Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 17, 2021

Heritage 365 event explores racism in Greek life

By JULIA CHOE | February 27, 2020

COURTESY OF SABRINA ABRAMS Lawrence Ross discussed racism on college campuses.

Lawrence Ross, author of Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities, gave a talk titled “The Blackballed Lecture” on Thursday, Feb. 20. The event was held in collaboration between the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA), Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, the Black Student Union, and the Black Faculty and Staff Association as part of OMA’s Heritage 365 series. 

Ross’ presentation centered around systemic and individual racism on college campuses. 

Ross began his talk by discussing an incident in 2015 at the University of Oklahoma, where members of the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) were caught on video singing a racist chant. 

He explained how institutions and media outlets avoided holding the perpetrators accountable for their actions. He criticized former U.S. Congressman Joe Scarborough for blaming rapper Waka Flame’s music.

“He said, ‘A-ha, now I know why two white 19-year-olds decided to start singing about lynching African Americans,’” Ross said. “He blames hip-hop for the reason that they were going to sing about lynching African Americans in a tree.”

Ross then brought up a multitude of other examples of racism in Greek life, such as Tau Kappa Epsilon in 1963 at California State University, Long Beach. The fraternity was suspended for a racist chant, indicating that the SAE incident was not an anomaly. 

He also referenced the “Halloween in the Hood” party that the Sigma Chi chapter at the University held in 2006. Following an investigation, the fraternity was placed on social probation until January 2008.

Additionally, he placed some of the fault of campus racism on the institutions and their three-step response to reported racism, explaining that institutions trivialize concerns about racism.

Ross stated that white students, the racial majority on college campuses, are uncomfortable talking about race. As a part of his studies on campus racism, Ross monitored Facebook posts that brought up race. 

“Right when students of color did a deeper dive into racism, white students would typically want to stop as soon as possible,” he said.

To further prove his point, Ross cited a study by the Pew Research Center. 

“They asked college students a very simple question. They asked students of color and white students — two different groups — a very simple question. How often do you talk about race a week? Eight out of 10 students of color talk about race once a week at least. Seven out of 10 white students never talk about race,“ he said.

Ross discussed how university officials were often disconnected from events that occur on their campuses, citing a study by Inside Higher Ed, which asked several hundred college presidents about the racial climate on campus.

“Ninety percent gave back ‘very good’ or ‘excellent.’ Then between 2015 and 2016, there were over 200 different protests. [In] 2016 they asked the same question: What is the racial climate on your campus? Ninety percent [responded] ‘very good’ [or] ‘excellent’ except one little difference: There were more ‘excellents’ this time,“ he said. “All of these people are disconnected from what’s going on on campus. When there is a campus racism incident, they tend to be reactive rather than proactive.”

Ross emphasized that the central point in white supremacy is to normalize cruelty against people of color. 

“It was the point at Little Rock, where six Little Rock students were trying to integrate into Little Rock High School, and it’s the point today. It’s the point today where we have little immigrant children who are crying. Because if I can normalize cruelty against you, then I can kill you. That has been in every society,” he said.

He also asserted that people should consider that college campuses usually consist of two types of groups, which are race-averse and race-aware. 

“White students are typically race-averse. Race card, why does this always have to be about race? They will also overestimate the diversity within their circles. Race-aware students are students of color. Race-aware students will understand everything about race every single day on campus,” Ross said.

Ross presented his ideal vision for students of color on college campuses. 

“When I come to campus, I should not have to adjust in terms of the idea that I am not a normal human being. What is my skin color is normal. What happens to me is normal. You are the one who needs to adjust to that,” he said.

Ross explained the detrimental effects of racism on campus, with students of color sometimes choosing to leave school as a result. Ross argued that there will always be racists, but that change can be made by mobilizing the non-racists, who watch racists do things and do nothing in response. 

He encouraged attendees to speak up against acts of racism to make college campuses a safer, more inclusive space for people of color. 

“The more you speak up, the better you get at it,” Ross said.

He also suggested ways for students to speak to their institutions about how to ease tensions on campus. 

“As students, we tend to think that universities are almost always against us. And I think it’s less that and more that universities don’t know what to do. And so it’s more that they want to provide a rich version of the university in which they think you should get. Give them all the things in hand so their decision is very easy,” he said.

Sophomore Julia Colen explained that it was refreshing to hear Ross speaking about racism. 

“It is not talked about enough despite being so relevant to college campuses,” she said.

Sophomore Damini Frey also appreciated the different perspective Ross offered. 

“I think it’s important to consider the history behind campus racism because it has a huge effect on the climate today,” she said.

Junior Kinsey Tyler, president of the Zeta Omicron chapter of Alpha Phi, related Ross’s talk to her own experience in Greek life.

“I enjoyed how I was encouraged to reflect on how I am contributing to the issue of racial biases in Greek life, whether I am contributing negatively, positively or not at all. I was able to see my involvement as an opportunity to make positive change, rather than simply an obligation to avoid negativity,“ Tyler said.

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