Is this really the 21st century?

In the past week, the University of Alabama has been attracting a lot of unfriendly attention due to the recent revelation that their sororities sometimes accept or reject members based on race.

In fact, according to an article published in the Crimson White (the university’s own newspaper), the sorority system is almost entirely segregated, with minority students finding it all but impossible to be recruited into historically white Greek houses.

No, you needn’t check your calendars. The year is currently 2013. And yet, we still have to deal with stories like these. Yes, it bothers me too.

This really is a case of outright racial discrimination. The article refers to two black students who were seeking to become sorority members this year and describes one of them specifically as “a prime recruit for any organization, sorority or otherwise.” But she wasn’t recruited, solely because of the colour of her skin.

The university administration has since called on these sororities and fraternities to end the discriminatory practices, and various sororities recruited a total of fifteen minority students over last weekend.  It was inevitable, really: to do nothing in the face of such intense scrutiny could be seen as condoning the sororities’ behaviour, a notion that the University of Alabama no doubt wants to avoid.

If I may play devil’s advocate for a moment, though, should the administration really have intervened?

Sororities, along with their male counterpart fraternities, are independent, private institutions. In some cases, the universities own the land and buildings that they use, but this is really the extent of the relationship. It could be argued that the University of Alabama is stepping beyond their role in effectively telling sororities to change their policy.

As well, it’s important to note that it wasn’t even the sororities themselves who made the call. Reading through the Crimson White’s article, it’s stated that many of the sororities were planning to give the black recruits a chance until alumnae of the organizations spoke up and vetoed their applications – why alumnae are granted this ability was not explained. If anything, this incident should speak ill of the Greek letter system in general, not on the specific sororities involved.

This brings up another point: sororities and fraternities are built off of exclusion, and this sort of thing is really not new. Many universities and colleges have historically white or historically black Greek organizations, and while some of these have become more integrated as time goes on, many others stay true to their roots.

 The University of Alabama has more than 30,000 students, approximately twelve percent of which are black and twenty-four percent of which are members in sororities or fraternities. However, only these two black women are known to have applied to any of the traditionally white sororities. It seems somewhat unreasonable to expect drastic change when there appears to be so little demand.

 As this all demonstrates, there is certainly more to the situation than what most people will see in the headlines. Many newspapers are making sensationalist judgments about the girls involved and the University of Alabama that don’t hold up under close examination, and their readers are liable to follow suit. A deeper analysis is always important with issues like this.

That being said, this sort of abject discrimination (for that is indeed what was happening) is unacceptable no matter what the situation is. If nothing else, this story should make it clear that the Greek letter system, founded so heavily on exclusion, doesn’t really fit in with the more inclusive attitudes of today. Evolution—and integration—is necessary if sororities and fraternities are going to keep on functioning.

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