Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Black Greeks - A Mandatory Prescription for the Next 100 Years

Black Greeks.1  On most campuses they are the people that many students love to hate...all up until the moment those same students become members that is.  Hate them or love them, there is no denying that the 9 historically Black Fraternities and Sororities2 of the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) are an integral part of the Black community and have played a key role throughout Black history.  During the undergraduate years, Black Fraternities and Sororities are typically the focal points of their respective universities.  On the surface, they throw parties, compete in step shows and literally create the reason each year for thousands of eager young college students to pack 6 or 7 bodies into a car for a weekend road trip to neighboring college campuses.  Upon closer inspection, however, they also manage to provide many 18-19 year-olds and young 20-somethings with the opportunity to take a leadership role -- many for the first time in their lives -- within their communities.   Countless hours of community service initiatives, civil rights events, Supreme Court amicus briefs, food drives, literacy programs, voting rights initiatives, financial literacy seminars, Black health awareness drives (and the list goes on) have been put forth by the national, regional, and city alumni chapters of the Black Fraternities and Sororities and, yes, even by the undergraduate college chapters too.  However, all of the accomplishments of these groups over the past 100 years are in jeopardy.

This past weekend, I had the distinct privilege and honor of being recognized by my Fraternity as the "Alumni Member of the Year" for my home chapter.  My home chapter is a single-letter chapter (meaning it's one of the first 24 chapters ever established) and it has been "on the yard" at my alma mater for 92 years uninterrupted.  92 years.  92 years is a long time for anything, let alone an organization sustained by young Black men between the ages of 18 to 22.  I bring all of this up because one of our elders made a point this past weekend that really put the problem facing "Black Greeks" into perspective.  He said that the sole reason why the members in our particular chapter have been able to beat the statistics facing young Black men is because every year at our annual reunion the graduates take a moment out of their busy schedules and return to the chapter to guide the undergraduate brothers.  It's really that simple.

As you might have heard in the news lately, the incidence of hazing among the NPHC groups has continued to rise over the past few decades.  The national spotlight turned to college hazing in 1989 when Joel Harris died while trying to pledge Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity (Alphas) at Morehouse College.  As a direct result, the NPHC groups agreed to ban any and all forms of pledging in 1990.  As an alternative to the traditional pledge process, the NPHC proposed the "Membership Intake Process" whereby applicants simply pay a membership fee and sign their respective names on the dotted line in order to become full fledged members.  This sounded great on paper, but in reality it merely drove pledging underground where it remains today.

The problem with underground pledging, as opposed to its above-ground predecessor, is that underground pledging is done behind closed doors where little, if any, guidance exists to ensure the safety -- let alone the education -- of the pledges.   Under these conditions, it wasn't long before more deaths followed. In 1994, Michael Davis was killed while trying to pledge Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity (Kappas) at Southeast Missouri State University (which, by the way, was the home chapter of Cedric the Entertainer). In 2002, Kristin High and Kenitha Saafir were drowned to death while trying to pledge Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority (AKAs) at California State University.  The list goes on.

Seeing this increase in hazing-related deaths, many parent groups, churches, law enforcement officials and college campuses have taken up efforts to punish anybody who participates in hazing or pledging (there is a difference between the two).  In some states like Florida, the state legislature has even gone so far as to make college fraternity hazing an actual felony.  That means college students, and Black college students in particular, are being disenfranchised from all future voting and placed at a severe disadvantage for all future employment simply because they may have participated in the same college shenanigans that countless other 18 year-old kids have participated in since the invention of college.

We can (and should) have a full discussion about whether our society is best served by creating convicted felons out of would-be college graduates, whether the punishment fits the crime, and whether these type of laws are aimed at Black college students specifically, but all of these discussions take place towards the end of the educational pipeline.  By the time we start talking about hazing and felony charges, the youth in question has already gone down the wrong path.  The focus, rather, should be on what can be done right now to guide that youngster before he or she gets to the point of no return.

