By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
One year, there were plans to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday with fried chicken and a movie that made fun of a Black crime fighter trying to clean up a Black neighborhood.
Another year, an email was sent showing a man in a hat holding a watermelon with the words, “You don’t have to be Negro to love watermelon.” The picture was described as “outstanding.”
As far as the word “nigger,” one email said there was nothing wrong with using it, especially when one needed to satisfy his “inner Klansman.”
For the past five years at the University of Chicago, this was the good life at Alpha Epsilon Pi, a historic Jewish fraternity that counts Chicago Bulls’ owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Facebook owner and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg as alumni.
Racist incidents have rocked America’s predominantly white fraternities and sororities for the past several years. What was once a secret world that allowed thousands of college men and women to express racist behavior has been shattered by the members and students who have become fed up with Greek organizations that in the eyes of many have fueled racial tensions on America’s college campuses.
Greek life was a major part of the college experience, but lately, more fraternities and sororities have been banned or reprimanded by college administrators who now view these organizations as a problem.
While 14 Greek organizations have been busted in the past three years for hanging nooses around statues and wearing racially offensive costumes, the Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) fraternity at the University of Chicago harvested a culture that degraded Blacks, Muslims and Palestinians year after year.
It’s a behavior that went on for five years in a three-story building near the Hyde Park campus of the University of Chicago. It’s also a problem that began long before race became a hot issue on America’s college campuses.
Today, despite its racist behavior, the AEPi chapter at the University of Chicago remains open and undisciplined, leaving angry Blacks and minorities challenging the school’s commitment to diversity.
In recent years, the University of Chicago—a school with a racist past—promoted itself as an institution of diversity, but Black students disagree. While their concerns of racism fell on deaf ears among school officials, some of America’s brightest students were part of a fraternity where racist emails were part of everyday college life.
AEPi was finally exposed on Feb. 3, after a fraternity member grew tired of the “toxic culture” and leaked dozens of emails to a reporter for Buzz Feed, a popular website that was founded nearly 10 years ago.
In one email on July 20, 2011, one AEPi member thought it would be funny to change the acronym for newly initiated brothers from NIB to NIG. That same day, another member expressed his and fellow brothers’ delight about his new nickname, a racial slur which “we don’t understand how no one came up with over the last four years.”
On Jan. 13, 2013, one fraternity member said that “with a great since of somber pride” that he was organizing a “Marathon Luther King Jr. Day, where they drink in the morning and go to Harold’s for fried chicken for dinner and then watch “Black Dynamite,” a Blaxploitation parody, where a former Black CIA agent fights to rid a community of drugs.”
The scandal triggered a wave of anger from Blacks, Muslims and Palestinian students at the University of Chicago. In a letter to school officials, they demanded that the university suspend its relationship with the fraternity and limit their access to funding. They also demanded an apology and new guidelines and policies for disciplining organizations that engage in racist behavior. The letter was endorsed by 45 campus organizations, including the Student Government.
In an email to the students on Feb. 4, Michele Rasmussen, the Dean of Students and vice president for Student Life, said, “The University is working with all students to make sure that our campus respects these values. The language used is disrespectful and harmful, particularly to members of our Muslim and African-American communities and to women.”
The administrators asked students to participate in a campus survey in order to address the problems.
To many minority students, the school’s reaction was just another canned response. They said the school is not doing enough to address a problem that has been going on for years on campus.
“Discussion and surveys are one thing, but now it’s time to take action,” said Adia Sykes, a Black senior majoring in anthropology. “We can talk all we want, but talking is not going to do anything. These emails brought to light issues that had been going on for years.”
Other colleges are cracking down on Greek organizations.
Last year, the University of Oklahoma banned the white fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, after members were caught on video doing a racist chant. At the University of Arizona, the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity was suspended after members observed the Martin Luther King holiday with a party where they drank from watermelon cups, wore bandanas and posed for pictures while forming gang signs with their hands.
At the University of Chicago, over four percent of its 14,500 students are Black and 21 percent are from other countries. Over six percent of the students are Hispanic, according to the latest figures on the school’s website. White students make up about 43 percent of the school’s population.
Minorities say the email scandal exposed a racial problem that the school has ignored for years. In 2012, a Confederate flag was placed at the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, a place where Black students gather for meetings and other events.
For Halloween in 2014, several students wore a “cholo,” a derogatory style for Mexican-American men. In May 2015, a Palestinian student received a threatening message addressed to her personal Facebook account warning her about her social activism on campus.
The school’s racial problems come as the school prepares to decide on where to build a library for the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, who taught at the University of Chicago law school for 12 years.
As racial incidents continue, there are increasing concerns that the school is more concerned about boosting its image than its students.
Older Blacks remember the damage the University of Chicago did to the community in the 1950s when the university funded-organization, the South East Chicago Commission (SECC), oversaw the demolition of over 600 buildings and forced thousands of Blacks out of Hyde Park.
As for the AEPi, the fraternity is still open. Founded in 1913, the organization has chapters at 155 colleges and universities around the nation, according to a list obtained from its website. With the email scandal, AEPi is now fighting to preserve its legacy as a clean fraternity that respects other races.
The AEPi chapter president, Joshua Benadiva, released a statement on a Facebook post.
“Hate speech like this is completely antithetical to the Jewish values of Alpha Epsilon Pi. We are working with our brothers to implement programs which will educate our members about the dangers of intolerance and hate speech. As a Jewish fraternity, we know as well as anyone the pain of being belittled and marginalized. We don’t stand for it when it happens to us, and we won’t tolerate it when it is being done to others.”