OPINION | Whiteness of Greek life contradicts Tulane students’ purported values

Sala Thanassi, Contributing Writer

As the summer of 2020 faded away, an interesting dichotomy emerged. College students who had participated in Black Lives Matter protests, or had been equally as vocal on their social medias, returned to Tulane University’s campus, home to a culture of pride around organizations broadly deemed elitist, racially homogenous and perpetuators of class and racial discrimination: Greek life. 

The vocalization of the Black Lives Matter movement that swept the country in May 2020 called for millions of eyes upon matters of racial injustice and police brutality. As national and worldwide attention grew, including widespread protests and news coverage, scrutiny doubled down upon subsequent matters of racism embedded in daily life. Greek life was one of these matters.

As people across the nation surveyed their lives with a newfound perspective, allegations of racism embedded within the Greek system could no longer be ignored. In order to better understand the many facets that contribute to racial inequality in these organizations, a historical perspective is paramount, as well as transparency regarding the many aspects of Greek life that serve as advantages to some and disadvantages to others.

41% of students at Tulane are active members of fraternities or sororities and Tulane continues to rank as the nation’s No. 2 party school, behind the University of Wisconsin. Despite the obvious contributions of Bourbon Street, local New Orleans bars and events like Mardi Gras, the parties thrown by Greek organizations undoubtedly contribute to rankings like this. 

In the wake of social justice movements that swept the world during the summer of 2020, a question arose on many college campuses, especially at Tulane: is there a dark irony to be found in a Greek life active’s advocacy for societal racial equality? Is it possible for there to be reformation for the better, or does each payment of dues perpetuate the problem? 

Greek life has long been under scrutiny for its ties to racial segregation. The first fraternity was founded in 1776, when the only U.S. demographic deemed degree-worthy was white men. The first sorority was founded in 1874, a full 80 years before the Supreme Court voted to overturn racial segregation in schools. These 80 foundational years, in which both men and women worked to strengthen the Greek system, served as ground zero in promoting something much more insidious: a breeding ground for white supremacy that persists to this day. 

American sociologist Alfred McClung Lee said in his 1955 publication “Fraternities Without Brotherhood” that “The crucial problem facing men’s and women’s fraternities is not scholarship or hazing or wild parties but self-segregation segregation on the basis of race, ethnic origin, and religion.” Of the 328.2 million people in the U.S., approximately 9 million people make up the student and alumni population involved in fraternities and sororities. This comes out to 3% of the total population. Of this 3%, according to a Princeton University study in 2011, 77% of sorority members and 73% of fraternity members were white and non-Asian; 30% of sorority members and 19% of fraternity members were legacies, the children of alumni; and 69% of sorority members and 65% of fraternity members attended private high schools. 

The commonalities don’t have to be hunted for insofar as they emerge by themselves; to reiterate the apparent, the cocktail of economic and political success seems to rest uniquely well in the hands of white men.

A byproduct of these statistics is the tendency to cast a strange glow over Greek life. What a striking testament to their contribution towards the betterment of the young academic, that so many alumni go on to boast success! However, the chicken and the egg causality dilemma addresses this arguably better than a horde of sociologists could. In journalist Maria Konnikova’s reference to fraternities, she frames them as “not creating leaders, but being created by future leaders and attracting in the future more of the same like-minded individuals … from the beginning, the invitees to these groups were almost destined for success.” For the most part, popularity breeds popularity, and success breeds success. 

On par with a majority of colleges across America, Tulane does not have any official published statistics on diversity within Greek life. However, a look at overall diversity in the undergraduate student body, as well as anecdotal accounts of Greek life at the school, reveal that fraternities and sororities are just as overwhelmingly white — if not more so — than Princeton’s earlier statistics indicated. 

It’s also crucial to consider these factors within a larger context. According to a New York Times study, the median family income of a Tulane student is $180,700 and 69% of the student body comes from the financial top 20%. For comparison, the median household income of a New Orleans resident is $38,423, with a poverty rate of 24.6%. 

If Tulane is following the trend of most of its members in Greek life coming from families of high economic status, these factors — and this dichotomy — are compounded. Greek life at Tulane creates an especially interesting atmosphere. This is just another system that promotes white supremacy and elitism, but it is especially stark in a city primarily inhabited by Black people that held the highest metropolitan poverty rate in the nation in 2017.

So, the question remains. Can steps be taken to better these systems, or are all the organizations rotten to the core? Are schools that are abolishing Greek life ahead of the curve, or is there a route to reformation for the greater good of all college students? It stands unlikely that institutions with strong ties to Greek culture will jump at the cries for abolishment, especially since there is a practical benefit given by the housing Greek life provides, as well as extremely high rates of alumni donations from formerly affiliated members. 

However, there are steps that universities can and should be taking. Individual colleges, as well as the National Panhellenic Council and Interfraternity Council should be upfront and honest with publishing diversity statistics across all boards. The legacy system should be abolished, as it supports keeping those of the same families, and therefore those of the same race, in elevated positions. Additionally, the importance of educating the individuals on the history, controversy and statistics surrounding Greek life is necessary in addressing systemic racism and classism in these institutions. 

Change cannot be made without a desire for it, and a desire for change cannot be brought about without education and transparency. Active members of Greek life should be making a consistent and conscientious effort to determine whether their individual values align with their organizations. Tulane must do better.

This article was updated March 4 at 9:42 p.m. to remove several inaccurate statistics.