In Part 2 of a special 3-part series on Black Greek Letter Organization hazing, author Lawrence C. Ross Jr. on why dangerous “underground” pledging still exists, and if the BGLOs are effectual when it comes to dealing with the root causes. Part 1 of this series is here.
The belief in physical violence as a possible good, which many black Greek members use as a way to rationalize their behavior, has resulted in some gruesome hazing incidents since the official end of pledging.
In 1994, Michael Davis was underground pledging Kappa Alpha Psi at Southeast Missouri State, when his fraternity big brothers beat him to death with paddles. Kappa was sued for $2.25 million.
After beating Shawn Blackstone, an Omega pledge at the University of Louisville, to the point of kidney failure, Omega Psi Phi was ordered to pay damages of $931,000.
In 2002, Kristin High and Kenitha Saafir were pledging AKA on a Los Angeles area beach at midnight, when high waves swept them out to sea. Both drowned. AKA was sued for $100 million and eventually settled with the High and Saafir families.
And at Florida A&M in 2006, two members of Kappa Alpha Psi were sent to jail for two years after beating a pledge with canes. In all, there are over 100 hazing cases over the past 20 years that involve hazing injuries like broken bones, ruptured kidneys, concussions, near drownings and death. Instead of the culture of pledging violence lessening, it appears to be intensifying.
“The problem is two-fold,” says Washington, D.C., based attorney Douglas Fierberg. He specializes in hazing cases and has worked on numerous black Greek cases, representing victims like the family of Joseph Green, a Tennessee State student who died while underground pledging Omega Psi Phi in 2001. The resulting $15 million lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount.
“First, I’m not too sure that senior [black fraternity and sorority] management believes that initiation should be done without hazing. Many have been hazed [themselves] and view pledging as a form of manhood and worthiness.”
Joann Loveless, International Grand Basileus of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, wants to get rid of hazing within her sorority, but recognizes that the tentacles of hazing go deep within the DNA of her members.
“Our seasoned members must stop ‘glorifying the old days,’ Loveless says. “Our undergraduates see the fire in our [older members] eyes and the thrill in our voices and want to experience the same thing. Many also want to preserve the ‘secret actions’ that they confuse with the ceremonial rituals. They believe that hazing is part of the same whole. Some believe that if it was good enough for us who are currently strong and committed leaders, then why not for them?”
Yet, while black Greek organizations recognize the symptoms of underground pledging, and why it exists, they’ve been largely ineffectual when it comes to dealing with the root causes. And some observers think that instead of making substantive changes, the organizations are more comfortable giving mostly lip service to the problem.
“The fact that hazing continues at an unabated pace proves that either these organizations do not want to stop it—or don’t know how. Neither of these choices is good, but there are no others,” says Ricky Jones, professor at the University of Louisville and author of Black Haze (State University of New York Press). Dr. Jones is also a member of Kappa Alpha Psi.
“After years of researching and observing this constantly deteriorating situation, I believe the rule changes national offices initiate are for little more than window-dressing and legal defenses,” he says. “The proof is in the pudding. Presently, the question is not if, but when another kid will be injured or killed trying to join one of our groups. That’s real, sad and unacceptable.”
Fierberg says it kind of all comes down to the money. “While black Greek organizations have outlawed hazing, the fact is that they’ve committed few or any resources to implement policy to insure that underground pledging has been abolished,” Fierberg says. “During our lawsuit with Omega, we exposed that the fraternity only spent $50 on risk management—for 11 chapters. There was a big difference between what their lips were doing and their feet are doing—a difference between walk and talk.”
“The solution,” says Alpha Phi Alpha general president Herman “Skip” Mason, “is to take membership intake from the ranks of the chapters to completely avoid episodes of underground pledging. This is a systemic and cultural problem of a generation of students who are defiant of rules and norms and are more loyal to old traditions and ways of doing things despite the consequences.” Black Greek Letter Organizations reflect society and culture. Just as the nation has not eradicated gun violence and wars with foreign countries and threats of international attacks, BGLOs have not eradicated underground pledging, though the consequences are made very clear.”
But to Anjan Basu, despite the consequences that come with pledging underground, which can include suspension and expulsion, there’s a definite benefit to pledging underground that can’t be found with the current membership intake process. “Those who haven’t gone through a process generally still love the fraternity and try to build upon the aims and principles as they see fit. Generally, they hold the fraternity above all else,” says Basu. “Unfortunately, whenever the camaraderie of brotherhood falls into conflicts with the business of the fraternity as an organization, the brotherhood is causally thrown aside, for “it’s nothing personal, it’s business.” This, to Basu, creates and maintains a disconnect between the fraternity and the heart.
“Those who have successfully completed a process are generally instilled with a sense of unity and purpose,” he continues. “My [pledge] dean told me, ‘The beauty of a line-brother is that you do not choose your LB, your LB is thrust upon you.” The actual brotherhood that we advertise so effectively is actually built through a process.”
Tomorrow: For black Greeks, the decision to accept the status quo of active underground pledging or to create a different solution that attacks the problem may be a case of life or death, for both the pledges and the organizations themselves.
Lawrence C. Ross Jr. is author of the best-selling The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. He is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.