The response from the National Headquarters of each NPHC organization has been woefully inadequate.  Their solution can be summarized in 2 words: avoid liability.  This approach places short-term self-preservation over the long-term guidance of the undergraduate members.  If there is even so much as an accusation of hazing on a college campus then the alumni chapters prefer to expel any and all undergraduate members from the organization rather than invest any time in them to make sure that a hazing incident doesn't happen in the first place.  Stated differently, it's a lazy approach that focuses on being reactive instead of proactive.  Moreover, this approach fails to provide the legal protection that many alumni members hope for.  Corporations cannot avoid legal liability by merely firing their agents after the fact.  They can, however, limit their liability in cases where they can demonstrate that the corporation expended much time and energy to train its agents in the correct way of doing things and that the agents in question have deviated from said training.

In closing, I do not submit that all of the NPHC's hazing problems can or will be solved overnight simply by alumni members spending more time with their respective undergraduate members.  And just so we're clear, I am not a fan of senseless hazing for the sake of hazing.  If you're the type of person who actually gets off on causing injury to other people who can't fight back then you need to seek mental help.  I do, however, think that a structured pledge program (not to be confused with the Membership Intake Program which should be eliminated immediately) adds considerable value not only to the organization but also to the undergraduate brothers and sisters who choose to be a part of it.3  I also think that guidance from alumni members is essential in shaping the young men and women who come through these groups each year.  We've seen what happens to the undergraduate members of the 9 historically Black Fraternities and Sororities when they don't have any guidance from their alumni counterparts.  Now imagine what they can do when we actually care to guide them.

1. What are your impressions of the historically black frats and sororities?
2. Are these organizations doomed?
3. Are these organizations worth fighting for?
4. Is it possible to have an actual "Pledge" program that both young and old can sign off on that won't get everybody in legal trouble?
5. What solutions would you propose?

1 - I use the term "Black Greek" loosely here.  The term is considered an oxymoron because, as many students of history know, the ancient Greeks actually invaded Africa and "borrowed" many of their ideas regarding written language from ancient Kemetic symbols. See "Stolen Legacy" by George G.M. James.

2 The 9 members are:
Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Founded 1906 @ Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.
Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Founded 1908 @ Howard University, Washington, D.C.
Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Founded 1911 @ Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.
Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Founded 1911 @ Howard University, Washington, D.C.
Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Founded 1913 @ Howard University, Washington, D.C.
Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Founded 1914 @ Howard University, Washington, D.C.
Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Founded 1920 @ Howard University, Washington, D.C.
Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Founded 1922 @ Butler University, Indianapolis, Indiana.
Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Founded 1963 @ Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland.

3 - Now, I know what some of you are already going to say: "nationals will never go for a public pledge program.  Too much liability."  And you're probably right, but hear me out for just a moment.  If, for the sake of argument, the NPHC decided to bring back pledging (not to be confused with "hazing" - there is a difference), it could be done if 2 things happen: (i) each NPHC organization drafts a structured (read: legal) "Pledge Program"; and (ii) each NPHC organization requires every applicant to sign a legally binding contract to participate in said Pledge Program.  In a nutshell, the contract would stipulate that the Fraternity/Sorority agrees to stick to whatever structured above-ground pledge process was adopted by the national body.  Each organization can spell out what this means.  The contract would also stipulate that so long as both the organization and the participant stick to the Pledge Program, all civil liability is waived.  If anybody does anything crazy that goes beyond the scope of the agreement, then that individual may, of course, be held both civilly and criminally liable.  However, under the terms of the agreement, no liability can be imputed up to the national organization (or to the applicant) if they follow their own Pledge Program.   So it would function much in the same way as the Membership Intake Program does currently, only it would incorporate an actual physical pledge process agreed to by both the national organization and the participant.  As long as both parties agree, the Pledge Program can include just about any act that does not violate state or federal law.  Paddling would be out because, legally speaking, that is criminal assault.  However, push-ups, sit-ups, squats for long periods of time and just about any other type of physical exercise or sport (including wrestling, boxing, etc.) could be freely incorporated. 

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