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More Frat Crap

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma, March 9, 2015.  The letters have been removed, and the building now sits empty.

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma, March 9, 2015. The letters have been removed, and the building now sits empty.

Last August I published an essay describing my experiences in a social Greek-letter organization I’d attempted to join three decades earlier. It still remains one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made in my entire life. All of that came back to me recently, when the “racist chant video” incident from the University of Oklahoma (OU) exploded onto the national scene. In two different cell phone videos, members of the elitist Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity’s UO chapter were caught gleefully singing about the organization’s lack of Negroes.

Basically, the chant went like this:

“There will never be a nigger in SAE.
There will never be a nigger in SAE.
You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me.
There will never be a nigger in SAE.”

The group was on a chartered bus last Saturday night, March 7, headed towards the Oklahoma City Golf & Country Club to celebrate the fraternity’s founding. Another student at the university, a young African-American woman, received links to the videos from someone she refuses to identify (out of concern for that individual’s safety); a person she declares wasn’t one of those who videotaped the incident. As videos are wont to do these days, the thing went viral, and now the reputations of one of the nation’s oldest fraternities and a major institution of higher learning are in jeopardy.

OU President David Boren reacted swiftly and ordered the fraternity to shut down. “You are disgraceful,” he publicly stated. “You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves Sooners.” (Sooners is the nickname for OU students).

SAE’s national office stripped the OU chapter of its charter. The massive house where the boys lived has been emptied out; its residents forced to scramble for other living accommodations. In a sign of solidarity, Black and White members of the university’s football team staged a silent march instead of reporting for practice. Two of the guys leading the bus chant have been identified as Levi Pettit, 20, a graduate of Dallas’ Highland Park High School, and Parker Rice, 19, a 2014 graduate of Dallas’ Jesuit College Preparatory School. Both schools are elite entities with hefty tuition tags. Highland Park is actually a section of Dallas that, along with neighboring University Park, is known locally as “The Bubble.” The idea is not so much to keep residents insulated, but rather, to keep those of us who occupy the lower rungs of the social ladder out. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you the area’s own police literally used to stop Black and Hispanic motorists just to ask them what they were doing there.

It’s also befitting that graduates of those two schools would make their way into a fraternity like SAE. It’s a high-priced outfit. When I tried to join that fraternity at the University of North Texas, all of the social Greek-letter organizations would gather their pledges in one arena for an introductory session. The SAE boys all showed up in tuxedos. I called them the “Ken Doll Gang.” They stood against a wall, as if announcing, ‘Look, but don’t touch. I’m too pretty for you.’

I also met two Hispanic guys in the dorm where I first lived who had made attempts to join SAE, but dropped out because of what they perceived to be the frat’s subtle, racist attitude. It wasn’t something overt, they explained, but they could feel it. They really weren’t wanted; no matter how much money they could dish out. I didn’t want to believe it back then. I mean, it was 1984. Hadn’t we moved beyond that shit?

When the Oklahoma fiasco erupted, I returned to that question and realized, quite simply, no. Well…in some circles, no. Pettit and Rice have blamed a convenient scourge: alcohol. In other words, they were too drunk to know what they were doing. Poor kids; they’re too young and naïve to realize that shit doesn’t go over well in the real world.

Listening to that chant, though, I kept thinking it’s not something they composed on the spot. It sounds well-rehearsed. Pettit and Rice claimed they were taught the song while at the frat house and therefore, like toddlers, only repeated what others had uttered. Again, poor kids. Both young men apologized after they were expelled from OU. The Pettit family has hired a top-rated Dallas public relations specialist, and the Rice family has temporarily fled their home. Both OU and SAE are now trying to identify other students on that bus, including two young women who, some claim, are sorority members.

SAE is also now investigating cases where that very song was allegedly performed at other chapters, including here in Texas and elsewhere in Oklahoma, but also in Louisiana. This is just the latest in a long line of incidents where fraternities and sororities have engaged in blatantly racist behavior since 2000 alone. There are too many to mention.

Ironically, SAE’s OU chapter employed an African-American chef; a gentleman named Howard Dixon who is now unemployed because of this mess. A fund has been set up to help him adjust.

I’m not going to sling every fraternity and sorority member into the same pile of ignorant morons. It’s always the worst elements of any group that get the most attention. I still maintain that social Greek-letter organizations serve no real purpose in higher education. Other people feel they’re vital in fostering camaraderie and unity. That’s fine, if they want to believe that. But, if anyone thinks lynching is something worthy of light-hearted chants, just look at the photos below of actual “niggers” hanging and tell me you see nothing wrong.

Back in the spring of 1985, as I stumbled through life – trying to balance my disintegrating academic regimen and still hoping badly to be a part of that fraternity – a senior-level member gathered everyone in the house one night and self-righteously slammed us for not taking the organization seriously. He condemned the group for “chasing tramps” and going to clubs “listening to your nigger music.” Off to the side, somewhat behind me, stood the only Black man in the group. He said nothing – and neither did I. That was 1985. What year is it now?





