World Trust

Systems Create and Maintain Inequity: the SAE Greek Example

Posted by Dia Penning on March 24, 2015


World Trust Director of Curriculum, Education Manager and Workshop Facilitator Dia Penning weighs in on how the recent exposure of the racist Sigma Alpha Epsilon members is not a one-off example of a few racist students singing a racist song but an example of how systemic inequity is reinforced and passed on from generation to generation of those with influence and power positions in the United States.    

When the whole country saw a bus full of Sigma Alpha Epsilon(SAE) brothers singing, “there will never be a n***er in SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me,” media outlets claimed it was an isolated incident and parents insisted their nice boys made a mistake. But, I started thinking about power, about wealth, and about who runs this country.

SAE is one of the largest North American Greek-letter social college fraternities.  Founded at the University of Alabama on March 9, 1856, it is the only national social fraternity, existing today, that was founded in the Antebellum South. Over 90 percent of their founding membership fought in the civil war supporting slavery. SAE is one of hundreds of fraternities in the country and the fraternal system is far-reaching.  

Type an internet search of “Greeks” and “power” and you’ll land at the North-American Interfraternity Conference that boasts “at this date 44% of U.S. Presidents have held fraternity membership.” Think about this: “…of the nation’s 50 largest corporations, 43 are headed by fraternity men and 85% of the Fortune 500 executives belong to a fraternity.” That is a pretty large concentration of wealth and power in the hands of those affiliated with the North America InterFraternity Council.  

It is very important to note that there is a significant distinction made between the National Pan-Hellenic Council (an umbrella group made up of national black fraternities and sororities) and the North American Interfraternity Conference (an umbrella group made up of national white fraternities). The National Pan-Hellenic Council was created because blacks were not allowed membership in the traditionally white InterFraternity Council.

In 2003, Tuscaloosa native Carla Ferguson became the first black woman to pledge a traditionally white sorority through formal recruitment. She accepted a bid to Gamma Phi Beta and remains the ONLY black woman to have pledged through the formal recruitment process over a decade later (Crimson White paper of the University of Alabama, 9/11/13). Although Terry Hatter pledged Phi Nu Theta in 1950 (History of Eclectic Society of Phi Nu Theta, page 110, Moody), currently men of color account for less than 2.5% of all pledges in the North American Interfraternity Council. This, when the national statistics for people of color on campus is nearly 27%!  

According to the ideas of Meritocracy, education is supposed to be the space that equalizes. The expectation is that if a person gets their education, success and all the rest falls in line.  In other words, the thinking goes, work hard and it will all be yours. And yet, it seems that some Greeks are playing by different rules.

As alumni, Greeks belonging to the North American Fraternity Council give approximately 75% of all money donated to universities. WHOA.... WHAT?  Their donor influence auspiciously extends to the decisions that school presidents and trustees make. In fact, many Greek alumni ARE presidents and trustees. Even more troubling, World Trust’s friend and facilitator Amer Ahmed’s blog notes that “Greek organizations are among the few in higher education that are not required to comply with non-discriminatory policies."

The over 9 million Greek members in the United States seem to have a different set of standards than the rest of our college students. And as alumni, they weld a much higher degree of power both on and off campus. What does that say about how equalizing education really is? Whether the SAE bus trip was an isolated incident or not, it gives you pause to think that 2% of the US population is held to different standards. Standards that affect not only economics and how power is concentrated and wielded, but in some instances, the safety of people of color. 

When you think about what holds the system of inequity in place, power and economics are at the center. The amount of money and status that these Greeks hold, in the education system and in our country, give them a different place at the table.  This is only one example of how systems create and maintain inequity and how they are passed on to the next generation.  For one group to hold so much power causes a serious imbalance and should give us all something to think about, whether the SAE song was an isolated incident or not.

You can find out more about the system of social inequity and power dynamics through World Trust’s Racial Equity Learning modules and our film Cracking the Codes: the System of Racial Inequity.  Contact us for more information.

Topics: Higher Ed, System of Inequity, Resources for Facilitators & Educators, Responding to a Racist Incident, Racial Equity Learning