Talkin' 'Bout Nothin': Black Greek-letter Organizations and Hazing

On one hand, you have BGLO members who believe that there has been great continuity with regard to pledging (they often make a theoretical distinction between it and hazing)--that it has remained constant and consistent over the generations and should remain so.
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On his album, The Blueprint III, Jay-Z rhymes on the song, "What We Talkin' About": "What we talkin' 'bout, fiction or we talkin' 'bout fact? You talkin' 'bout fiction? Hold up; pardon my back." Unfortunately, that's often how I feel--as one of the few academics, and only law professor, who researches and writes about black Greek-letter organizations (BGLOs)--when I hear most people "talkin' 'bout" BGLO hazing. This is National Hazing Prevention Week, and my hope is that this week there will be some serious and informed dialogue within and outside BGLOs about hazing. I am, however, not optimistic.

On 19 November 2011, Robert Champion, a 26 year-old, African American drum major in Florida A&M University's "Marching 100" band, collapsed on a charter bus and died as a result of hazing. Over the past ten months, commentators, critics, and concerned citizens have wondered and opined about why hazing persists within student culture. Many have focused -- if not more, without question differently -- on black student groups vis-a-vis their white counterparts, with physical violence seen as the main issue for the former and substance abuse the latter.

Violent hazing has a long history within BGLOs, dating back to the early 20th Century. Hazing culture within these groups has been robust for decades, so much so that it has inspired movies (e.g., School Daze) and other student organizations (e.g, historically black college and university bands). The media and the legal system paid little attention to hazing within these groups until the 1970s. From then until now, BGLOs have experienced the injury and death of numerous, aspiring members. For example, in 1977, after being beaten and forced to do calisthenics, Robert Brazile died pledging at the University of Pennsylvania. A year later, in 1978, Nathanial Swinson died at North Carolina Central University after being forced to perform a battery of grueling exercises. In 1983, Vann Watts was beaten until bruised and died from alcohol poisoning while a student at Tennessee State University. Each of these young men had sought membership in Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.

Then in 1989, at Morehouse College, Joel Harris died after an evening of slaps, punches, and elbows, as he sought membership in Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. Harris' death was significant, because it sparked major reforms in how BGLOs would initiate members. In response to the rash of hazing deaths and longstanding concerns about hazing within their ranks, National Pan-Hellenic Council (the umbrella organization for the largest BGLOs) organizations banned hazing in 1990. Despite these reforms, just two years later, in 1992, Harold Thomas, a Lamar University student, died pledging Omega Psi Phi. In 1994, Michael Davis died pledging the Southeast Missouri State University chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. His autopsy revealed that he had suffered broken ribs as well as a lacerated kidney and liver. In 2001, Joseph Green died pledging Omega Psi Phi at Tennessee State University. Then in 2002, Kristin High and Kenitha Saafir drowned during a hazing incident at the California State Los Angeles chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. And just a few years ago, in 2009, Donnie Wade II died pledging Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity at Prairie View A&M University.

So, what's the solution? How do we end the madness? The solution, I suggest, starts at the beginning, with the essence of the problem. Some will suggest that such analysis is simple, that there is one, easily discernible source to the problem. Having spent the past, almost decade, thinking, researching, and writing about BGLOs, I argue that the problem is complex. But if I had to choose a starting-point, I would say that it's beliefs unhinged from (or loosely hinged to) facts. My colleagues, Drs. Matthew Hughey, Shayne Jones, and I have a forthcoming, empirical article on BGLO hazing in the Howard Law Journal entitled "Belief, Truth, and Positive Organizational Deviance." In it, we argue that BGLO members have motivated cognitions when it comes to hazing. Motivated cognition is an individual's automatic tendency to fit his or her information processing to conclusions that suit some end or goal. They readily gravitate toward information that supports their beliefs; they discount, if not shun, information that disconfirms their beliefs. As Governor Mitt Romney's presidential campaign responded when called out on their lie that President Obama was ditching welfare work requirements, BGLO members might say the same, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."

