Newsletter > March 2002 > "KLAN COSTUMES OR BLACK FACE – THE AFTERMATH"
KLAN COSTUMES OR BLACK FACE – THE AFTERMATH
Tim Burke, Manley & Burke
The January 2002 issue of Fraternal Law, which reported on fraternities whose Halloween parties had included members dressed in Ku Klux Klan costumes, black face and Afro wigs was primarily intended to discuss the abilities of national fraternities, as opposed to public institutions, to punish such conduct. Unfortunately, the article failed to differentiate between the costumes worn by various fraternities. It gave the impression that members of Beta Theta Pi had dressed in Klan costumes. That was inaccurate.
The following comments, explaining the conduct, its aftermath and impacts, was prepared by Romaine S. Scott, who is serving as the coordinating attorney for the Betas at Auburn:
The Betas did not have anyone dressed in Klan robes, confederate uniforms or other dress related to the racism so often identified with the South. Ten dressed in blackface and nine of them wore jerseys adorned with the letters of an African-American fraternity while one wore overalls and carried a fishing pole. The theme of the party was to come dressed as someone or something you might find in the Auburn community. The jerseys of the African-American fraternity were originally acquired in a swap at a social event attended by members of Beta Theta Pi and the African-American fraternity. Some of the Betas also wore, at the Halloween party, jerseys of other white fraternities. As odd as it may seem, the Betas were being inclusive in their view of persons or things one might find in the Auburn community when they portrayed the African-American fraternity members along with the members of other white fraternities. Yet, in their effort to include everyone (some were costumed as handicapped persons, Hispanics and other ethnic, racial or culturally distinctive groups), they offended the minority group that often expresses concern about being left out. Unfortunately, the Betas have been swept into that group of fraternities whose conduct was clearly racist - those wearing Klan robes or otherwise depicting times when African-Americans were treated poorly.
[There is no question that racial sensitivity must be addressed on college campuses because many majority students do not know where the line between sensitivity and insensitivity is drawn.]
The result has been devastating to the Betas as potential employers have withdrawn job offers and at least one student has had his student job threatened by his African-American superior. There is no question that racial sensitivity must be addressed on college campuses because many majority students do not know where the line between sensitivity and insensitivity is drawn. The location seems to be constantly moving as various racially motivated political agenda come to light. At a University of Alabama in Birmingham medical school Halloween party to which African-American students were invited but did not attend, some white students wore Fat Albert and Stevie Wonder masks. When some of the African-American students learned of those costumes the next day, they said they were offended that whites would wear such masks. They demanded an apology, which they got from the students and the University. Recently there was a letter to the editor in the Birmingham News complaining that hostesses on a holiday home tour wore Antebellum dresses and that, because such attire was worn during the time of slavery, it was offensive to African-Americans. One wonders where the encroachment on a person’s freedom to dress as their hero who is of a different race or to wear historical clothing will end.
[Much of the turmoil could have been avoided with less accusation and more communication.]
Adding to the difficulty for the Betas is the fact that the party was attended by an African-American who is dating one of the Betas. She said she was not offended by the costumes worn by the Betas. Her reaction adds to the confusion and raises the question as to whether the wearing of blackface really is considered offensive by a majority of African-Americans or whether, instead, it is offensive only to those who seek to keep the flames of division burning. I do not have the answer. While many whites have said that they find the wearing of blackface offensive, we certainly enjoyed Al Jolson, Amos and Andy, and others who have worn blackface in a nonracial context over the years. I sometimes think, as I work on this case, that we have become a society governed by those who purport to be the most sensitive and easily offended. It is easy to look forward to the time when the rules of conduct for our society are clear so we can all know what to say, what to wear and how to act in a manner that is guaranteed not to offend anyone. Of course, to reach such a time would necessitate a tremendous loss of freedom. A better solution is for all of us to understand that people engage in behavior which sometimes appears insensitive but is not i tended to be. In the case of the Betas, there was no intention to offend anyone nor did they perceive that they would do so. Much of the turmoil could have been avoided with less accusation and more communication. The Beta experience has a lot of lessons to teach and I hope we all will learn from it.
BETA THETA PI SANCTIONS
Romaine Scott filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Alabama Betas against Auburn University and the Beta Theta Pi general fraternity. That suit, at least against the general fraternity, has now been settled. Beta’s Auburn Chapter continues as a “suspended” chapter whose operations are limited and the chapter must initiate, according to a Beta press release, “a number of far-reaching educational measures designed to heighten awareness and sensitivity to diversity issues.”
The General Secretary of the Fraternity, David Wright, said “we need to do all we can to emphasize to students that respect for the individual is a core fraternity value.”
