Greece is Burning: the Impending Death of Fraternities and Sororities
Posted by Kirsten
October 28, 2020
(tw: rape, sexual assault, alcoholism, racism, lynching, mentions of suicide)
“He planned on being somebody.” Denise Johnson exclaimed, her voice cracking with emotion. “No one wants to send their child to college and have them come back in a body bag.”
San Jose, California isn’t the first city that comes to mind when discussing racism in the United States. Nestled in the Silicon Valley, the city is known for its forward-thinking mentality in terms of both technology and social progress. San Jose State University was seen as no exception to its host town’s reputation, boasting an incredibly diverse student body and proudly claiming civil rights icons Tommie Smith and John Carlos as distinguished alumni. Their reputation as a safe space for students of color is what made the suspected lynching of Gregory Johnson, Jr. nearly 12 years ago, at his fraternity house, all the more shocking.
On November 22nd of 2008, Johnson, Jr. was found hanging in the basement of SJSU’s Sigma Chi chapter house – a house in which he was the only black man living in. According to Gregory’s family, who weren’t notified about his death until hours after the fraternity was, his body showed no evidence that his death was self-inflicted. When Mrs. Johnson arrived at the house less than a day after the death, the other members of the house were busy cleaning; spraying the basement with pine-sol, replacing his mattress, and shoving his belongings into a cardboard box. When Denise and her other family members were given Gregory’s phone, they discovered that it had been wiped of pictures, text messages, and call histories. Police and fraternity officials were swift in their classification of Gregory’s death as a suicide. After the memorial service, the Sigma Chi headquarters began investing in a house remodel, presumably to keep potential new members, their main money makers, from learning about the death. Without so much as a condolence letter to the grieving family, the gentlemen of the Epsilon Theta chapter were ready to move on.
After spending a summer reevaluating our country’s dark and shameful history surrounding our treatment of Black Americans, many of us have begun reflecting on which institutions we will no longer tolerate. Everything from syrup bottles and sports teams have bowed to the calls for reform as Black, indigenous, and other folks of color have begun to have their voices heard. Ironically, while colleges and universities have often been the traditional breeding grounds for conversations around racial and social equality, they also continue to host and sponsor organizations that were founded on the basis of keeping African Americans and other people of color unequal to whites. These organizations are known as historically white fraternities and sororities.
Fraternities and sororities began in the mid 19th century as a way of separating those with “noble” backgrounds from those without. Once universities began to desegregate, Greek Life became a safe haven for those wishing to stay away from people of color, with some organizations not fully integrating until 2013 at the University of Alabama. Many of these organizations pride themselves with links to the confederacy, with one fraternity even boasting Robert E. Lee as their “spiritual founder” (Kappa Alpha Order) and until the BLM protests of 2020, majority of the organizations didn’t recognize diversity as a priority.
Many of us have heard of the incidences that occur in this small microcosm of collegiate life. Between hazing deaths, sexual assaults, casual racism, LGBTQ-phobia, and overt classism, the sins of fraternities and sororities have become tropes to the general public. Films about Greek life reduce the harmful and even criminal elements of the culture to a mere punchline, and news stories about the horrific events that occur in real life are dismissed by university officials as the actions isolated bad faith actors. It’s also unhelpful that reports on Greek life issues are often misrepresented or completely fabricated, as was the case in Rolling Stone’s 2014 article A Rape On Campus.
Even when high profile cases of fraternity misconduct occur, they’re often handled in ways that indicate those in power don’t recognize the systematic nature of these issues. After a 2015 video of Sigma Alpha Epsilon members from the University of Oklahoma singing a racial-epithet filled song (featuring lines like “you can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me”), the school promptly expelled the chapter and the national organization publicly denounced the behavior. What wasn’t reported by the media, however, was the SAE members (both current and alumni) who claimed that the song was allegedly used at a nationwide event hosted by their HQ. It’s also worth noting that the fraternity’s local alumni association hired a civil rights attorney to protest the chapter’s expulsion.
