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Whites Have Growing Interest in Black Greek Organizations, Experts Say

AFRO.com, News Report , James Wright Posted: Sep 02, 2009

Former President Bill Clintons announcement last month that he will join the Black fraternity Phi Beta Sigma sent shockwaves through the Black communitybut hes far from the only White to cross the color line.

Many Blacks wondered why any president other than Barack Obama would want to join a Black Greek Letter organization, given the benefits that many White social organizations offer. But according to Dr. Matthew Hughey, an assistant professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Mississippi State University and a White member of Phi Beta Sigma, Clintons actions arent a first.

Hughey pledged and went over to Sigma at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro in 1996.

President Clinton becoming a Sigma is an indication that Black Greek Letter organizations are being looked at by non-Blacks, said Hughey, who has written an article on the subject, Crossing the Sands, Crossing the Color Line: Non Black Members of Historically Black Greek Organizations, for the Journal of African-American Studies.

In my research on this topic, [we] do not know how many Whites are in the traditional nine Black Greek Letter Organizations because the demographic information is not there. But I can say that there are a few Whites here and there, Hughley said. Obviously, there are more Whites in Black Greek organizations on predominantly White campuses than on HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities].

The traditional Black Greek organizations are Alpha Phi Alpha, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Omega Psi Phi, Delta Sigma Theta, Sigma and Zeta Phi Beta, Kappa Alpha Psi and Sigma Gamma Rho and Iota Phi Theta.

Prominent Whites have joined Black Greek organizations through the honorary route, becoming a member by the support of the general membership body without going through a formal pledge process. The late former first lady and human rights activist Eleanor Roosevelt was an honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha.

The late Hubert Humphrey, the vice president of the United States under President Lyndon Johnson, was inducted as an honorary member of Alpha Phi Alpha, and former Ambassador to the Vatican and ex-member of Congress Lindy Boggs is an honorary member of Sigma Gamma Rho.

Soror Boggs was made a Sigma in July, 1978, Rachel E. Morris, the executive director of the sorority, told the AFRO. Boggs served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1973 to 1990, representing New Orleans. She is the mother of ABC News commentator Cokie Roberts and lobbyist Thomas Boggs, and was succeeded in the House by William Jefferson in 1990.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton almost became an AKA but withdrew her application when informed that she could not join other Black Greek sororities.

Dr. William Kimbrough, the president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., and an expert on Black Greek organizations, said that the White presence in Black Greek organizations is there but small.

I would venture to say that only about two or three percent of Black Greek organizations have White members, said Kimbrough, author of a book, Black Greek 101: The Culture, Customs and Challenges of Black fraternities.

Those Whites who choose to join do so because they are attracted to the community service aspects of the Black Greeks, Kimbrough said. Both Black and White Greeks work in the community, but it seems that the Black Greeks take it more seriously. It would seem that White Greeks tend to be more socially-oriented.

Hughey agrees with Kimbrough.

White Greek Letter organizations are not as serious about service as the Black Greeks are, he said. Black Greeks do way more hours of community service than the Whites.

Hughey also said that Whites are interested in the cultural aspects of Black Greek life.

It seems to be more of bond while in college and after college, he said. Also, stepping, the pledge process and line jackets seem to appeal to Whites who join Black Greek organizations.

Nevertheless, Hughey acknowledges that there are problems with Whites in Black Greek organizations.

You get it from both sides, he said. The Blacks see you coming into their fraternity and think that they are taking over. The Whites wonder what is wrong with you with being in an organization of Blacks.

Kimbrough, who is an Alpha, said that when he worked with student organizations at Emory University in Atlanta he found an interesting perception about Greek Letter organizations and race.

It seemed to me that the White fraternities were more open to having members of other races as brothers than the White sororities, he said. I could not explain why but that is the way it was.

It is the matter of brotherhood that seems to attract Whites the most, said Hughey.

Today, Whites are looking for something more lasting than the four-year experience, he said. Black Greeks offer a lifetime of brotherhood and friendship.

Also, he said members may feel more social pressure in White organizations based on status, money and other things.

With the Black Greeks once you are in, you are accepted regardless of who you are.

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