Filed under Essays

Frat Crap


Thirty years ago this month I made one of the worst decisions of my entire life: I joined a fraternity. In August of 1984, I was a shy, naïve 20-year-old; the kind of person college social groups eat up and spit out. When I started classes at what was then North Texas State University (now, the University of North Texas), I hoped to complete my education within two years and begin a career in computers – anything to do with computers – like my parents had planned for me. I also hoped to break out of my shell of insecurity, make plenty of friends and find my future wife – after losing my virginity first. I ended up suspended from school for the fall 1985 semester, addicted to alcohol, maniacally depressed – and still a virgin.

Then, as now, I blame that fucking fraternity. I know the status of “Victim” has been a coveted one in America since the 1980s. But, hear me out on this mess.

I’ll say flat out that social Greek-letter organizations serve absolutely no purpose. They have only one function: party, which means getting drunk and having sex. Yes, they toss in the occasional charity function bullshit just to look good. For example, in November 1984, the frat I joined teamed up with the county to drive people to voting stations. In another self-righteous instance, we participated in a campus blood drive; where the director (a pre-med professor) walked around in a stupid vampire outfit. (Get it? Blood drive? Vampire?) Anne Rice probably would have killed him on the spot. Other than those two saccharine-laced, cringe-worthy exceptions, we just got drunk (they called it “enjoying alcohol – immensely”); tried to seduce as many unwary females as possible; engaged in quasi-macho antics; and partied at an aging two-story house on the edge of campus.

On my first day in the dorm, I saw a flyer advertising a party for the frat, which I’ll call Alpha Omega Dipshit (AOD). After I settled in – living away from home for the first time in my life, along with a flamboyantly gay roommate – I looked again at that ad for AOD and thought it must be great way to make new friends. I was desperate to meet new people. This wasn’t high school, which I hated. Life at a community college the preceding two academic years had been nice. But, I didn’t spend a lot of time with people. My social life during the my first two years out of high school revolved around whatever plans my parents had and my German shepherd. My dating life revolved around my hands and a bottle of baby oil. Things would be better now, I assured myself. North Texas was different. I wasn’t dealing with kids anymore. I was dealing men and women. I thought.

On a whim, I followed a guy I’d met and quickly befriended in the dorm to the AOD party, where beer flowed like the testosterone through my body. There were lots of beautiful people, and I tried making friends with every one of them. I really wanted people to like me. Being shy hurt and I had to break free of it.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a federal law requiring states to raise their minimum legal alcohol consumption age to 21; otherwise, they’d lose highway funding. The law was a response to the growing anti-drunk driving movement. Before the 1980s, drunk driving was viewed with an almost humorously dismissive attitude. Despite fatal accidents involving alcohol, intoxicated driving still wasn’t considered nearly as egregious as interracial marriage or homosexuality. That all changed after the young daughter of Candy Lightner, a California woman, was struck and killed by a habitual drunk driver. She made it a national issue. Hence, the 1984 federal law.

But, then-Texas Governor Mark White essentially told Reagan to go to hell when he mandated the legal alcohol consumption rate wouldn’t be raised to 21 in the Lone Star State until 1985. Texas had enough money to fund its own highways without some former B-movie actor telling us what to do. (That anti-Washington sentiment has always sort of been part of the Texas identity. White, I might add, was a Democrat.) It really didn’t matter to me, though. I didn’t drink that much alcohol anyway at the time.

Three years earlier, 18-year-old seniors at my high school were upset because Texas planned to raise the minimum alcohol-drinking age to 19.

“They can give you a right,” one girl told me at the start of an English class, “but they can’t take it away.”

How profound. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get the fuck out of that high school.

But, when I stepped into the back yard of the AOD house, I followed the crowd to the beer kegs and started partaking of Coors Light. Even now, the mere smell of Coors Light incurs bitter images of college boys behaving stupidly. I had one plastic cup of beer. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another.

And, that’s where it began.

I wanted so much to Belong. My lifelong shyness had stunted my personal growth. Aside from my dog, I felt no one liked me. But, in pursuing that friendship goal – paying money along the way – I became a punching bag for most of those guys. More importantly, my entire academic regimen collapsed, and the university placed me on academic probation for the spring 1985 semester. That prevented me from becoming a full, active member of AOD. I still had to pay monthly dues, of course. But, I remained in the netherworld of pledgeship. That’s something like a glorified time out. Can you feel the hopelessness?

Things got worst that year. We had to put our dog to sleep in April, and then, the university suspended me for the rest of 1985. My parents were outraged, and I became suicidal. I felt I’d lost everything. My dog was dead; I didn’t have any new friends; and my future looked bleak. And, I was still a virgin.

My life reached a new low that October when I got arrested for drunk driving. I showed up to my waiter job at a country club already intoxicated one weekday evening. Carl*, my openly-gay supervisor, wouldn’t let me work, even though the gaggle of mostly-Jewish members wouldn’t have given me a second look anyway. Instead, Carl made me sit in the back office where I ate a meal he had one of the cooks prepare for me and admitted he had the hots for me. Great, I thought. After all my efforts at chic one-liners and coy humor, the only person interested in me was a middle-aged man with a beer gut. After I sobered up a little, he told me to go home. But, I didn’t. I felt I had nothing to live for at the time. So, I got into my little Ford Escort and went bar-hopping. Coming off Dallas’ Greenville Avenue, I stumbled into a police trap and then into a police car. I had never felt as much humiliation as the moment I called my parents from Lew Sterrett Jail in downtown Dallas. They bailed me out early the next morning. Fortunately, my blood-alcohol level tested below what was then the legal limit of .10.