After nearly a century and a half after the creation of Greek letter organizations, there’s more than enough statistics and academic research to disprove the need for their existence. While boasting community involvement and philanthropy fundraisers, here are some of the statistics often left out of their selling points to those outside their circle:
- Fraternity members are 300% more likely to commit rape/sexual assault.
- 4 out of 5 members engage in binge drinking
- sorority women are 75% more likely to be the victims of sexual assault.
- 73% of members reported at least one hazing experience.
Even with these horrifying conclusions, university officials will find any reason to justify their presence on campus, because of the one statistic that matters most to them: over 3/4ths of Greek life member alumni donate to their university over graduation.
As one of the few women of color admitted into a historically white sorority during my undergraduate career, I know firsthand the pain of living in a system that wasn’t meant for people like me to exist in. Within the two years of my membership, I was told I had to lose weight, was banned from wearing my hearing aids during recruitment sessions and was told that sleeping with fraternity men was a method of building campus popularity.
It seemed like helping a sister through the sexual assault reporting process was a monthly occurrence, as was the inevitable backlash I got after encouraging others from staying away from the fraternity the perpetrators came from. Disordered eating and using skin lightening filters were the unspoken norm. After being assaulted by a fraternity member myself, I kept it to myself because by that point, it was well established that speaking up about your trauma would make you a social pariah.
After telling these stories in depth in conversation I had years after the fact with administrators from my alma mater, I was met with a number of invalidating, victim blaming responses defending the system that had caused so much pain in my life. “It’s your word against the rest of the community. Who am I supposed to listen to?”
The Abolish Greek Life movement that came out of the summer’s fight for racial equality has disrupted university’s naïve and convenient notion that stories like mine were isolated incidences. Disaffiliated Greek life members from schools from every corner of the country, including one at my own university, have started a social media movement encouraging survivors to share their stories of discrimination and bigotry that they witnessed while on the inside. Many of the stories have similar themes, with one of the more familiar tropes being the racism and exclusion of black, brown, and queer people during the recruitment process, and the tokenization of those who managed to make it in. Aside from the more social aspects, financial records have also been exposed, showing both the disproportionate amount of dues collected verses money raised for philanthropy (at California State University, Long Beach? less than 10% according to their self-reported numbers), and the vast amount of dues money that went to supporting the campaigns of right-wing, anti-survivor politicians like Mitch McConnell through a political action committee entitled FRATpac.
Women of color have taken lead in this campaign, working to not only raise the profile on abolishment, but ensuring that survivors have a network of support. In a culture that encourages silence through social isolation, activists have managed to encourage hundreds, if not thousands, of survivors of all gender and racial backgrounds to stand up against both the Greek letter organizations, and the universities that enable them.
If this strange year has taught us anything, it’s that any entity that claims to have “a few bad apples” more often than not simply a tree with poisoned roots. While fraternities and sororities have just recently made pledges to diversify, their systematic structural issues make it impossible for meaningful, non-performative reform to occur. Greek life is working exactly like their founders intended; a way to capitalize on the youthful angst and insecurities in order to create an us vs. them mentality. A house built on a faulty structure can’t simply be repaired, it has to be rebuilt from the ground up.
The death of Gregory Johnson, Jr. was a tragedy- one that prevented a family from seeing their son live the life he was supposed to have lived. It was also a tragedy, however, that could have been avoided if his university took the promise they make to protect their students seriously. Just as Denise Johnson, and countless mothers across the country shouldn’t have brought their sons back in a body bag, students should feel confident in the fact that they can participate in school activities without the threat of rape, injury, or death – something that cannot happen until Greek life is abolished. Sorority and fraternity survivors have lit the flame of conversation, hoping that it’s illumination might prompt the rest of our community to add it to the list of racist institutions we’re leaving in the past.
Let’s use this flame to let the whole system burn to the ground.