Among the requirements imposed on the chapter is the obligation to recruit a diversity advisor and to integrate diversity training in the areas of pledge education and ongoing membership programs and to make a concerted effort to enhance minority recruitment The general fraternity has also required that each member of its Auburn Chapter perform 30 hours of community service targeted toward “improving or enhancing minority communities and/or race relations” and the chapter is obligated to engage the services of a bona fide diversity consultant who shall design and implement a comprehensive diversity/sensitivity education program and who will provide ongoing training and education to members and pledges annually each fall through 2005. One hundred percent of the chapter must visit and take a guided tour of the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, and the chapter must design and conduct a workshop on diversity and sensitivity issues at the next General Convention of the Fraternity.
Harry E. Johnson, Sr., an attorney and General President of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the nation’s oldest fraternity established for college educated African-American men offers this view:
At Auburn, members of Delta Sigma Phi dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes and were photographed simulating a lynching of a man “in black face.” Beta Theta Pi members wore black face, afro wigs and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity garb aimed at parodying black culture.
Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. applauds the measures taken by Auburn University’s President in quickly denouncing the behavior of these misguided individuals. Actions like those at Auburn have no place in the halls of academia and neither do the individuals that work to destroy the fragile trust that our nation has struggled so hard to achieve in the areas of racial healing and reconciliation.
In response to this egregious behavior, the national fraternities suspended both the chapters and perpetrators responsible for the racist behavior. In a statement released by the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity, the organization’s General Secretary, David Wright, in suspending the offending members and suspending the chapter at Auburn University, said: “Losing a chapter is always difficult, but the actions which gave rise to this decision are not reflective of our Fraternity’s values and cannot be tolerated.” Jon Hockman, Delta Sigma Phi’s Executive Director, intoned, in expelling the offending member.s from his organization: “The deplorable and intolerable images we have been shown are in complete contradiction to our Fraternity’s values and beliefs.”
While the response by the leadership of these national organizations is laudable and deserving of support, the issue of racial animus and insensitivity is one that Greek letter organizations have continued to struggle with, ever since the establishment of Kappa Alpha, the oldest fraternity of the general type, in the mid-1800’s. During the 1950s, for example, immediately following the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education in which the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the “separate but equal” law, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) confronted racial discrimination within the campus’ fraternities and sororities, where many of the organizations had racially restrictive clauses in their bylaws. In fact, a National Intercollegiate Conference on Selectivity and Discrimination in. American Universities, organized by Undergraduate Association president Eldon H. Reiley, was convened at MIT in March 1955 to address this pervasive issue. The conference served as a basis for MIT and its affiliated fraternities to develop acceptable practices and policies on race.
Today, however, even as the Greek letter community adopts policies and procedures that are more reflective of twenty-first century standards, the insidious problem of racial insensitivity amongst fraternities and sororities continues to remain an issue that simply won’t go away. At the University of North Texas, for example, university officials were quick to denounce the actions of the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity for an incident surrounding the university’s recruiting efforts. Reports vary, but according to eyewitness accounts, between 20-40 members of the Kappa Alpha Order chanted racial epithets at a group of 35 mostly black football recruits during a campus tour while athletes and their parents walked through the student union. The incident lasted less than five minutes as the tour group was quickly ushered into the bookstore, but the effects are likely to last a lifetime. “Racism is totally inconsistent with UNT’s mission,” Norval Pohl, the university president, said in a prepared statement. “Because these allegations are so grievous, I have asked for a swift and thorough investigation and a conclusive determination.” In another incident at the University of Georgia, the Alpha Gamma Delta Sorority was cited for refusing to admit an African-American female into their organization, simply because she was Black. At Valdosta State University, African-American students jogging past the Sigma Nu Fraternity house were bombarded with racial slurs and epithets because of the color of their skin. With the increase in the incidences of racial taunting and outright discrimination, many Greek letter organizations have begun the process of reevaluating their selection criteria and mission statements, so that they are more reflective of their organizational values of leadership, community service and good citizenship. The evidence clearly dictates, however, that many of these goals have yet to be achieved by several of the country’s leading fraternal organizations.
[The insidious problem of racial insensitivity amongst fraternities and sororities continues to remain an issue that simply won’t go away.]
In a show of support for those targeted by racial discrimination at the hands of fellow fraternity and sorority members, the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. has, once again, reaffirmed its commitment to fighting bigotry and injustice around the world, whether it is aimed at people of color, in general, or fellow members of the Black Greek letter community, in particular. Alpha Phi Alpha will continue to remain vigilant in its efforts to stamp out the scourge of racism, wherever it may be found. To that end, the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. has called on members of both the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which serves as the umbrella organization for the nine major Black Greek letter organizations, and affiliate members of the National Interfraternity Council, which serves as the umbrella organization for members of majority organizations, to develop and implement strategies and programs aimed at educating members of various Greek letter organizations on the importance of racial and gender sensitivity.
Founded on December 4, 1906 at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. has continued to supply voice and vision to the struggle of African-Americans and people of color around the world. The Fraternity has long stood at the forefront of the African-American community’s fight for civil rights, through leaders such as leading black intellectual Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, U.S. Senator Edward Brooke, Dr. Cornel West and many, many others. True to its form as the “first of firsts,” Alpha Phi Alpha has been interracial since 1945.