the part where I admit I’m a member of a BGLO. I joined Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest black sorority, after I graduated from Howard. One thing most don’t understand is that black Greek life continues long after graduation—and I think this is another one of the reasons why so many young people are willing to undergo abuse. Many, many black kids grow up with family members who are members of fraternities and sororities, and have fierce pride in their particular organizations. That pride can manifest itself as nostalgia about a difficult pledge process—sometimes embellished, sometimes not. And I think there’s also an aspirational effect, since these organizations are only open to college students and graduates, and attending college signals entry to the black middle class and a better life.

There are a handful of other reasons I can think of that may contribute to violent hazing: The influence of military-style discipline in BGLOs and the emphasis on physical and emotional toughness, how hyper-masculinity is considered a virtue (and, as such, has been emulated by some sororities), and maybe even the more common use of physical discipline in black families.

I think those who accept the abuse honestly just believe that it’s a part of the process, whether or not they buy into the notion that there’s value in hazing. It’s pretty clear to me that there isn’t. I don’t see any value in paddling someone until they bleed. I don’t see any value in an 19-year-old going to the hospital because a 20-year-old brother or sister, or a 35-year-old alum, put them there. Besides that, hazing costs organizations thousands of dollars every year, and when chapters are suspended, they’re not contributing anything to their communities or their campuses. But then again, I had a sorority-approved process, and no one made me feel inadequate about it. Since entering my organization, I’ve encountered young women who aspire to join, but tell me, furtively, that they want “a real process,” not the MIP that Alpha Kappa Alpha implemented after the drowning deaths of two young women during an illegal hazing incident in California. To that, I have no response, but I’m not surprised when that kind of willingness gets taken advantage of by others.

With that said, as Ross noted in the Times article, the hazing that occurs in BGLOs is not necessarily worse—it’s just different. Violence sounds uniquely horrifying, but the alcohol-fueled hazing that occurs in historically white Greek letter organizations kills, too. And there are stories of sexual humiliation associated with predominately white fraternities and sororities that make me shudder.

On a macro level, all of the D9 organizations are public-service focused nonprofits that share a similar goal: Give back to the communities of their members. Pledging and membership intake processes serve two purposes, in my opinion, to build bonds between members so that they can carry out the work of the organization, and to help individuals become better, stronger, and more agile thinkers. Hazing, on the other hand, doesn’t do anything to support those goals. Instead, it feeds a cycle of abuse.

One thing, though, I think is clear: There are entirely too many variables that create the environment for violent hazing to single out any one of them. But figuring out why it happens—and why young people accept it—may be what’s needed to figure out how to stop it.