As the shock and disgust continues to reverberate nationally from the video of members of the University of Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon performing a horribly racist chant, followed by revelations of a racist email from a member of Kappa Sigma at the University of Maryland, I can’t help but think back to 15 years ago when I and several of my fellow undergrads at the University of Maryland were interviewed by Wolf Blitzer for a CNN segment. The topic was the way in which college students would often “self-segregate” on campus, meaning that students of a particular ethnic, racial, or religious background tend to socialize with other students of similar background. As we sat around talking in May 2000, the diverse panel of student leaders readily acknowledged the phenomenon, and the fact that it comes with certain benefits: a genuine sense of community and cultural support from spending time with those of similar perspective and backgrounds. There is value in that.
But I had the last word in the segment, and I stressed the need to balance a reasonable amount of so-called “self-segregation” with “the ability and the willingness to go out and to interact with students who are not similar to yourself” – in short, to do both, because if surrounding yourself with those who are just like you is all you do, then that’s a problem.
Coincidentally, for that interview I proudly wore a shirt displaying the Greek letters of my fraternity, Alpha Sigma Phi. I was just 21 years old and had served as the president of Alpha Sigma Phi’s chapter at the University of Maryland. In the first few years after that interview I regretted wearing that shirt because I thought it looked unprofessional. But now, looking back, I am glad I wore it, because, knowing the topic of the interview, I wanted to send a message that a fraternity should be an organization that embraces and celebrates diversity and that lives up to the high ideals espoused by its creed. Indeed, I had founded the chapter with other idealistic young men precisely because we wanted to build a new, 21st century model of Greek life that eschewed the old stereotypes of Animal House. We wanted to demonstrate that we could build a true brotherhood that was seriously committed to diversity, community service, academics, and ethical leadership.
Contrast that with Sigma Alpha Epsilon. My fraternity chapter attracted members of all races and religions, who – by joining in brotherhood – learned to respect their differences. It grew to be a great success, and it still is today. While Sigma Alpha Epsilon has been forced to close numerous chapters and even deal with multiple deaths in recent years, Alpha Sigma Phi’s national organization has grown larger than ever, opening several new chapters on campuses around the continent at a time when many had predicted the demise of Greek-letter organizations. By embracing universal values and working to create meaningful and positive experiences tailored to today’s diverse student population, my national fraternity has flourished. It is important to note, of course, that the horrid actions of one chapter do not represent the views of a national fraternity. And to its credit, the national leadership of SAE has harshly condemned the racist incident. Nor is Alpha Sigma Phi by any means the only national fraternity to boast successful growth anchored in diversity and core values.
But the fact remains that 15 years after that CNN interview about the rise of “self-segregation,” on the 50th anniversary of the Selma march, in what some observers predicted would be a post-racial America, we still see so much discrimination; whether it’s in Ferguson, Missouri, the University of Oklahoma, or the way that some question how much the President of the United States loves America; whether it’s against African Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, LGBT Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, Americans with disabilities, or others. A recent report found that even the Millennial generation is more racist than we had been led to believe.
I am proud of what I said 15 years ago on CNN, and I am proud that I wore the letters of Alpha Sigma Phi. It was, and is, a reflection of my human values, my religious values, my fraternity values, and my commitment to change society for the better. And it rings even more true today amidst the turmoil we see in the headlines. It is my genuine hope that 15 years from now, while we may still continue to draw strength, support, and historical perspective from our own respective ethnic, religious, and racial communities, as a nation we will better reflect “the ability and the willingness to go out and to interact” with those who are not similar to ourselves – to learn from them and teach them, to respect and befriend them, and to become their brothers in the fraternity of humankind.