"U. of Alabama studies why its fraternities and sororities remain segregated by race"
Ben Gose
The Chronicle of Higher Education
December 05, 1997


Fraternities and sororities at the University of Alabama remain segregated by race, and professor Pat Hermann has been trying to change that. However, while some professors and officials are concerned, most students--black and white--don't seem to care.

FOR A DOZEN YEARS, Pat Hermann has tried to get just one black student into a predominantly white fraternity or sorority here at the University of Alabama. The English professor has cajoled Greek leaders, encouraged black freshmen, and fired off memos to more than one university president.

Thousands of black students have come and gone in that time. Dr. Hermann plans to retire in a year and a half, and he's tired of waiting.

If a committee currently exploring the issue doesn't come up with a plan for integrating the Greek system by April, he says, he will file a lawsuit against the university accusing it of "subsidizing segregation." The university owns the land under the fraternity and sorority houses and leases it to them for $1 a year.

After dumping several pounds of background material in a reporter's lap, Dr. Hermann squints his eyes and puts both hands to his temples. "I am very, very tired," he says, "of apologists for apartheid."

When it comes to integration, Alabama has always been late to the party. In 1963, Governor George Wallace managed to thwart briefly the efforts of two black students to enroll on this campus, during his infamous stand in the schoolhouse door. The late Paul "Bear" Bryant, the university's legendary football coach, didn't put a black player on the team's roster until 1971, after losing a home game to an integrated team from the University of Southern California.

SIMPLE AVOIDANCE

This time, however, the issue is more complex.

Dr. Hermann, who is white, has few allies among students, professors, and administrators who are black. Most of them say black students aren't being excluded from the white Greek system but are simply avoiding it.

Many black students join black fraternities and sororities, which white Greek leaders concede are even more selective than their own. (Though it has happened a few times in the past, no white students are currently members of active black Greek groups at Alabama.)

In October, three black students testified before the 19-member university committee that is examining segregation in Alabama's Greek system. None of the students considered the segregation a problem.

Charles Brown, Alabama's interim vicepresident of student affairs and the highestranking black administrator in the history of the campus here, sits on the committee. But he points out repeatedly during an interview that Greek integration "is not my agenda."

Asked why so few black people on the campus seem concerned about the segregation in the Greek system, he says: "If people have the right to do what they want to do, they're comfortable with that."

Some people around the campus have taken to calling Dr. Hermann's threatened lawsuit "a case without a defendant."

These are puzzling times for integrationists such as Dr. Hermann, who is married to a black woman. He was asked by a reporter for The Tuscaloosa News this fall whether that fact has motivated his current crusade. One has nothing to do with the other, Dr. Hermann responded.

On the one hand, Alabama is a success story. Fourteen per cent of the freshmen this year are black, an all-time high. On the other hand, it is hard to find many black and white students who have meaningful social interaction with each other outside the classroom or the athletics fields. At lunchtime on a recent weekday, more than 100 students are at the food court in the Ferguson Student Center, where the choices include Burger King and Blimpie's. All but two or three of the 25 black students there are clustered at a group of tables near the entrance.

Bob Sigler, a professor of criminal justice who is working closely with Dr. Hermann in the integration effort, says some of their fiercest opponents have come from the black Greek system.

"I'm trying to make it clear to students that something that they think is okay is not okay," says Dr. Sigler, who is white. "Other universities can afford it. The University of Alabama cannot."

'NOT AN ABERRATION'

To be sure, many other campuses have Greek systems that are just as segregated. According to a poll of Southeastern Conference universities conducted recently by Alabama's Office of Student Life, the Universities of Arkansas and Georgia also have white Greek systems with no black members. At Auburn University, the white sororities have never had a black member, although the white fraternities have, according to the poll.

"We're not an aberration," says Dr. Brown, the student-affairs vice-president. At Alabama, the leaders of the white and black Greek systems share an office, but the systems are quite different. The white Greeks have 33 fraternities and sororities, with 2,500 members, and the black Greeks just eight chapters, with 150 members. Many of the white chapters own brick mansions, some worth more than a million dollars. The black Greek members live in university-owned buildings, and they tend to pay less than the white Greeks in monthly dues.

The white organizations recruit some students while they're still in high school. The black groups typically tap sophomores as new members. The black Greek organizations, unlike the white ones, also require recruits to have earned a decent gradepoint-average-say, 2.5-and to have performed some community service.

