Hazing on campus: Laws drive hazing underground
May 6, 2012
It’s shocking that Asya Trowell was allegedly beaten, kicked in her head and stomped in her face by people who said it would connect her to her slave ancestors. It’s just not surprising to people who study hazing.
Trowell said she was undergoing a hazing initiation for Omega Essence, the little-sister group at Penn State for the black fraternity, Omega Psi Phi.
Violence by hazing is illegal. Yet there still are fraternities, sororities and other campus groups that make people undergo physical and psychological hardships to join.
While hazing abuse plagues white fraternities, the problem of physical violence is especially severe in historically African-American fraternities and sororities. For the lifelong prestige of belonging to an elite black fraternity, some people will endure almost anything.
On Wednesday, 13 people were charged in the November death of drum major Robert Champion at Florida A&M University. Champion died after he was beaten during a brutal hazing ritual on a band bus.
His death has shaken the world of black colleges and their high-profile marching bands. And the state university system is investigating whether top officials ignored past concerns about violent hazings.
Hazing happens in all sorts of organizations, from law firms to sports teams, said Walter Kimbrough, author of "Black Greek 101: The Culture, Customs and Challenges of Black Fraternities and Sororities."
"It’s just that overriding idea that the newest people have to prove their worth," said Kimbrough, who is president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark.
The difference now is, the public takes hazing seriously instead of using it as a euphemism for assault and battery, said Lawrence C. Ross Jr., author of "The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities."
The physical tactics Champion and Trowell allegedly endured and the justifications that beatings would connect a pledge with her heritage are not unusual, either, said Ricky L. Jones, author of "Black Haze: Violence, Sacrifice, and Manhood in Black Greek-Letter Fraternities."
"You hear that argument from folks. This is a replication of the struggle of blacks during slavery, and once you go through that struggle, it ties you to your ancestors and you can face society more proudly," said Jones, who teaches political science at the University of Kentucky. "Those are baseless arguments."
Laws drive hazing underground
Black fraternities and sororities are rich with tradition and prestige. Leaders in the civil rights movement, politics and religion such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and Ebony magazine founder John H. Johnson all belonged to fraternities.
"You’ve got these legacies of people who end up on stamps," Kimbrough said.
And unlike with many white frats, fraternity life isn’t something blacks leave on campus. It’s a lifelong membership and commitment to a community, a brotherhood that symbolizes achievement and distinction.
Whites say, "I was a Sammy." Blacks say, "I’m an Alpha" or "I’m an Omega." Membership isn’t a college experience. It’s a lifetime commitment to service.
"You’re talking about groups that are exclusively populated by the black elite. This isn’t open to some teenager next to the Dumpster selling crack," Jones said. "These are the most popular kids on campus. People will go through a whole lot to gain that."
Hazing injuries around the country have not curtailed that.
Jones said he was hazed in the 1990s, but he doesn’t like to talk about his own experiences, just saying they included "the normal stuff, the physical stuff, the psychological stuff."
The 1990s were a time of big change in the culture of hazing. Although hazing has been relatively consistent over time, it’s become much more secretive since college campuses and most states began outlawing it in the 1990s.
That didn’t get rid of the hazing. Instead, the new laws drove it underground, making it more difficult to monitor.
It’s even more difficult to track hazing at unofficial organizations such as the Omega Essence women’s auxiliary of Omega Psi Phi. The fraternity is not recognized at Penn State, and most national fraternities no longer recognize auxiliaries.
"There was a lot of sexual exploitation going on, so the fraternities banned those auxiliaries," Jones said.
The only surprising part of Trowell’s story, Jones said, is that she was willing to endure brutality to join an unofficial group. Trowell and the other young women were struggling to become part of something with no cultural capitol in the community, no history of civil rights victories, no prestige, Kimbrough said.
"People like me would look at them and think you’re ridiculous," he said. "The auxiliaries have no cache on their own."
‘A bad light’ on frats, sororities
Of course, not all fraternities, sororities or marching bands haze new members.
Joe Robinson, president of the graduate chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity in Harrisburg and Sieta Achampong, state director of Zeta Phi Beta sorority, weren’t hazed when they joined in college, they said.
"Hazing is an illegal activity that fraternities frown upon. Too many lawsuits," Robinson said. "You always have some brothers who are overzealous, but no physical hazing that was anything close to what was reported at Penn State, not when I went through the process."
Rules are very strict about how new members are brought in, Achampong said.
When hazing does happen, it’s often alcohol-related in white fraternities and sororities. In black organizations, it tends to be more physical, from eating strange things to proving physical endurance to beatings, several experts said.
Some black fraternity chapters have a tradition — officially condemned by their national organizations — of branding new members’ arms with homemade branding irons, said Simon Bronner, a Penn State Harrisburg professor whose book "Campus Traditions" is due out in October.
"It is a belief that this connects them to African identity because of scarring, but there has been some pushback on that because people say it looks like slavery," Bronner said.
Hazing persists because people feel a need to prove themselves, their manliness or their worth. They want respect. They want to belong.
Because the process has been driven underground, the people doling out the physical abuse become the sole arbiters of how tough that test can be, and — most dangerously — the sole judges of how much a young man or woman can endure, Ross said.
"You get that respect by enduring hazing," Ross said. "When you successfully do that, you feel a sense of validation and you blur the line of morality. ‘It validates me even though I didn’t like it. I’m going to do the same thing to the next person who comes up.’ It becomes a circle."
Ross is a 27-year member of Alpha Phi Alpha and went through hazing when he joined in the 1980s. "We do the same thing over and over and over. It doesn’t seem like anyone knows how to get out of it."
Black and white organizations still seem to need some kind of rite of passage involving an ordeal, Bronner said.
"It forces you to connect with your brothers and sisters and rely upon them," Bronner said. "They are emphasizing that, in order to become part of this organization, you’re becoming invested in the culture. You are in fact changing your identity. That’s why groups still have some kind of passage, even if it’s outlawed. They still want to feel distinctive and elite."
But whatever the legitimate need to initiate new members into a selective brotherhood or sisterhood, incidents such as the death of Champion and Trowell’s alleged beating greatly trouble midstate fraternity and sorority leaders.
They make people focus on the negative rather than all the service work the organizations do, the fundraising they do and the scholarships they give, said Dolorez Cobb-Jones, president of the Harrisburg Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.
"It puts a bad light on the fraternities and sororities, and we all are doing good work," she said.