Monday, November 19, 2012

The Allure of Black Fraternal Organizations

They exist as leftovers of a by-gone age that "self-segregate" and thereby perpetuate racial antagonism; they are self-serving and loutish elitists that represent the worst of both the "Talented Tenth" (Du Bois 1903) and the "Black Bourgeoisie" (Frazier 1957); they are strange and bizarre fundamentalists and hucksters hostile to intellectual inquiry and free thought, and/or they are little more than "educated gangs" (cf. Hughey 2008).

“Black Greek Letter Organizations” or BGLOs today possess an estimated 1.5 million members worldwide, over 6,400 chapters, and are "among the oldest black campus organizations on most predominately white campuses and are possibly the strongest nationwide social institutions in black America" (McKee 1987, p. 27).  Aside from the black church and organizations like the NAACP, BGLOs were the largest positive influence on the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

E. Franklin Frazier, a noted sociologist and himself a member of the BGLO Alpha Phi Alpha. Frazier wrote in Black Bourgeoisie (1957, p. 94) that BGLOs were little more than elitist social clubs of a self-congratulatory nature, but excelled within a narrow tripartite mission – developing personal excellence, creating fictive kinship ties, and fostering racial uplift activity (e.g., civic action, community service, and philanthropy).

Without grounded, sophisticated, and ethically minded scholarship geared toward inquiry and democratic action in the interest of Black folks, these organizations may continue to suffer from a reliance on ideologically constructed "common sense," destructive habits, and superstitious illusions. Scholarship, we contend, is a necessary component of these organizations' necessary transformation; from abstracted high ideals to implemented programs in the service of social justice and equality.

Quasi-Secret Organizations And The Challenge Of Leadership Accountability

In the past few years, several of these organizations have been rocked by scandals about their national presidents engaging in financial malfeasance with organization funds. What is more interesting is that members have had tremendous difficulty addressing these issues.

First, the organization's national board members may be intimidated by the national president. On the other hand, they may be unwilling to question his or her authority out of tradition or a desire to preserve the power of that office with the hopes that they will someday occupy that seat and the power it holds.

Second, BGLO members may never learn about the financial malfeasance.

While each BGLO has a legislative branch (i.e., each member has the power of one vote), members' representative votes have the greatest effect at national meetings, which might only occur once every two years. In the interim, the national president is at the height of his or her power, often with the ability to be the sole interpreter of the organization's ultimate authority, the constitution.

Lastly, BGLOs have an Anti-snitching culture predicated on a belief that anything pertaining to the official or unofficial operations of the organization is secret.  As such, to some members, financial malfeasance is just as sacred and secret as their organization's formal ritual. On the other hand, members; may fear that if certain facts were made public about their BGLO, those facts could harm the organization's brand.

In 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit handed down an opinion in matter brought by a Zeta Phi Beta Sorority member. In Stark, v. Zeta Phi Beta, Natasha Stark discovered that the sorority's then International President, Barbara Moore, had used the sorority's credit cards to purchase personal items totaling more than $300,000. These improprieties violated both the sorority's internal bylaws as well as the IRS codes. The sorority's Board of Directors dealt with the situation by allowing Moore to keep her position in exchange for signing a promissory note to repay the debt over a five-year period. In response, Zeta Phi Beta suspended and later expelled Stark from the sorority. Stark brought a civil suit against the sorority in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which she lost at both the trial and appellate level.

Given the culture within BGLOs-one of anti-snitching and a keep-it-in-the-house mentality-those members were sanctioned.  If these organizations do not seek fundamental change in how they conduct business (e.g., electing or appointing independent general counsels, enacting whistleblower provisions, making annual audits accessible to members), it is up to members to police the organizations' resources and brand.

excerpts from Black Fraternal Organizations: Systems, Secrecy, and Solace” by Matthew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks. Journal of African American Studies, 25 July 2012.

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