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Column: Desegregating Duke

aSelf-segregation? It appears that segregation on campus is much more institutionalized than we think.

According to the 2003-2004 Duke University Housing Options for Upperclass Students (HOUSe) outcomes report, of the 23 active residential selective houses and fraternities, the two organizations with the highest percentage of African-American students are Alpha Phi Alpha (100 percent), a historically black fraternity with 11 brothers, and Scott (91.7 percent), an all-women selective group of 12 members. The organization with the next highest percentage of black students is SHARE, with just 2 of its 20 members identifying as African-American. Overall, only 6.4 percent of all residential selective group and fraternity members are African-American, a significantly low percentage considering that nearly 12 percent of Duke undergraduates are black.

These data do not even purport to include the numerous non-residential fraternities and sororities who augment the de facto segregation on this campus. Residential fraternities and selectives, however, bear the majority of the burden when it comes to impacting the segregated Duke microcosm, simply because of their privileged housing status. Greeks have long been derided for their implicit acceptance of this segregation, which we can witness not only at Duke, but all over the country. In this sense, Duke students are only products of the general trend in America that isolates African-Americans in blighted communities, thus ingraining separation from whites. This reality in no way absolves us of responsibility in the matter.

After World War I, undergraduate chapters of the National Pan-Hellenic Council affiliate organizations spread to desegregated research universities and to historically black colleges in the South. Graduate chapters were formed across the country as service organizations, due in part to the blatant racism prohibiting African-Americans from participating in civic functions within their communities post-graduation. The development of the NPHC was thus a necessary (and positive) result of racial isolation on predominantly white campuses, serving as a haven and outlet to create social change for blacks and the country.

However, even the NPHC demonstrates caution as a historically black organization on its website: "The need to form campus-based councils to represent NPHC affiliate organizations is not motivated by a 'separatist' philosophy. The establishment of councils assists in maintaining a distinct identity as 'service-based organizations,' as opposed to organizations that may be strictly social in nature; NPHC, Inc., does not advocate a disassociation from [predominantly white] organizations on college campuses. The council's purpose is to promote unity." The organization further states that its continued advocacy for historically black greek life "stems from tradition."

What worries me is that the "tradition" upheld by the NPHC--with the unquestioning support of the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council, our predominantly white greek organizations--is simply the tradition of good ol' American segregation. The ways in which the greek system artificially segregates the social environment by race should be deplored. If you consider joining a greek organization this semester or in the future, it is crucial to consider the impact of your decision on the diversity of your college experience. Surely you will find a group of brothers and/or sisters who in some way share your interests, but it is highly likely that you will at the same time preclude the possibility of interacting with students who both share your interests and challenge you to think differently about the world.

This is one of the deepest failings of our education at Duke: Greeks have created a stratified system that hinders the interaction of people from different backgrounds and with different experiences. I guess I thought wrong when I believed the purpose of college was to confront my existing understanding of things with conflicting evidence and ideas. Greeks would have us believe that the point of your education at this university is to find a homogeneous group for comfort in the face of the distressing outside world.

What might the alternative be to a greek system, you ask? Of course, who will throw our parties and organize our revelry? From where will we get our liquor and entertainment? Viable concerns, but when faced with a choice between the current segregated reality and a party scene potentially controlled by diverse student coalitions, I will most definitely pick the latter.

This argument could potentially be extended to all organizations that cater to specific group identity needs at Duke, but a line can feasibly be drawn between organizations that promote acceptance of different experiences, and those that erect institutionalized structures prohibiting the formation of strong cross-cultural friendships and bonds. The greek system represents one of these structures, and in the very long term we will do ourselves a service by envisioning a campus and society that is not bound by the phrases "historically white" or "historically black."

Undoubtedly, University officials have attempted to develop policies that promote campus desegregation. Requiring all sophomores to live on West Campus was a huge victory for this cause, and the formation of the Office of Greek Life, which now houses IFC, Panhel and NPHC together, can be seen as another move in the right direction.

But it will always be an effort in futility to ignore our segregated history or to belittle it by calling our present situation "self-segregation." There will continually be a tripartite tension for minorities among the desires for inclusion in the American mainstream, inclusion in their respective ethnic group and individuality. At the least, however, we as leaders cannot resign ourselves to another generation of separate-and-unequal existence. Although the civil rights movement may not have cured the personal feelings of isolation often felt by African-American students at Duke, the fractured perspective of separatism cannot coexist with our ideals. With this knowledge, we must continue to face a constant discomfort with the racial boundaries we have established in our past and which we have sustained to the present day.

Mahatma Gandhi once urged his followers to be the change they wanted to see in the world. To change that world, to ensure that others will not face degradation caused by racially defined categories, we must all find the stoutness of moral spirit and the inner strength to fight against the evils of racism from within. This struggle must start with our social scenes and communities at Duke, which--if we don't do anything about them--will become the still-segregated neighborhoods of our future.

Philip Kurian is a Trinity junior who hopes everyone had a wonderfully relaxing Thanksgiving weekend. His column appears every other Monday.


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