Thursday, February 27

Aram Ghoogasian: Leaked frat minutes should be a catalyst for serious reflection

(Kelly Brennan/Daily Bruin senior staff)

The original version of this column misspelled Derek Bergmann's name as Derek Berhmann.

White supremacy has always lived in the American fraternity house, whether or not the members wear hoods.

From the vestiges of Jim Crow, to racist songs about lynching at the University of Oklahoma last year, to a blackface party here at UCLA just this fall, Greek life has been an incubator of racism for so long that nothing should come as a surprise when a story about racist fraternity members breaks.

Meeting minutes from UCLA’s Pi Kappa Phi, leaked by outgoing USAC general representative Aaliya Khan on Tuesday, give us an intimate look at how fraternities on our ostensibly tame campus operate behind closed doors. The contents of the documents, which had been shared with her office’s email account when Sunny Singh, a member of the fraternity, held the post from 2013-2014, could potentially yield another damaging blow to UCLA’s public image similar to what happened with the Kanye Western party in October.

READ MORE: Records reveal Pi Kappa Phi members made racist statements in 2013

According to the documents, Pi Kappa Phi’s weekly meetings included an agenda item entitled “Racial Sensitivity,” during which they told jokes about the designated “race of the week.” The fraternity took aim at a number of different communities.

One line reads: “How long does it take a negress to shit? 9 MONTHS.”

They don’t get much better from there. “Why do Mexicans refry their beans?” wrote the minutes taker. The reply read, “Have you ever seen them do it right the first time?” Another line stands on its own, saying simply that “black people are good at basketball.”

Anti-Muslim tropes also make an appearance in a section that says the fraternity members were “learning about Afghanistan.” The only line that follows reads “something something something terrorists.”

And these are just what they actually took the time to document.

While this revelation may be treated as just another item on a miles-long laundry list of examples of racist incidents in Greek life, it should become a catalyst for serious reflection. The meeting minutes are a symptom of a larger truth: Racism thrives in fraternities. It always has.

Universities have little reason to continue to supply fraternities with resources and support – other than to use them as a marketing tool for prospective students who value a school’s social scene more so than its academic functions. As is the case with many colleges and universities, UCLA has an administrative office specifically designed to cater to and promote these organizations, a sign of the many benefits the school bestows upon the Greek system.

And they have defenders among the student body as well. When Khan attempted to add an agenda item at her final USAC meeting to present the minutes in a PowerPoint – though she said her presentation would be a “year in review” – the council voted 6-6-0 to block her from doing so.

At some point, those in power will have to decide if fraternities are worth the headache and re-evaluate whether they want to continue to prop up these glorified boys clubs.

Unsurprisingly, fraternity representatives condemned the incident. Derek Bergmann, president of the Interfraternity Council at UCLA, said “racism will not be tolerated.” Pi Kappa Phi Chief Executive Officer Mark Timmes echoed his sentiments, saying in a statement that the jokes “cannot be tolerated.”

Timmes has experience in issuing hollow statements. In 2015, a pledge book belonging to the Pi Kappa Phi chapter at North Carolina State University was found filled with jokes about rape and lynching. Timmes responded by saying that the book’s contents were “unacceptable.”

In January, Pi Kappa Phi members at the University of Toledo berated a black attendee at one of their parties, telling him repeatedly to “leave, nigger.” Timmes once again reaffirmed the fraternity’s commitment to inclusion.

Fraternity representatives can issue as many inane responses as they please. But the facts speak for themselves.

One of the system’s many apologists, student government president and sorority member, Heather Rosen, was confronted at the last USAC meeting by Cultural Affairs Commissioner Amy Shao, who accused Rosen of attempting to silence Khan’s presentation due to prior knowledge of its content. Rosen claimed her Bruins United cronies voted against Khan’s proposed agenda because she violated USAC’s procedural rules.

Curiously enough, Rosen expressed no such concern when Khan first proposed the agenda item.

Some may be quick to claim that this is an isolated incident and not part of a recognizable pattern. But that is to ignore the recent history of Greek life, which is riddled with racist incident after racist incident.

Nor can one ignore the system’s significant influence. One hundred forty one members of the 113th Congress were members of Greek life organizations. FratPAC, a political action committee dedicated to defending the system’s interests, also has a decent amount of clout in the legislature. Fraternities and sororities enjoy a Title IX exemption, and fraternal societies have tax-exempt status as well. Somehow, few call these things into question despite the constant flow of evidence exposing fraternities’ contributions to on-campus sexism, racism and violence.

Assuming they ever made an honest effort to, fraternities have never been able to shake off the racism that has characterized the system since its establishment. Even with the presence of black, Latino and “multicultural” fraternities on some campuses, many fraternities retain their invisible “whites only” signs.

Though this sort of segregation may seem far away from the University of California, even the fraternities here were allowed to bar students based on race, religion and national origin until student activists pushed the UC to ban such practices in 1959. As these meeting minutes show, today’s fraternities have inherited this racist legacy.

It seems outrageous that institutions with well-documented – and ongoing – histories of racism are endowed with the perks that universities and the government provides them. But then again, there are few things more quintessentially American than granting white-dominated organizations the ability to avoid accountability and responsibility for doing harm to people of color.

The Greek system is not and never was worth saving. The University needs to consider cutting it loose, allowing it to wither away and suffer the slow, agonizing death it deserves.

Opinion columnist

Aram Ghoogasian is an opinion columnist and a member of the Daily Bruin Editorial Board. He often opines about labor issues, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the University of California.

