Do UT Frats Have a Race Problem?
Longtime Longhorn Sees some improvement; room for more
Born on the 18th anniversary of the historic U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, Richard Reddick, an associate professor at UT-Austin, researches, among other things, diversity (or lack thereof) in higher education. Before becoming a professor, Reddick was a stellar student at UT in the early Nineties – a Plan II Honors student on full scholarship, who was also involved on campus as an orientation adviser, a Leadership Board member, and even a Silver Spur. Any university should've welcomed a young man like Reddick. But that wasn't always the case.
In a 2012 interview, Reddick told The Alcalde that "the climate could be chilly for black students." After all, during his first year on campus, a Phi Gamma Delta member sold shirts depicting "a Sambo-like Fiji islander," and a Delta Tau Delta member painted "a racial slur on the trunk of an old car that the fraternity had planned to smash after driving it in the Round-Up parade."
Fortunately, Reddick was able to find welcoming spaces on campus that enabled him to find success (he credits the Office of the Dean of Students and especially his mentors Brenda Burt, Ricardo Romo, and others).
Unfortunately, the issues that Reddick dealt with as a student didn't graduate with him, as recent events have shown. While Reddick believes that some people have made progress and have tried to address institutional racism, he laments, "Has there been systemic change? Structural change? The evidence doesn't seem to support that."
Of course, UT-Austin has made great progress regarding diversity on campus, but it's far from complete. While more diverse than the Greek community in particular, UT in general isn't representative of the state's demographics as a whole. African-Americans compose almost 14% of the national population and 12% of the Texas population, but just over 4% of the UT student body. While UT has more Latinos (around 18%) than the national average (around 17%), they're hugely underrepresented compared to the state population, which is 38% Latino.
At UT – as at many universities – most fraternities and sororities are predominantly white. From their very beginnings, exclusivity – especially regarding race, money, and power – has been part of the foundation of fraternities. Originally, they were exclusively white because of institutional segregation; UT, for example, was a legally segregated institution until the Sixties. But that doesn't excuse fraternities, which took additional steps of their own to restrict membership to white, Christian men. These restrictions weren't seriously challenged until the late Forties, and were eventually officially banned in the Sixties.
Reddick said, "Historically what's happened is that when people feel that they're excluded from fraternities, they form their own. And that's how we have historically black fraternities, that's how we have Latino fraternities, that's how we have fraternities of every other group that's been historically excluded. You don't try to fix them from within, you make your own."
Because outsiders haven't been able to change fraternities, the organizations have maintained a sort of social isolation. Christian Umbria Smith of Longhorn LULAC, the UT chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, told the Chronicle, "It's a matter of who is composing these groups and how their lives are unaffected by race, that then gives them the ignorance to how their actions affect minority groups."
There are economic factors contributing to the segregation as well. Joining a fraternity can cost more than tuition. Membership in most organizations costs thousands of dollars: UT's Fiji, for example, charges $6,000, and thousands more for room and board for those living at the house. Furthermore, West Campus, where most Greek houses are located, "has long been expensive and recently became enormously more expensive," as city demographer Ryan Robinson told The Daily Texan in 2012. Because wealth still correlates with race, many black and Latino students are unable to afford to live in the neighborhood – thus reinforcing the social isolation of the Greek community.
As Smith said, "Money affords a certain kind of privilege that allows one not to have to worry about racial issues and therefore, sensitivity training, either from their families or through actual courses, are not necessary for their kind of lifestyle. So they're more prone to these kind of incidences when they don't think about what they're doing and how it affects other groups." While acknowledging that "the actions of a few cannot represent the whole," Smith says, "we can't ignore the fact that these issues are predominantly coming out of the Greek community."
All these factors reinforce the exclusionary nature of fraternities, which contributes to the difficulty of changing such an environment. Reddick said, "I really do worry about what happens in spaces that are the domain of privileged white men, because those places aren't often penetrated by people who aren't privileged white men. So unless other privileged white men see this as a problem or something that needs to be fixed, it will probably never improve. That's the sobering idea about this whole thing."
As an educator himself, Reddick believes that education on these issues is extremely important. Speaking of the University of Oklahoma SAE video that resulted in the fraternity being shut down by the school, he said, "These guys were talking about lynching like, you know, 'It's no big thing, it's just a private chant,' instead of saying, 'My God, this is such an offensive, horrific part of American history.' You know, how much do they know about it?" For this reason, Reddick recommends that "every organization should have had some level of training before these things happen."
Reddick emphasized the importance of convergence in addressing these problems, saying it needs to be more than just fraternity members and students of color who are paying attention to these issues. And it's not just frat parties; there are lots of microaggressions on campus and in general society too. "The minute it becomes your problem, as well as the next guy's problem, is the minute it compels a change," he said.
"The problem's not going to fix itself," especially if only outsiders are upset about it, Reddick said. "But if people from the organization say, 'We see a problem with this and we're going to actually take steps to fix this,' then there's hope for making it better."