Professor Ricky Lee Jones, chair of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville, isn't your stereotypical racist, bent on viewing black people in general — and black college fraternities and sororities in particular — as thuggish, out-of-control and violent.
To begin with, Jones is African-American himself, from hardscrabble inner-city Atlanta. He's also an old frat boy: As a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, and an erstwhile chapter president and national leader, he has plenty of firsthand knowledge of what has become one of his core research subjects — violence in black Greek-letter life.
He doesn't mince words. "I would wager these are the most dangerous recognized student organizations on campuses now," he recently told the website Inside Higher Ed in response to a lawsuit filed against eight students, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority and San Jose State University.
Jones' thesis about cultural differences in hazing traditions is controversial. Some have accused him of stereotyping. Still, there's no denying the gruesomeness of the details in the San Jose lawsuit filed by former student Courtney Howard.
An honors student with a 3.6 GPA and a part-time counselor at the local YMCA, Howard alleges she was slapped, beaten, punched and kicked when she pledged Sigma Gamma Rho. She was violently slammed against walls when she messed up a pledging task. Her buttocks were beaten with a pot. A refrain of her sorority sisters was "stitches for snitches." When a colleague was knocked unconscious, the chapter leaders instructed the pledges not to take the girl to hospital, for fear their abuse would be exposed.
These traditions are, of course, banned both by the Sigma Gamma Rho national office and by the university itself. This is not the only recent such incident. Just eight months earlier, six Sigma Gamma Rho sorority sisters at Rutgers were arrested and charged with beating a young pledge so badly she had be hospitalized. Three months before that, in October 2009, 20-year-old Donnie Wade died at historically black Prairie View University after Phi Sigma Beta brothers failed to call emergency services during an abusive exercise routine. Recently, Omega Psi Phi, a black fraternity, was suspended at the University of South Florida while detectives investigate allegations of off-campus hazing.
The debate about the links between hazing and race is loaded. Among those who support Jones' claim about cultural differences, possible reasons for the physically violent streak in black Greek-letter initiation traditions include the stress of being a racial minority; the perceived need for extra toughness in the face of racism; and African-Americans' historic exclusion from more socially acceptable means of feeling powerful.
As a gay white South African male, I reacted to the San Jose lawsuit in ways some might find surprising: I intensely identified with Courtney Howard. This connection was based not only on my own experiences of violent hazing in the early 1980s. It was also grounded in memories of being a racial minority, of feeling under siege and being told I had to toughen up or the other race — blacks — would grind me underfoot.
At age 12, on my first night in whites-only boarding school, a sadistic prefect — a 17-year-old entrusted to discipline the younger boys — severely beat me with a cricket bat for "looking at (him) funny." Over the next 10 weeks or so, before the principal transferred him, this prefect clobbered us with pillow slips filled with athletics spikes. He hooked up a telephone crank to boys' genitalia. When he suspected one of us of telling our parents what was going on, one of his friends staged a nude mock hanging in the senior boys' shower room.
"I'm just trying to make you sissies into real men," he told us, "so the kaffirs won't get you."
The psychological impact was severe. Although I dropped hints to my parents about what was going on, I never spilled all of the gory details. As a gay teenager, I felt lonely and inferior. When I later became a 17-year-old prefect myself, it was all I could do not to perpetuate the cycle of brutality.
In the midst of all this sat the critical issue of group loyalty. To tell my story was not just to snitch on older boys who claimed to care for me. It was also to confirm worldwide stereotypes of white South Africans as brutal and violent.
Perhaps it's for this reason I so admire both Courtney Howard and Ricky Lee Jones. Breaking protective silence takes courage. Asking risky questions requires intellectual integrity. Both are necessary for abuse to be rooted out and addressed.
Glen Retief teaches at Susquehanna University. His memoir, "The Jack Bank," is forthcoming from St. Martin's Press. Contact him at www.glenretief.com.