Current Events Christian Living

The University of Alabama and the Tide of Racial Integration

Jemar Tisby

The University of Alabama usually makes national headlines for winning football championships, but this week’s news brought more humbling attention to the institution.

The U of A Greek system has remained a “bastion of segregation” throughout the university’s history until the present day.  A story broke in the campus newspaper, Crimson and White, detailing the denial of an African American female who pledged multiple sororities.  From all accounts, this woman was an excellent candidate.  At least, she would have been if she was White.

[Tweet “The U of A Greek system has remained a “bastion of segregation” until the present day.”]

“By any measure, this candidate was what most universities would consider a prime recruit for any organization, sorority or otherwise. She had a 4.3 GPA in high school, was salutatorian of her graduating class and comes from a family with deep roots in local and state public service and a direct link to The University of Alabama.

The recruit, who asked to remain anonymous, seemed like the perfect sorority pledge on paper, yet didn’t receive a bid from any of the 16 Panhellenic sororities during formal recruitment. [one sorority member] and others said they know why: The recruit is black.”

The Good News

Administrators at the University took admirably swift action to eliminate race-based segregation in its fraternities and sororities.  Little more than a week after the story garnered national attention, “multiple African American women accepted bids to join traditionally White sororities.”

Although the segregation in the Greek system has been a known fact, the push to end racial discrimination in these elite social circles was led by students.  Over the next few days after the article appeared in the school newspaper, students held multiple forums, marches, and discussions to address the problem.  Alabama can be proud of the passion, inventiveness, and tenacity of her students in bringing this issue to light and forcing a change in policy.

In addition to all the student efforts, constituents from outside the University helped end segregation in sororities and fraternities.  Alumni of the university added their voices to the chorus of protests. And a federal prosecutor was even assigned to monitor the situation.

It’s a new era for Greek life at the University of Alabama.

The Bad News

But once the euphoria of integration ends, the real work begins. The challenge for newly diverse organizations is not so much integration as inclusion. Integration means people of different races and ethnicities can enter the same institutions and coexist.  Inclusion means something more.  Inclusion means that not only can ethnic minorities join, but they have an equal and valued place among peers.

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[Tweet “The challenge for newly diverse organizations is not so much integration as inclusion.”]

These brave young Black women still have tremendous battles ahead.  Although it’s only been a few days, just four African American women and two other ethnic minorities have chosen to accept invitations into traditionally White sororities, according to university President, Judy Bonner.  So African Americans and others will remain a minuscule minority unless significantly more women of color join.

Related to their minority status is the challenge of understanding.  African American women in traditionally White sororities will contend with immense pressure to conform.  The image and standards of beauty may make their kinky hair and darker skin a liability.  The cultural norms of the White sorority sisters may clash with those of the Black sisters.  Genres of music, patterns of speech, political persuasions and more will highlight the gaps between Whites and Blacks.

[Tweet “The image and standards of beauty may make their kinky hair and darker skin a liability.”]

And the student body at large may leave the battle too soon.  While integration is a milestone it is not the goal.  The goal is inclusion, acceptance without assimilation. Unity amidst diversity, not uniformity.  Yet it is easy enough for members of any organization to satisfy themselves with ending segregation.  Meanwhile they ignore issue of understanding and communication that would enable not only demographic but ideological integration as well.

[Tweet ” While integration is a milestone it’s not the goal. The goal is acceptance w/o assimilation.”]

Apart from intentional and sustained efforts to generate understanding between people of different races and ethnicities, stories of frustration and pain will soon erupt from ethnic minorities who chose to accept bids into traditionally White sororities and fraternities.

The Really Good News 

Despite the daunting work of diversity and inclusion, it can be done.  Programs, conversations, and other attempts to purposely discuss differences in an attempt to understand others will yield marginally positive results.  But true integration and inclusion can only be achieved in light of the Gospel.

[Tweet “True integration and inclusion can only be achieved in light of the Gospel. “]

Ultimately what separates the races is pride.   We want ourselves and those who are like us to get all the glory.  In the case of racial and ethnic segregation, we exalt our own race or ethnicity above another’s in an effort to ascend to the pinnacle of power and praise.  And pushing down one race or ethnicity is merely a symptom of our efforts to put ourselves in the place of God.

But Jesus Christ humbled Himself so that He might be lifted up and those who by faith accept His work are lifted up along with Him.  Although Jesus had rightful claim to sit at the right hand of God the Father, He left His place in Heaven to take on flesh and become one of us.  He allowed Himself to be ridiculed, scorned, beaten, and even killed.  That’s because He didn’t take pride in Himself, but He found the strength to be humble by embracing His identity as the Son of God.

When we believe in the person and work of Jesus Christ, we, too, become children of God.  Through the crimson tide that flowed from Christ’s side we who were once justly segregated from God now receive an invitation to join the heavenly host.  We who were once discriminated against on the basis of our unholiness now have the President of the Universe saying that there’s been a change in policy.  His Son has taken away all our unworthiness and we can now enter into the eternal fraternity of faith.

The University of Alabama’s Greek system has a long and difficult road to integrate and include ethnic minorities in its traditionally White Greek houses.  But Christians have a greater hope.  We who were once strangers and aliens have now been fully integrated into the household of God by faith in Jesus Christ.

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