While my research concerning Greek life addresses the more subtle ways that race manifests itself in 21st century sororities and fraternities, once in awhile there’s an ugly, blatant incident related to Greek life that reminds us of how far our campus communities have to go in terms of being welcoming places for students of color. The University of California, San Diego is still reeling over two such incidents that took place recently—an off-campus ghetto theme party hosted by members of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity and the use of the n-word on a media segment mocking the outcry about the party.
As racially offensive theme parties go, the Facebook invitation for the Compton Cookout was egregiously ridiculous. Still, it should not have taken the unfortunate events of the Compton Cookout and the Koala news show to spark collective outrage about the dismal 1.3% Black student enrollment at the University of California, San Diego, but it did. My 5 years at UCLA overlapped with the 2006 admissions crisis over record lows in Black student enrollment. In the UC system, UCLA is usually on the radar for having low Black enrollment post-Proposition 209. Unfortunately, it’s UCSD’s turn in the spotlight.
Going back to Greek life, I was glad to see the president of PIKE swiftly issue a response expressing remorse for the situation. It was an off-campus, private party, but the fact that the hosts and most of the attendees were members of Greek life does call for some serious self-examination. There have been numerous studies on how Greek life tends to contribute to what is in essence a racially isolated college experience, ethnic enclaves for White students if you will. (Jim Sidanius and colleagues’ book, The Diversity Challenge, outlines this trend.) There are exceptions, and Greek life is more diverse on campus such as UC Riverside and MIT. Still, even on racially diverse college campuses, these groups can shield students from having to engage with the broader diversity of the campus. Given the empirically documented benefits of cross-racial interaction and engaging in a diverse student body, this dynamic is troubling.
Take this dynamic of what is basically White student self-segregation and combine it with the historic divide between predominantly White and historically Black Greek life. Then add demographic conditions like those that exist at UCSD, where Black students make up a miniscule proportion of the student body. What you have is a recipe for very little cross-racial interaction and friendship, which means that there is very little likelihood of a student in PIKE of even having Black friends at UCSD, let alone someone who even knows someone from Compton or who attended high school in South LA.
So what UCSD is reeling over—it’s a Greek life problem, it’s an admissions problem, it’s a retention problem, it’s a campus racial climate problem—the only consensus might be that there is indeed, a real problem. However, the members of PIKE, the students who thoughtlessly attended the party, and the students who put on the Koala newscast are not the only ones culpable. Also responsible are Proposition 209, the racial and socioeconomic stratification of California public education, and UCSD’s own negligent commitment to supporting students of color. With the California budget crisis, a UC education is becoming less and less affordable to state residents. Even before the incidents at UCSD, the chances of a White student from PIKE and a Black student from South LA being able to sit in a class together, let alone befriend each other, were already scant. Now the chances may be even worse unless UCSD acts quickly to not only repair the damage, but do everything in its power to recruit and retain a diverse student body.