The Truth About Racism at Southern Sororities

When you apply for just about any job, internship, scholarship or college, you’ll probably see a section on the application promising that you won’t be discriminated against on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, etc. As members of one of the freest countries in the world, American collegiettes are used to seeing these seemingly obvious yet certainly necessary disclaimers.

One place you won’t necessarily see this same guarantee, however, is the sorority rush process.

The National Panhellenic Conference’s Unanimous Agreements, the governing document of the governing body for most traditionally white sororities, outlines official procedures and ethical practices for sorority sisters across the country. Yet nowhere in the 11-page document does the NPC condemn outright the practice of discrimination—racial or otherwise—in the selection of new members. In fact, the NPC somewhat ironically guarantees “the freedom of citizens to choose their associates.” This may be a valid right enjoyed by individual Americans, but some Greek organizations may be taking it a little too far, bordering on pre-1960s-esque segregation.

University of Alabama: The White Tide?

The University of Alabama has the largest sorority recruitment in the nation year after year, giving it one of the most competitive rush processes. In August, a record-breaking 2,081 collegiettes participated in Alabama’s formal sorority recruitment. Another record-breaker: a whopping 91 percent of those collegiettes who participated—1,895 women—received a bid to one of Alabama’s 18 Panhellenic sororities.

By far the most noteworthy statistic, however, is that none of those 1,895 bid-receiving girls were black.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. At least two black collegiettes participated in Alabama’s recruitment this year, and neither received a bid, despite being extremely qualified.

Two individuals out of more than 2,000 potential new members (as rush participants are called) may not seem like a big deal, but the plot gets thicker. Members of four Panhellenic sororities at Alabama—Chi Omega, Pi Beta Phi, Delta Delta Delta and Alpha Gamma Delta—have come forward saying that they were not even allowed to vote on accepting the black ladies before powerful alumnae as well as national and chapter leadership dropped them from the process. An anonymous source from Pi Beta Phi, for example, told Alabama’s student newspaper, The Crimson White, that alumnae threatened to cut financial support for the chapter if the black collegiettes received a bid.

To make matters worse, discriminatory action is not new to Alabama’s sororities. Before this year’s rush, in the history of the university, only one African-American woman had received and accepted a bid from a traditionally white sorority. Carla Ferguson pledged Gamma Phi Beta in 2003, setting a precedent but not a standard.

The conflict at Alabama between the campus chapters, the alumnae and the student body has prompted official university intervention. Shortly after the allegations of racial discrimination surfaced, University President Judy Bonner imposed new requirements on the sorority rush process to further integration and diversity. With these new rules, Alabama sororities now must accept members year-round and expand their memberships to a maximum of 360 women.

“Under the leadership of President Judy Bonner, the University has taken significant steps to increase diversity in the Greek system this fall,” says Cathy Andreen, director of media relations for the University of Alabama.

In a recent video update to the Alabama campus community, Bonner reported that 200 additional bids have now been given out by NPC sororities, including 23 bids given to minority students. Bonner also asserted that the University will also seek to expand diversity within its fraternities and its traditionally black Greek organizations. The improvements are promising, yet the future of the process remains unknown.