It is interesting to be one of the more positive quotes on Asian American fraternities/sororities in today’s New York Times. I’m not a particular supporter of of Greek life in general, and have been pretty critical/skeptical of the merits of historically White Greek life due to findings in multiple studies that link these groups to lower rates of engagement with diversity (for instance here and here, both of which found that involvement in Greek life is linked to significantly lower rates of interracial friendship). I’ve also written pieces critical of the colorblindness that historically White Greek life tends to perpetuate, and have the dubious privilege of receiving a “cease and desist” letter from the National Pan-hellenic Council in college asking me to stop making inquiries into the racial/ethnic breakdown of Greek life.
The interview I did with the Times was probably 40% critical of what has gone down in Asian American groups, 30% focusing on relevant research and the history of exclusion in Greek life (there are fascinating pieces from Alfred McClung Lee’s manifesto from the 1950s “Fraternities without Brotherhood” that document racial exclusion in Greek life and a failed attempt at a Sigma Chi national convention to drop the exclusionary policies against “the Orientals”), and 30% trying to dig up some of the potential positive aspects of these groups. I talked about how ethnic-specific fraternities/sororities didn’t strike me as being harmful to the campus racial climate (unlike historically White groups) since we know that students of color have much higher rates of cross-racial interaction/interracial friendship, and also ethnic student organizations are NOT linked with lower rates of diversity engagement (contrary to the stereotype that they foster “self-segregation”). Such groups are absolutely crucial to the overall positive functioning of a campus because they give students of color a place to recharge–same-race and interracial interactions aren’t an “either-or” for people of color, they’re a “both-and.”
The reporter, Winnie, was particularly interested when I mentioned that a Lambda @my church put on a bone marrow drive in response to a need for a donor. There is some potential for leadership training and having a demographic that might not ordinarily walk into an Asian American Studies course be engaged in thinking about the community. From my observations, sometimes they do it well, and other times they do it pretty terribly through an assimilation paradigm (ie, a lot of talk about how the purpose of these groups are to get AAs into the “mainstream”). Should Asian American Greek groups stick around? It’d be my general preference to eliminate all Greek groups. But if Greeks are going to stick around, Asian American groups have something to bring to the table–when they’re at their best (as I said in the article). I have the privilege of having some good friends who were/are Lambdas, and they’re great guys–I can see how being involved was (generally) good for them, years and years post-college.
That said, things have happened in these groups that are absolutely horrific, and they need a LOT more regulation and oversight. Minh Tran’s quote on how these groups have been dependent on university advisers who have generally taken the path of not supporting them when the sh*t hits the fan is telling and troubling. And yes there are historic injustices behind why historically White groups have buildings and the $$$ pooled over generations to have large national operations that can provide more oversight, member education, etc.
In terms of how I came to the about 2% estimate of the # of Asian Americans involved in Greek groups that are specifically AA-affiliated. Using data from the Nat’l Longitudinal Study of Freshmen, 10.2% of Asian American respondents reported being in a sorority or fraternity. Of them, 18.9% stated that they were involved in Greek groups that were predominantly Asian American. (Meaning that the vast vast majority of the relatively small slice of Asian Americans active in Greek life are in predominantly White groups) .189*10.2=1.93%. Now this is probably an overestimation because we know that the NLSF data is NOT representative of all Asian American college students, since almost 40% of Asian American college students are enrolled in community colleges (not included in the NLSF sample) and very few AA Greek groups are at community colleges. And plus the NLSF data is really only representative of selective/highly selective institutions. So we could say that either about 2% of AAs enrolled at selective or highly selective institutions are involved in Asian American Greek life, or that even a smaller percentage (say .5% or 1% to be very generous) of all Asian Americans nationwide participate in an Asian American-affiliated fraternity or sorority. This also doesn’t take into account that a few of the respondents in “predominantly Asian American” Greek groups in the NLSF were at places like Cal or MIT, where you probably have a handful of sororities/fraternities that are majority-Asian but not Asian American affiliated.
Why are Greeks in general not at their best a lot of the time, and Asian American Greeks more specifically? There’s a lot to be said about how a group ethos/culture that can really bring out the worst in people. Asian American Greek groups have the misfortune of being relatively small, and while some of the networks are bigger and thus are able to pool resources, from my observations, there’s a decent amount of splintering off where a couple of students don’t like the existing group or couldn’t get recognition from national, so they start their own thing or seek affiliation with a network that is less-established…which results in less oversight, infrastructure, institutional memory/guidance, etc. These groups are often pretty small, so some “bad eggs” can at times pull some disproportionate influence (although this happens in large organizations too). There are probably some intersecting trends with Asian Americans not embracing help-seeking behavior in general. My heart is deeply saddened for the families of those who have lost their lives to hazing.