Bringing Down the House

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Outside of a fraternity. Source:  architizer.com

If the Greek fraternity system is molding the leaders of tomorrow, then tomorrow is going to look an awful lot like the past.

Modern American society has been at war with backwards “isms”, including exclusivism, sexism, and racism. We fight these wrongs in the name of progress. We rightly champion the American values of merit, equality, and tolerance.

This being the case: why is the Greek fraternity system allowed to remain a pillar of American culture and society?

The Greek system is as an institution responsible for the large-scale shaping of impressionable young Americans who will likely become influential members in society. It is an institution that ensures the presence and operation of backwards “isms” in America. For the sake of our society, it is an institution that must be destroyed.

What I’m calling attention to is the Greek system as a whole. The fraternity system is far from the only element of American society and culture that perpetuates evil “isms.” But what makes fraternities so particularly dangerous are mechanisms of exclusivism and secrecy that preserve backwards practices and values. These cult-like institutional mechanisms facilitate the perpetuation of societal evils such as racism and sexism.

Yet fraternities are allowed to remain a defining feature of every college campus across the nation, with its defenders often justifying the shameless preservation of this societal poison on the grounds that the fraternity system molds boys into “gentlemen.”

“The True Gentlemen” happens to be the creed of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. SAE has recently come under fire after its Oklahoma University chapter was recorded singing outrageously racist chants. Not long after this revelation was the chance discovery of a secret pledge book belonging to an NC State Pi Kappa Phi chapter. The book contains graphic “jokes” written by members about lynching black people. These instances are just two of the most recent additions to a long list of racist frat practices, including the frequently reported “ghetto” or “jungle” parties where attendees are encouraged to dress according to racist black stereotypes and even don blackface.  Because fraternities are able to enforce high-levels of secrecy it is difficult to know exactly how widespread racist beliefs and practices are in the system. However, the fact that these chants and practices are being taught to all or most members suggests a widespread institutionalization of racial prejudices.

Another systemic problem is the dangerous level of sexism fostered by the Greek fraternity system. The NC State pledge book that “joked” about lynching also had “jokes” about raping inebriated women. The Delta Kappa Rho chapter at Penn State was yet another fraternity that found itself at the center of controversy after two private Facebook pages were discovered in which members posted and commented on pictures of passed out girls. Several fraternities have also been reprimanded for hosting demeaning “…Bros vs.…Hos” parties. Even charity events, such as the Derby Run, are inherently and overtly sexist. Girls in these events are encouraged by the hosting fraternity to compete with each other and make a spectacle of themselves for the benefit of a mostly male audience. The list of examples is endless. The sexist attitudes and practices that permeate the Greek system are the reasons no other institution has been so closely associated with sexual assault.  The consistent and persistent sexual objectification of women within the Greek fraternity system is having a frightening effect on its members.  Studies have shown that fraternity members at one university are shockingly up to three times more likely to rape than non-members, and these numbers are based only on those cases that have been reported.  Despite the clear prevalence of institutionalized sexism in fraternities, the Greek system’s premium on secrecy conceals the true extent of sexist practices.

However many still protect the institution. Defenders of the system often justify its existence by pointing to the millions of dollars it raises every year for charities. They talk about how fraternity members tend to graduate at higher rates than non-members, and how graduated members are some of the biggest donors to their respective alma maters. They dismiss the reports of misconduct as simple cases of “boys being boys.”

But these “boys” grow into some of the most powerful men in our country. The reason for this is not because they are the most able or worthy members of society. It is largely due to a network of “fraternity brothers” who are encouraged to offer fellow “brothers” employment opportunities. This has resulted in a shockingly large proportion of American business and political leaders who are products of the Greek system. Since 1910, 85% of Supreme Court Justices have been fraternity brothers. Since 1900, frat members have composed 63% of presidential cabinets. 76% of U.S. Senators have been fraternity members, as have 18 U.S. Presidents. Fraternity members also make up 85% of Fortune 500 Company Executives. These adults are in charge of some of the most powerful and influential institutions in the world. The day-to-day decisions they make have a direct effect on each and everyone of our lives. They are being made in minds that have been significantly shaped by the college experience. The experiences, values, and beliefs formed during these leaders’ younger years in  frat houses will inevitably be expressed in conscious or unconscious ways: from discriminatory hiring practices and pay-grades, to sexual harassment and even rape.

I am not claiming that every single frat boy is a racist or sexist, nor am I claiming that we as a society are doomed to rampant sexism and racism. Nor do I think that merely ending fraternities will in any way be the key to fully ridding our society of these “isms.” Sexism and racism are incredibly complex social issues that have no silver bullet.

What I am saying is that the Greek system is an archaic, bizarre, yet prominent institution that presents a significant obstacle to American progress. And the problems go far beyond binge drinking and hazing–the spew of recent high-profile cases involving fraternities across the nation gives us just a glimpse of a much more deeply rooted, widespread and actively concealed system. Despite the increasing frequency of sexist and racist incidents being reported, the Greek fraternities’ culture of secrecy frighteningly suggests there are many more yet to be discovered. What is especially disturbing is how strongly the fraternity system affects the development of its members. Young and impressionable boys are isolated in a house, surrounded by a new and influential “family,” and are left there to incubate for four whole years. In that house and with that “family” they are molded according to what they’ve what they’ve been taught day-in and day-out for years on end. This is no trivial matter. This means that all the problems associated with college fraternities extend far beyond the college campus. The fact that frat boys are consistently and disproportionately being given jobs at the highest levels of society (often simply because they are frat boys) is not just an offense to meritocracy, it is an outright danger to society. This hardly-veiled cronyism allows the reach and influence of the Greek system to access and permeate every level of society: from corporate boardrooms to the Oval Office. Frat boys are essentially being handed complete control of what is today an especially vulnerable United States of America.

Those of us working for a better American society can no longer remain silent bystanders. We have a responsibility to speak out and intervene against the wrong being done to our country. We must destroy this backwards institution and system before the poison sets. We must bring down the frat-house, before it comes down on us.