The Caucasian Clause, the First Amendment, and Why Are We Still Having These Conversations?

Authored by: David Westol, Principal & Owner, Limberlost Consulting, Inc.

You’ve seen the images.  C’mon.  We all have.  Members of our organizations—often NIC or NPC chapters—dressed, costumed, sometimes wearing facial paint –to depict people who are not like them. In appearance.  In culture.  In religious beliefs.  In financial status or upbringing. And those actions have taken on a choreography.

Students portray themselves in ways that many others consider insensitive, racist, and xenophobic. Photos are posted.  Photos end up on the front page, print or virtual.  Reaction from those offended is swift and critical.  Reaction from the chapter(s) follows a distinct pattern--“We apologize…not our values…didn’t realize…didn’t understand…now we know.”

I have come to expect bad behavior on special days. Halloween.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.  Cinco De Mayo.  Because I care about all Greek letter organizations and the diverse members who join our organizations, this is important to say: it hurts when we mock or demean interfraternal sisters and brothers or others. Don’t we have enough critics these days without creating more within our own communities, not to mention our campuses and in the public at large?

So, let’s look at this historically.

There was a time when some—not all—NIC and NPC organizations restricted their membership based upon race and in some cases upon religion.

While article length prohibits a detailed analysis, some of our organizations, including mine, had membership restrictions based on religion, race, and nationality.

The good news is that in the years immediately after World War II our own undergraduates—some of them veterans—brought about change in our national organizations by challenging those policies.  As one veteran stated at an NIC meeting in the late 1940s, “If we can fight shoulder to shoulder with them…if we can hold them in our arms as they are dying…we should be able to call them brothers.”

After several court cases were decided in favor of universities—one in the SUNY system, another at the University of Colorado—it became clear that restrictions based on religion, race, and other status would not survive. It is important to note that a number of men’s chapters voluntarily returned their charters to their respective national organizations—three at Dartmouth, for example—in order to recruit or initiate men of color.  The women’s national organizations, meanwhile, made the practical choice of eliminating “The Clause,” (which banned members on the basis of race or religion), as it came to be known.

So we’re good, right?  Anyone can join our chapters, right?  And we’re over discrimination, right?

Not so fast, my friends, as Coach Lee Corso likes to say on ESPN.

Several years ago, a brave young women’s fraternity member stood up in a bid session meeting in her chapter and asked why they weren’t going to consider an African American rushee after an alumna had said the issue was resolved. And because of her question she helped change at least some things for the better in her chapter and on her campus.  And while this was a positive step forward, about 2.5 years ago two young men stood up in a chartered bus on the way to a formal and sang an extremely racist song, showing us that we have much further to go to create an inclusive fraternity experience.

And, there have been women’s recruitment videos, party themes, costumes, and related situations that have generated criticisms and sometimes protests and confrontations.

So, can what can you do to bring about positive change?

We can begin by challenging those who wish to demean or minimize others through parties, events, and portrayals. We can educate each other as to why demeaning choices hurt. 

And we can bring the essential quality of courage to our discussions and, in my opinion, to the chapter meeting when the knucklehead squad members say, “Hey, this might be fun!”  As with many other negative aspects of fraternity and sorority life, we choose to engage in racist behavior…and in my experience it is almost always a small but vocal group that drives the decision.  Be courageous to stand up against it.

We can bring that courage to campus.  Many a judge has said, “The response to inappropriate speech is more speech” and that reflects our First Amendment.  Bring it.  Speak up.  As undergraduates, your words to your fellow undergraduates mean much, much more than words from someone like me.

And, engage.  I was consulting on a campus a few years ago that used the typical four-council organizational model.  And even I—a Boomer white guy—noticed that the placement of the council names on logos and publications was always the same with IFC and PHA on top and MGC and NPHC on the bottom.  I said, “I get it that those two councils (IFC and PHA) are the largest, but why don’t you consider mixing them up on occasion?”  And that led to a discussion.  And at least some understanding, all the way around the table.

This is a tough topic.  But we’re not going to advance by accepting assumptions and traditional ways of approaching the topic. Bring your courage.  I am confident that you will find ways to make things more inclusive.

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