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  • Daniel

    Honestly, I usually agree with progressive ideals and the Let’s Act party, but this is getting to be a little ridiculous

  • Fratlantic

    You selectively highlight a specific IFC fraternity, and paint the whole system as racist. You say “Greek life has been an incubator of racism,” so are you indeed calling the historically Latina/Latino, African American and Asian Greek organizations racist as well? Or are they excluded because they contain “minorities,” even if it’s exclusively one specific race? Isn’t that the definition of racism? It’s funny when someone so blatantly outside the Greek atmosphere has to write a generalist article painting everyone with the same “racist” brush, and never highlighting the many benefits they bring such as philanthropy, I wouldn’t hesitate to think there’s some jealousy here. If you’ve never had the chance to be in a Greek organization, do not try to act as though you know everything that happens within them. There’s no interviews of actual fraternity members, or anyone currently in the Greek system. If you really wanted a non-biased piece, wouldn’t you want the pro-Greek opinion? After reading this article, UCLA shouldn’t be ashamed of their Greek life community, they should be ashamed of their journalism school. Stereotyping and painting everyone with the same brush could be considered racism, but isn’t that exactly what this article does?

    • Alove

      Fratlantic you care completely wrong in your definition of racisim and what it contains. I am apart of greek life here on campus, and I have witnessed this type of behavior in almost every fraternity. From SAE, to ZBT, to Sig Ep, to Pi Kapp Phi.

      I find it funny you mention the philanthropic aspect of greek life. You and I both know that is such a small portion.

      • boa vamp

        No you haven’t. You can’t just waltz in to a frat house and “witness” their behavior unless you are invited in to each one, which I’m sure you haven’t been. I have no respect for liars.

    • Duat

      Except for the fact that many “minorities” HAD to make their own fraternities because of …gasp…racism.

  • Liz

    So you claim white surpremacy is the main issue at hand then go on to say someone named Sunny Singh made these comments, who upon a Facebook search is Indian. Contradiction much?

    • Petty

      Sunny Singh didn’t say these things – he had this document in his USAC Google Drive.

      Regardless, you don’t have to be white to have white supremacy influence you. Are you familiar with skin bleaching?

      • Liz

        The assumption here is that person who made the comment was white and if the person who actually made the “joke” was of color then they were influenced by white supremacy. You’re insinuating that anyone of color in a Greek organization does not have the ability to think for themselves.

  • Anonymous

    “Slow agonizing death it deserves” ? Too much. You cant play the PC Card and then say that. This article sounds more like a perceived opinionated resentment than an educated perspective on ethical issues.

  • M2000

    College’s new theme…aside from Fat Lives Matter from the University of Minnesota….it’s time to label Greek fraternities as “racist”. I want college to be normal again.

  • Stephanie Abiassi

    This is an absolutely absurd article. Are the things said in Pi Kapp’s meetings awful? Yes, of course. Was the Sig Ep party stupid and insensitive? Yes. Does that mean that every Greek organization is racist, misogynistic, and deserving of a “slow, agonizing death”? NO. Gross generalizations like this are completely inappropriate.

  • Anonymous Alum

    Really wishing I did not vote to continue the daily bruin in the election now if they’re going to post such biased, half-baked immature content. This article is a beautiful representation of the madness that is US college environments in todays world. There are literally fraternities and clubs on campus that do not allow white members what so ever, and the author of this article is going off on fraternities at UCLA for being racist and having “invisible whites only signs,” I still know members of all the “top” fraternities here and they are all far more diverse than this article insinuates they are. In fact, I don’t even know of a house that comes even close to the way they are portrayed in this article. Yeah, those chapter meetings records from that particular house are very messed up up, and comments such as those should never fly, but to say that dissolving greek life will eliminate that behavior is so wrong. Who can say they’ve never laughed at an inappropriate joke, however it crosses a line when it enters institutions. This much I agree with. That being said, the only way to change that behavior is to change those individuals viewpoints, getting rid of greek life only appeases those who use social justice and safe spaces as way of attacking those more social than themselves, regardless of their race. I love how there will be a million responses to this from guys stating that “oh i’m this and this race and these houses never let me in to their parties.” You do realize that A.) the members of those houses have to pay for the party — they don’t know you, why would they pay for your Saturday night out. and B.) Having random people they do not know in their house is a liability for them as they are legally responsible for your actions if you harm yourself or others. This article is hardly more than buzz feed sensationalism designed to get views and create controversy, I honestly expect a lot more from the Daily Bruin. They make sodium free soup man, sorry you didn’t enjoy rush.

    By the way, to quote one of the Daily Bruins on policies on comments “4. Avoid generalizations. Blanket statements like “all x are y”, stereotypes, racism, sexism, etc. don’t add to the discussion and will be removed.” — Hey isn’t that this entire article?

    I’m sorry, but I lost a lot of respect for DB on this one.

  • Duat

    Just more self entitled frat stars as usual. Nothing’s gonna change nd they’ll just get a slap on the wrist as usual.

  • hello

    “blackface party” wrong, malicious lie meant to diminish greek life. show me where in that article on the kanye western raid ( it says that there were people in blackface. you had to remove it because it’s literally just a malicious lie. stop trying to create problems that don’t exist. there are bad people in all sorts of organizations. don’t stereotype every member of Greek Life. I know plenty of non-white fraternity and sorority members. just stop and focus on legitimate problems in society, there are plenty of those.

  • markmesposito

    Disagree with me then you must go. Say something I don’t like and you must “wither away and suffer the slow, agonizing death.” How very Mao. Thought police are never very original in their bleatings.

  • Mintas Lanxor

    Those of you who believe that frat rats eventually grow up to be upstanding citizens might want to rent In the Company of Men by director Neil Labute as a painful example of frat rat mentality in the business world.

  • Mintas Lanxor

    Go check your pants real quick and see if there’s a fire extinguisher nearby.