There's one educational institution left in the United States that clearly favors white men, encourages young students to drink, and is the source of some of the most dangerous locations near college campuses, according to an Occidental College professor. We're talking about fraternities.
We're in a yes-means-yes era, when equal educational opportunity is the law of the land and universities such as UCLA have striven successfully to admit students of color. But why do these Greek letter organizations persist? Lisa Wade, associate professor of sociology at Occidental College, says they shouldn't exist, and she has been on a mission to spread her argument about why they should be abolished.
“We went to the moon, we gave women the vote,” she says. “It is absurd that we still allow young men to put together single-sex organizations that are designed to horde power and influence specifically for wealthy white men. On top of that, we allow them to be the most dangerous places on college campuses in ways that everyone knows are illegal.”
She's speaking of fraternity parties involving alcohol, which persist even at so-called reformed Greek letter organizations that have dry policies. After the alcohol-related death of Penn State pledge Timothy Piazza earlier this year, Wade wrote in Time magazine that the fraternity involved, Beta Theta Pi, had a no-alcohol policy.
She dove deep into the history of the organizations for her 2017 book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, finding that fraternities were rebellious campus groups started in the 19th century by elite students who wanted to be distinguished from their middle-class peers and who would eventually take over college politics and social life to the chagrin of impotent university officials.
“Reform is not possible because the old-line, historically white social fraternities have been synonymous with risk-taking and defiance from their very inception,” according to the professor's Time piece. “They are a brotherhood born in mutiny and forged in the fire of rebellion. These fraternities have drink, danger and debauchery in their blood — right alongside secrecy and self-protection.”
She says fraternities today have designed a system in which members have an upper hand over women on campus because, in order to pursue the generations-old past-time of underage drinking, the women almost have to seek out Greek letter organization events.
“Fraternity men are structurally set up to have the only place underage women can go to drink alcohol,” Wade says. “Because the drinking age is 21 and sororities often do not have alcohol, then we're just funneling young women into fraternities. Fraternity men have the power to control the socio-sexual lives of young women on campus. We're giving young men this incredible amount of power of their peers, and they use it irresponsibly, and it's dangerous.”
She also notes fraternities' long history of racism: Offensive ethnic theme parties on days such as Halloween and Cinco de Mayo create headlines pretty much annually. Locally, UCLA has 22 fraternities and USC has 19. That doesn't include several other campuses in Greater L.A.
Supporters of Greek letter organizations argue that they help socialize young men while raising money for charity. But Wade says they're actually poisonous for young men and that their record of giving is spotty. She says her research found that the average fraternity member raises about $50 a year for charity and gives about nine hours of his time to nonprofit work.
What about racial and ethnic fraternities? Wade says their very existence is a reflection of the racism and elitism found at traditional Greek organizations. Without old-school fraternities, these groups wouldn't necessarily need to exist, she says. At the least, they could simply become clubs.
“Our collective agreement not to see what everyone, from the campus officials to police, knows — it's an
absurd reality,” Wade says. “We give these young men the right to claim superiority.”