Do black fraternities and sororities still matter?

OPINION - Have these organizations stopped serving as the training grounds for our national leaders and inspirational figures? The answer appears to be, unfortunately, yes...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

In the last several months, three black men became members of the United States Senate and another has been nominated to be the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Yet none of these men – Tim Scott, William ‘Mo’ Cowan, Cory Booker, and Jeh Johnson, respectively – are members of black fraternities.

A black woman, La June Montgomery Tabron, is set to become the first black woman to head the multibillon-dollar Kellogg Foundation, and is not a member of a black sorority. Like the president, first lady, attorney general, five of the six black chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies, and a number of other blacks at the top of their professions, they have eschewed membership in black fraternities and sororities.

Just a few decades ago, the exact opposite was true. Almost all of the black members of post-Reconstruction era Congress elected prior to 1985 were members of Black Greek Letter Organizations, or BGLOs. The faces of the Civil Rights Movement – Martin Luther King, Jr., his wife Coretta Scott King, and the leading nonviolent social activists – all belonged to BGLOs. The black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was a member. Even stars on the most popular television shows, like Good Times in the ’70s and The Cosby Show in the ’80s, boasted cast members who chose to join BGLOs.

Have these organizations stopped serving as the training grounds for our national leaders and inspirational figures? The answer appears to be, unfortunately, yes.

What’s behind the change?

It is not simple coincidence that prominent blacks are less likely to belong to black fraternities and sororities today than they were not long ago, even though black enrollment in colleges has increased tremendously over the decades.

Black Greek Letter Organizations are considered to be those nine organizations founded between 1906 and 1963 that sought to provide a vehicle for black college students to associate with like-minded individuals and unite around common principles. At their founding, the five fraternities – Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Phi Beta Sigma, and Iota Phi Theta – and four sororities – Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta, and Sigma Gamma Rho – required their members to dedicate themselves to academic excellence, leadership, and the improvement of black communities.

Yet today, the public BGLO narrative is dominated by stories of brutal hazing practices and the much-celebrated (and often-appropriated), culturally-significant art of stepping.

What changed? As a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated, this is a question that I’ve often contemplated. At each announcement of a black leader’s glass-ceiling-shattering political, government, or corporate executive appointment, I am immediately curious as to which organization he or she might belong to. BGLO members take enormous pride in the accomplishments of those in our organizations and often engage in a friendly competition of excellence when comparing our prominent members.

I am not ashamed to admit that it is a tad disheartening to learn our most of our recent nationally-recognized black figures do not belong to any of these organizations.

Speculation on BGLOs’ changing roles

One reason why this is the case is because the blood and sweat of our Civil Rights activists actually worked. That is, the university integration, equal opportunity, and voting rights fights paid dividends. As a result, blacks are not restricted to historically black colleges and universities for higher education, have real opportunities to get elected to national offices, and possess more collective purchasing power than we’ve ever enjoyed.

Though racism and discriminatory practices remain large and pressing issues facing black Americans, the safe haven that BGLOs once provided in the face of overt and oppressive societal practices are not as critical to black perseverance and success. Put simply, as more opportunities became available to the college-educated black person, the benefits that black fraternities and sororities afforded became less apparent and were deemed less elemental to success.

There are more venues available today for young blacks to obtain leadership and organizational skills in diverse environments that, in turn, may subjugate the value of BGLO membership.

Is the social aspect overshadowing service?

Another reason is that the social aspect of BGLOs has overshadowed their reputation for service. For instance, these organizations are most visible on campus, in cities, and on social media when convening social events and step shows. Though these events usually fund community service projects, scholarships, and charitable donations, that fact is often lost amid the infectious energy of an element of black culture on display, and at its best in a social element. As a result, perceptions of the organizations are erroneously reduced for some observers to partying groups that simultaneously exhibit elements of brutish and elitist behaviors.

As an example, the rites of passages associated with gaining membership in these organizations have become synonymous for many with the tragic hazing deaths that have occurred through the years, but unfairly so. Each organization has outlawed hazing in all forms. Most have a code of conduct for its members once admitted that forbids the practice. Yet, incidents (and oftentimes ensuing lawsuits) continue.

Perhaps the most prominent reason that our organizations have lost some of the luster over the last century is also the most controversial: not every BGLO member exhibits the characteristics his or her organization’s founders envisioned for its members. There are bad apples in every bunch. Some have gained membership, but should not have. When members misrepresent their organizations, two critical things occur. First, it dissuades those who do possess the desirable traits from expressing interest and joining. And second, it draws in those who are attracted by the misrepresentation, and then go on to perpetuate such behavior once joining. This is detrimental, and, if left unchecked, may prove terminal.

Reigniting the power of BGLOs

All is not lost. While BGLO members may have less of a presence on the national scene, their influence and work at the local level is one of the crowning jewels of the black community.

On any given day, members around the world are effecting change and leading communities in a manner and scope outpaced by no other group of black organizations. This is why there remains a significant number of BGLO members in the House of Representatives today, where local issues and involvement determine election outcomes.

Additionally, the governing bodies of each BGLO routinely examine the best methods for attracting the right talent. For example, Jesse Jackson, also a member of Omega Psi Phi, has long endorsed an increase in the minimum GPA and other qualifications to make it a more selective fraternity than its counterparts.

Aside from my speculation, this question remains: why have black fraternities and sororities lost their prominence among our black national leaders — and what should they do to regain their influence? As many of these organizations celebrate their centennials, this is the existential question they will have to address as they look to the next 100 years.

Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. He currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III.