What Does Integration Look Like?

In his 1895 "Atlanta Compromise" speech, Booker T. Washington stated in regard to race relations that "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." However, Washington's often myopic view of the way that race and racism operate in American society did not consider the fact that "mutual progress" requires both economic and social integration in order to truly be successful. It was impossible for African Americans to acquire the social and economic capital of their white counterparts because they were systematically denied access to institutions of higher learning, discussions of national policy, and the social organizations in which many of the decisions regarding race, wealth, and institutional power were made. A limited amount of access to revered social institutions resulted in a lack of accurate representation of African Americans in American society. This ultimately contributed to the perpetuation of racist and inaccurate depictions of African American identity in the form of archetypes such as the Mammy, the Sambo, the Jezebel, and the Black Buck.

In terms of full social integration that is capable of sustaining itself permanently after the speeches have been made and the story has made its rounds in the national news, visual and public representations of diversity can be just as significant as the legal measures that make integration possible. In the two years since the University of Alabama formally integrated their sororities, the decision has been regarded as a step in the right direction for a university that has historically struggled to deal with issues such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. However, what does this new integration actually look like? Or, more specifically, what is the form of integration that these sororities have chosen to present to the public and the young women who are interested in joining a sorority at the university?

The answer to that comes in the form of sorority recruitment videos.

The videos depict the young women of the sorority in purportedly "organic" situations designed to foster sisterhood among all of the sorority's women. The women are shown taking beach vacations, posing together on football game days, and lounging around the sorority house.

But...where are the black women and other women of color?

Prior to 2013, it was expected to see a racially homogeneous group of white women in recruitment videos, simply because African American women who submitted a bid to a Panhellenic sorority at the University were, as a rule, rejected. However, two years after a decision to integrate that encouraged (but did not require) each sorority to accept a bid from at least one African American woman, each sorority's recruitment video remains almost disturbingly white-washed. In the recently released recruitment video for the Beta Mu chapter of Alpha Phi sorority at the University of Alabama, a group of white women are depicted frolicking around the university's campus. They manage to find their way into Bryant-Denny Stadium in order to recruit African American football player Kenyan Drake to star in their video. However, the women are unable to pick up any black women on the way over.

The minimal-to-nonexistent representation of African American women in these videos may seem trivial ("it's just a video," "there are more important issues of racism in Alabama to worry about"). However, when factors such as access to socioeconomic and political power in Alabama can be determined not only by which Greek organization one is in, but also one's position, visibility, and acceptance in that organization, the racial dynamics of the recruitment videos are just a flashy, expensive symptom of the larger issue of inequality.

Much of the conversation surrounding Alpha Phi's recruitment video has revolved around examining the young women's appearances and bodies. And while it is certainly an unsettling sign of existing sexism in our society that adult men are so eager to sexually exploit adolescent and college-age women, it is also significant to examine the recruitment video's racial implications. For a group of organizations that were founded upon the idea of fostering lifelong relationships among women, it is telling of their prevailing ideologies that they still choose to present such a limited and racially homogeneous version of sisterhood.

The very public nature of recruitment videos--particularly because they function as one of the first introductions that young women have to the university's Greek system--means that they have the ability to convey precisely who can and cannot qualify as a welcomed member of the sisterhood. It means nothing to have legal mandates to integrate if policies are not in place to monitor for discriminatory practices against black women and other women of color both during and after rush. The argument that the university's sororities are "truly" integrated loses merit when nearly every image of a sorority's members in a casual group setting (may it be in their recruitment videos or on their Tumblr pages) features only white women. Representation matters. For a young black woman who is interested in joining one of the university's Panhellenic sororities, it becomes markedly more difficult for her to imagine herself weathering the experience of potentially being the only black woman in her sorority when the most prominent images of that organization effectively communicate that she will be erased and shamed out of visibility.

De jure integration is not the standard by which we can accurately measure our progress as a society. To say that would mean ignoring grim reports of public schools being more segregated in 2015 than they were before the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. Using only legal measures as a way to pat ourselves on the back for not being quite as bigoted as the previous generation means that we automatically cut ourselves off from important discussions of police brutality targeted at black and brown people, as well as discussions of current atrocities committed against Native and Latino communities. To really understand just how well or poorly our society reacts to racial differences, we must examine the day-to-day treatment of people of color and how less-obvious institutional forces (such as visual representation) affect their lived experiences.

So what does integration look like then? Is it the self-congratulatory complacency that settles in after the achievement of a social "landmark" such as integration? Is it the tone-deaf fanfare that detracts interest from dealing with the more difficult aspects of racism and other forms of discrimination?

Or is it something else entirely? What if integration looks like a continuous, committed effort to improve the experiences of all marginalized groups that takes into consideration the needs and interests of groups in question? What does that mean for us then and what can we do to achieve it?