Roy Exum: Alabama’s Racial Flare-Up

Saturday, September 21, 2013
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

When the University of Alabama football team plays its first home game of the year today, some Crimson Tide fans will be sitting in different seats. Tonight the fraternities and sororities will not be allowed to sit together in “blocks” of seats as they have at every game for many years – they will instead be scattered apart from one another in an attempt to “foster togetherness” between the students.

Exactly 50 years ago Governor George Wallace tried to prevent two black students from attending the university. Now there is now a concerted push to force the university’s fraternities and sororities to issue invitations to minority students, most specifically blacks who fail to get invitations from the various chapters.

This is touchy ground. Can the state of Alabama, or the Department of Justice, decree who you can invite into your home for dinner? What about a membership process that has famously been determined by a vote of 50 or so sorority sisters? Or is it time for our future leaders to survey society’s landscape and realize they might be better with a diverse mixture of students in a fun, social setting? Either way, the U.S. District Attorney is now monitoring allegations of racial discrimination and segregation in the Greek system in Tuscaloosa.

But – wait! -- on Friday at least two sororities presented open invitations to two black girls. In a warm turn of events, Halle Lindsay accepted what is known as a continuous open bid from the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority. Cami McCant, a senior at the university, accepted a bid to Kappa Alpha Theta and more bids are expected.

Last weekend black activist Jesse Jackson showed up to spew and stomp and, on Wednesday, nearly 400 students, carrying a huge banner that read, “The Final Stand In The Schoolhouse Door,” to the Rose Administration Building in an effort to encourage change and acceptance in the fraternities and sororities that contribute to student life.

An article in the student newspaper, “Crimson White,” claimed that the first (and last) time a sorority pledged a black was in 2003 and apparently the “investigative journalism” hit a raw nerve on campus. The newspaper reported that four sororities had denied two well-qualified black girls. According to Alpha Gamma Delta member Melanie Gotz, the black girl she knows was denied a bid because she was black.

Gotz told the newspaper, “That's stupid, but who's going to be the one to make that jump? How much longer is it going to take til we have a black girl in a sorority? It's been years, and it hasn't happened.” Yardena Wolf of the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority added, “I think that the only time the administration or the sororities would ever take accountability for something is when there's all this outside pressure, I wish it could be coming more from a place of love during real rush, and I wish this had happened a month ago.”

Matthew W. Hughey, an associate professor of African American Studies at the University of Connecticut who has studied racism in white sororities, told Inside Higher Ed magazine, “It’s de jure illegal, but de facto in practice,” Hughey said. “The bigger point here is that the Greek letter system – all over the United States, not just in the deep South – has traditionally been based on exclusion…. We shouldn’t think organizations based on exclusion will all of a sudden become inclusive.”

Inside Higher Ed knows many clubs and groups are exclusive and had a side-story about Smith College. It seems a girl who is straight wants to start a club for her minority friends who are also not lesbians. The magazine printed a letter that said, in part, “Hello, this is (name) and I am sending this message to girls I think might be interested in this idea and I would also love to hear your opinion on this so I have this crazy idea.

“I want to start a sorority at Smith (Delta Gamma/DG), which would basically just be an exclusive group for straight girls, a little friend group,” the letter read, “We would have sorority mixers with Amherst men, weekly dinner dates, weekly photo-shoots where we would dress up nice, baking nights. We would also get Sorority apparel (even Lily Pulitzer has the cutest DG stuff!) and we’d have traditions, like every Wednesday we wear pink (haha.)

“I got this idea because personally as a straight girl at Smith, I feel marginalized and I feel like the minority,” the Smith student wrote, “and I think this could be a really great way to socialize with people we identify more with at Smith, and to meet more guys.”

While it is thrilling Alabama seems to have closed an ugly page of history, I don’t quite know what to think about Smith. A sorority for straight girls sounds as stupid as the National Association for the White People or something. And if a gay student wanted to join Delta Gamma, would it be discrimination if she wasn’t offered a bid? Oh, what a tangled web we weave.

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