On one hand, you have BGLO members who believe that there has been great continuity with regard to pledging (they often make a theoretical distinction between it and hazing)--that it has remained constant and consistent over the generations and should remain so. They hold fast to the notion that pledging adds value to BGLOs. They think it enhances one's commitment to other organizational members, the organization, and organizational ideals. As one BGLO member noted in a chat room for a radio interview I did several months ago, "hazing cannot be that bad, given that so few incidents are ever reported." These pledging supporters' beliefs are ahistorical, and if you ask them what support they have for their beliefs, they will most frequently tether them to nothing more than casual observations at best and mere mental abstractions at worse.

On the other hand, you have BGLO members who believe that pledging (they often conflate it with hazing) has little to no value to BGLOs. Their contention is that those who pledge are no more committed to their respective organization than non-pledged members. While I suspect that most of this ilk bases their beliefs on, well, their beliefs, a few actually look to data to support their perspective. For example, there is data from certain BGLOs floating around that suggests that members initiated before 1990, when the major initiation reforms took place, are no more financially active than those who were initiated after 1990.

The facts, in total, are much messier than what either side accepts as true. First, BGLO pledging has evolved over time and place. A casual reading of the various scholarly books on BGLOs--whether by Brown et al, Jones, or Kimbrough--underscores this point. Second, a review of court records and newspaper articles dating back to the 1970s shows that a significant number of BGLO hazing incidents are reported and have had lethal and legal consequences. Third, the value that pledging brings to BGLOs is really a mixed bag. Decades of research in cognitive and social psychology as well as organizational behavior (OB) underscore this point. And as my colleagues and I found in our empirical study of BGLO hazing, it likely undermines academic achievement. It seems to foster and enhance personal ties between members. It positively predicts organizational commitment on some measures of that concept and fails to predict it on other measures. For example, it positively predicts emotional commitment to the organization, but it seems to have little predictive value for paying dues and showing up to meetings. And if dues-paying and meeting-attending are the sine qua non of BGLO life, then pledging has absolutely no utility. But if BGLO membership is something much broader, encompassing personal, interpersonal, and societally-oriented factors, the story becomes much more complex.

At a distance, each side of this equation has a noble objective. Proponents want their organizations to be actualized--to reach their highest ideals. Opponents, in many respects want the same, but they also want to preserve human life. Neither side is interested in all the relevant information. They're only interested in waging their campaign; they both start from their beliefs and work back to facts that fit their narrative. For the proponents, that leaves them unable to see how tenuous some of their arguments are and how to chart a better path toward making their respective organizations all that they could be while also preserving human life. For the opponents, while they may have the moral high-ground, they simply aren't presenting themselves as honest brokers. And in their failure to consider all the facts, they can't chart new paths toward solving an age-old the problem within BGLOs--ending hazing.

The real question for BGLOs comes down to leadership. Can their leaders be bold enough, visionary enough, apolitical enough, and so oriented to facts--no matter what those facts say or who provides those facts--to conjure up new solutions? With so many well-educated members, operating in every noble field of human endeavor, can these organizations mine their own membership's intellectual capital to chart a new path? If they can, those benefits would likely flow to other organizations that mimic BGLOs. While I remain hopeful, I'm not optimistic. A few years ago, I asked a friend of mine who is a BGLO sorority member and top scholar in the field of OB--a discipline that would have a lot to contribute to BGLOs' understanding themselves and problem-solving--whether her sorority leadership had ever asked her for professional advice. In short, her answer was "no," and she believed other BGLO members who were OB scholars would say the same about their respective organizations. It's situations like these, at a time when resolving the issue of hazing may be most critical for BGLOs, that makes me want to throw my hands in the air and ask, "What we talkin' 'bout!?"

Update: Thank you to one of my fraternity brothers for bringing a factual inaccuracy in my post to my attention. Harold Thomas lost his life in 1987; the opinion for his mother's suit against Lamar University and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity was written in 1992.

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