THE ROLE OF 'THE MACHINE'

Dr. Hermann says he's convinced that a few racists in the white system are causing the segregation. Last year, he advised two black women who signed up for white-sorority rush but backed out after being "strongly dissuaded" from continuing, he says. He blames "The Machine," an underground group of white Greek members that many believe has controlled studentgovernment elections for 70 years. "This is a white problem, not a black problem," he says.

But he concedes that he's just guessing about who spoke to the two black women-they never told him who urged them to drop out. When asked whether it could have been other black students, he says it's possible. He declined to give the names of the women to The Chronicle.

Dr. Brown says neither his office nor the Office of Student Life has ever received a complaint from a black student about attempting to join a white Greek organization.

David Nomberg, president of the Interfraternity Council, which oversees the white fraternities here, says no black students have tried to join any of the 18 white fraternities in at least the past three years.

That has prompted the committee examining the Greek community to consider what Dr. Brown calls "invisible barriers" to membership. Some black students, for example, might feel that white Greek organizations are holding fast to racist traditions.

Recent incidents around the country offer some evidence for that theory. Last month, a chapter of the fraternity Acacia at the University of Vermont was suspended by the university for sending recruits on a "scavenger hunt" with a mission to harass minority students. The University of Texas at Austin is investigating a report by a member of Lambda Chi Alpha that the fraternity denied a black student membership because of his race.

THE NEED TO CHANGE ATTITUDES

Alabama, of course, has had its own incidents.

Joyce B. Stallworth, an assistant professor of education, was president of Alabama's Alpha Kappa Alpha chapter in 1986, when it became the first black sorority to move to "sorority row." Someone put a burning cross in front of the house shortly after the sorority moved in, she says.

Her memory of that cross is one reason why she hopes the committee will not force Greek organizations to integrate. "People have to decide to change their attitudes. You can't force that."

Kimberly McCord, a black junior who hopes to join a black sorority, says that none of her black friends are interested in joining white sororities. "They didn't open their doors to us until they had to," she says. "Why would we want to join them now?"

Many students show up at college knowing which social organization they want to affiliate with, according to the leaders of both black and white Greek organizations. Geanous McCann, president of the PanGreek Council, which oversees the black fraternities and sororities, attended a predominantly black high school in Mobile, Ala. During his senior year, he went to parties at the University of South Alabama thrown by Kappa Alpha Psi, the same fraternity he has joined here.

"You learn about fraternities and sororities growing up," he says. "By the time you get to college, you have your mind made up what group you're going to join."

Todd McNabb, a member of Beta Theta Pi, a white fraternity, says his organization relies heavily on alumni and parents for lists of students to recruit.

"Friends of theirs tend to be white," he says.

But he and Mr. Nomberg, the Interfraternity Council president, emphasize that all incoming freshmen-not just those who are white-receive an invitation to "open rush," which is held by the white groups at the beginning of each fall.

Dr. Hermann considers the invitations disingenuous. "They send letters outisn't that wonderful?" he says. "They have done the least possible, decade after decade, to cover their asses legally." Mr. McCann, however, doesn't see it that way. "I had as much of an opportunity to participate in rush as anyone else," he says.

NO QUOTAS

One reason the university should be concerned about the Greek system's segregation, says Dr. Hermann, is that Alabama's white fraternities have turned out many of the state's business and political leaders. But D'Linell Finley, an assistant professor of political science, notes that plenty of Alabama's top black graduates, too, are going on to political careers. "People may be overplaying what The Machine is worth to one's career today," says Dr. Finley, who is black.

Where will the university go from here? Dr. Brown says the committee studying the Greek system will send its recommendations to Andrew A. Sorenson, Alabama's president, this spring. It will not propose any "quotas or mandates," he says, but is likely to suggest more social interaction among white and black houses. Already, a white and black fraternity have jointly sponsored a combination pizza party and basketball game for a local youth group.

Dr. Brown says such activities will eventually result in more black and white students' eating lunch and going to movies together. "When black and white students develop that kind of friendship, you will see more movement across white and black groups."

But the odds are long against Dr. Hermann's witnessing his dream of integration before he retires. Resistance remains strong in both Greek systems. "I don't know what the climate would be like in a predominantly black fraternity for a white student," says Dr. Stallworth, the education professor. "The motives would be questioned: `What things do we have in common? Why do you want to do this? We don't understand.' "

Mr. Nomberg is a member of Zeta Beta Tau, a chapter that has had only Jewish members since it began in 1916. "There would be resistance" among the brothers, he believes, if it were forced to accept a black student or a non-Jewish white student. "We are a social organization," he says, "and we have a right to choose our membership."