I returned to North Texas for the spring 1986 semester and then again for the ensuing academic year. I left for good a year later; vowing to return and complete my education. I never went back. But, I finally did earn a college degree – 20 years later.

I made only two really good friends during my tenure at North Texas. One, Dean*, I had met through AOD. He was a tall, skinny guy with tousled brown hair and a penchant for short girls. We became close – like brothers. Not frat brothers. Real brothers. As an only child, that meant everything in the world to me. He became the kind of friend I’d always wanted. He was upset that I didn’t become a full member of the frat, yet he didn’t let that bother him.

But, AOD did get in the way of our friendship. In September 1986, after I’d settled in once more at North Texas, I ran into Dean in a parking lot, while headed to class. We hadn’t seen each other in over a year. We traded phone numbers, and later, he invited me to drop by an AOD rush party. Against my better judgment, I took him up on his offer. I went with a guy named James* who’d just graduated from high school and who I’d met at my new job a few months earlier. There, I ran into many of the people I’d known before. It felt so strange – being in that house – with those familiar faces – and the smell of Coors Light. But, nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.

At some point, I got into a heated discussion with a guy named Kyle*. He’d been part of the same pledge class as me and Dean and now, two years later, was AOD’s president. Kyle was already kind of a strange character; someone who did a great Keith Richards impersonation, but was probably the same type to walk into his workplace with a shotgun. I didn’t realize he could be such an asshole, though. I don’t know what prompted the argument, but a short while later, Dean asked me to leave. Actually, he had been told to ask me to leave. He was the frat’s “Sergeant-at-Arms” – a glorified Boy Scout-type role – and apparently, since we’d been such good friends, he’d been given the task to let me know I was no longer welcome. Fine. I didn’t need them. So, I calmly departed with James in tow; acting is if nothing was wrong.

Deep down inside, however, I felt completely dejected. I had wanted so badly to be a part of that group. The next night I scampered about the campus, ripping down flyers advertising AOD. I guess I showed them! Regardless, Dean and I stayed in touch throughout the remainder of the academic year. We just didn’t talk about the frat.

The other friend, Robert*, had actually attended the same grade school as me. We knew each other only sparingly back then. But, on my first day in the dorm in August 1984, Robert stepped into my open doorway and introduced himself; he was in the room just across the hall. He startled me at first, but I was glad people were so friendly. Or, at least he was. After another moment, though, I thought I remembered him. It’s one thing to reconnect with people from high school. But, grade school?!

Ironically, he joined AOD – at my urging – and did well with it. He wasn’t there the night Dean asked me to leave. But, Robert has remained one of my best friends ever since. He’s tolerated my moodiness over the years. For example, I had an alcohol blackout one night in the early 1990s and unwittingly called him to tell him “this was it.” I was determined to kill myself. (I seriously don’t remember the incident, but I trust he’s telling me the truth.) Being the good real estate salesman he is, Robert stayed calm and managed to talk me into exhaustion.

When he revealed that to me a few years ago, I apologized to him for making such a scene and taking up so much of his time. It’s not his fault I couldn’t get my stuff together and heal myself from depression and alcoholism. Which I eventually did. Several years later.

Over the past two decades, I’ve been dumbfounded – angered, actually – to learn of incidents involving social Greek-letter outfits on college campuses. They almost always feature severe alcohol abuse, hazing and, quite often, sexual assault. How is it, I ask, that colleges allow these groups to exist? I guess the frat culture is embedded that strongly in the realm of America’s higher education. What a waste.

In the summer of 2003, my employer hired three young female temporaries to assist with an ongoing project. One had just graduated from high school and planned to attend a major Texas university that fall. Shortly before she resigned her position, I warned her to stay away from social fraternities – and sororities. “They’re just no good,” I told her.

I last saw Dean on South Padre Island during spring break 1987. I’ve retained my friendship with Robert, but I still often think of Dean. Not long after he had ordered me to leave the AOD house in 1986, Robert told me Dean had gone on a drinking binge. He felt he’d turned on a friend, Robert said, and couldn’t handle it. I never knew that. I can only hope Dean didn’t descend into a decades-long battle with alcohol like I did. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.

It wouldn’t be fair, if I said that Dean and Robert were the only decent guys in that fraternity. In fact, most of them were great guys. It was the handful of assholes who ruined it for everybody else. Isn’t that the way it often works?

Yet, I wonder – where is Dean now? Is he okay? Did he succeed in life? I felt, if anyone deserved it, he did. I’m not so arrogant to wonder if he thinks of me, though. But, we had the kind of friendship that should have lasted a lifetime. If that damn fraternity just hadn’t thrown so much crap all over us.

*Name changed.



Filed under Essays