Blacks Need Not Apply

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When a black college freshman applied to join Alpha Gamma Delta at the University of Georgia last August, most members of the all-white sorority were horrified. As they gathered inside their neoclassical mansion to discuss the new applicants, the sisters of AGD singled out the black freshman and talked about her separately. "Why does she want to go through white rush?" asked a sorority member. Another warned, "If we had a black girl in our sorority, none of the fraternities would want to do anything with us."

Their remarks so outraged one member, Ali Davis, that she filed a racial-discrimination complaint with university officials, who temporarily suspended AGD while they investigated. What they found was not so much a surprise as a shameful reminder that in the three decades since America's public was desegregated, the Greek social organizations at the University of Georgia, as at many colleges all over the U.S., remain bastions of racial exclusivity--and often bigotry.

Although Georgia's population is 28% black, as are 6% of the students at the university's main campus in Athens, few blacks are members of the 42 historically white fraternities and sororities there. The Greek organizations and the university declined to provide a racial breakdown but say that some blacks do belong to white sororities or fraternities. Examining this pattern after years of looking the other way "has been painful, as holding a mirror up often is," says Richard Mullendore, the school's vice president of student affairs.

Davis, the sophomore fashion-merchandising student who filed the discrimination complaint, says some of her sorority sisters who knew the black teenager had spoken highly of her--until it came time to assess this year's pledges. "There was an undercurrent of unspoken racism," says Davis. Most of her sorority sisters, she says, voted not to admit the black freshman, who has not been named.

Another student, Alana Young, a Filipino American, says she left the sorority in 1998 because of racist attitudes. She overheard a sister say she had been taught that "n_____s work in the house and Mexicans work in the yard." Young says she saw a Mexican-American member of the sorority leave a meeting in tears after the sisters overruled her objection to putting a Confederate flag on a T shirt. Young finally quit after sorority members criticized her for giving her phone number to a black football player.

To investigate Davis' allegations, the sorority's national office sent a team that included Atlanta civil rights lawyer Mason Barge. He says the team found no hint of racism: "There was no evidence other than one girl's statement." The local sorority chapter agreed last month to offer racial sensitivity training to its members in exchange for not being disciplined by the university. The sorority still has no black members and is not required to accept any. Out of about 1,000 applicants this year, Barge says, the freshman was the only black. Because the sorority uses campus facilities, it is subject to the federal law that prohibits racial discrimination in higher education. But disciplinary action can be taken only if the sorority is proven to discriminate overtly. Having no black members is not considered proof.

Philo Hutcheson, an education professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, says that among white Greek organizations "there are examples all across the country of things like blackface minstrel shows and slave auctions...These are overt statements of racism, and they happen in the North as much as in the South." Efforts to integrate white fraternities and sororities are made more difficult, Hutcheson says, because blacks often self-segregate in their own Greek organizations.

Some schools say they're trying to change this pattern. At the University of Alabama, where none of the 37 traditionally white fraternities and sororities have ever had a black member, the white groups last month moved the date of their rush week, hoping to attract more pledges of all races. Membership in sororities and fraternities increased 14%, but no blacks wound up applying to white organizations. The University of North Carolina offers diversity training to its student groups. So does the University of Virginia. But only a handful of blacks have tried to join the white Greek organizations at those universities.

Feeling ostracized, Ali Davis withdrew from the University of Georgia and moved home to Tennessee. Her whistle blowing, however, has caused a dialogue on campus. A group of black and white students put together a two-hour forum on race called "Break the Silence." Two weeks ago, they held a multicultural fashion show. It was arranged by Chi Chi Patrick, an African-American who was recently elected homecoming queen.