Perceived Injustice: The Black Lantern Procession
This section looks at a controversial ritual that took place at Oregon State University while I was conducting research. In an evening ceremony, several fraternity members dressed in hoods and robes and marched in a candlelight procession. This ritual shocked several members of the African-American community, who associated the clothing with the Ku Klax Klan. A university-wide protest was triggered as a result, and several letters were published in the campus newspaper (the Barometer). Fraternity members viewed the protest as a big misunderstanding and complained about being sterotyped. Underneath all this conflict was the idea that fraternity members will have to change traditional rituals to adapt to modern times.
It is really hard to respond or sway somebody that thinks a fraternity is this, and this, and that. Basically, you can see it in all the movies. Fraternities’ disgusting rituals and all that, just partying all the time. It is hard to make them believe otherwise…basically, if you want to break a stereotype you got to live a better example, which I think most of the houses are trying to do. (Fishkiller)
As part of the Greek system I can say that the stereotype that fraternity guys always party is not an invalid stereotype, because most of the houses are that way. That is a label that applies to most of the Greek system but not all of it. (Aaron)
That trash-talking and cockiness associated with the Greek system, it is kind of a stereotype but a lot of the houses have it, and it kind of makes everybody look bad…actually, you know, that stereotype has been around for so long that even if we got rid of the people who started it all, I don’t think it would change much. It seems perpetual. (Lance)
A recent fraternity ritual on the OSU campus brought to light fraternity members’ perceived injustice. The Black Lantern Processional is the name of a traditional Alpha Sigma Phi (ASP) ritual in which members marched on campus and recited a fraternity chant while clad in hoods and robes. The event was perceived by members of the campus community as racist because of the similarities to the Klu Klax Klan’s use of hoods and robes. As a result, a report was filed with the OSU President’s Commission on Hate-Related Activities (PCHRA), and the PCHRA met with members of Alpha Sigma Phi in attempts to understand the century-old ritual and prevent future misunderstanding. However, complicating matters was an unrelated incident in which two white students (Eric Hutchinson and Christopher Curry) tried to spit and urinate on an African-American while shouting racial epithets from a fifth floor of a resident hall.
As the latter incident was reported by the campus and city newspapers, the Black Lantern Processional was also brought to public attention. At times, Alpha Sigma Phi was mentioned by name, but quite often the ritual was described as an anonymous “fraternity” ritual. Therefore, many fraternity members felt that they were being lumped together with Alpha Sigma Phi or, more importantly, with the other racist incidents occurring at OSU. Fraternity members began to unite to protect themselves against a perceived enemy.
The belief that fraternities are victims or targets deserves more attention here. On one hand, fraternity members have advanced to positions of privilege and power in the United States. Clyde Johnson (1972) declares that, after general fraternities were started, all U.S. presidents have been fraternity members with the exception of Herbert Hoover, 12 of the 18 vice presidents since 1825 have been initiates, more than fifty fraternity men have served on the nation’s highest tribunal, and well over a hundred fraternity alumni have served on cabinet posts since the Civil War (315-316).
Furthermore, Johnson cites a study by Fortune magazine which reports that “[t]here out of four chief executive officers of the major corporations are members, among those who attended institutions where fraternities are sheltered” (317). On the other hand, despite these fraternity achievements, it is possible for members to consider themselves as victims while still in the university environment. The belief that they are misunderstood, stereotyped, and treated unjustly can easily create a sense of solidarity. In the example of the Black Lantern Processional, fraternity members found a common bond in defending a ritual which they believed was misunderstood.
Letters written in the campus newspaper, The Barometer, illustrate the perceived injustice. The Alpha Sigma Phi President, Joe Voje, penned a letter (3/6/96) describing a critic’s use of stereotype and name calling and insisting that he fight “impulses toward prejudging and prejudice” (5). In addition, a group letter (2/27/96) drafted by members from several different fraternities stated that “those who are close-minded enough to pass judgment on someone for the way they dress, are just as ignorant as someone who judges another by the color of their skin” (4). Furthermore, some participants had found my research a forum to discuss their outrage:
We were talking about the Black Lantern Processional and they stereotyped that as some kind of racist thing going on or something. I couldn’t completely understand what these guys were pissed off about. I mean, these guys have a ritual, O.K., it is a ritual that has been practiced by this group men…for men that they can still call brother, men that are dead, men that they have never known, but they can still identify with in this living group. They are carrying on a tradition that these men started and they consider it an obligation…I am sure that they consider it a honor to take parting this, and they get shot down by these people who know nothing about it. I personally define this as being a little closed-minded…that shows intense ignorance on that persons part. If you investigate a little bit about it and find out that the intentions behind a given activity are maybe morally questionable, than you can label it wrong (Aaron).
For a brief moment it appeared that, despite the growing solidarity among fraternity members, Alpha Sigma Phi would bond with PCHRA long enough to co-author a letter clearing the fraternity’s name. However, according to J.J. Cadiz, Co-Chair of PCHRA, this collaboration was prevented because “ASP would not support any letter which did not contain an explicit statement from PCHRA exonerating ASP of any wrong-doing” (Barometer, 3/31/96. P5).
The point of contention related to the wearing of hoods and robes. ASP members evidently felt that they had a right to wear robes and, that they should not be held responsible for the hut, discomfort, and fear caused by their ceremony. Ultimately, the letter was never signed and it is uncertain if ASP will wear the hoods in future Black Lantern Processions.
My own impression is that ASP might have originally been willing to sign the letter, but they had changed their minds at a later date after repeatedly defending their ritual in public and finding reinforcement from the many different fraternities who had rallied in their defense. Signing the letter would have been interpreted as being weak and, as a strike against their fraternity allies. Shortly thereafter, a university boycott was staged on campus which synthesizes many of the concepts I have discussed in this study.
In the university boycott students, faculty, university administrators, and Corvallis residents bonded together in protest of the recent racist incidents on campus. It is estimated that over 1,000 individuals turned out for the well-televised event. The boycott was organized by the Black Cultural Center and the activities included marching on campus and holding forums that allowed minority students to speak out against racism. I attended the event and couldn’t help but notice the parallels to my research. Many different campus groups who might normally compete amongst themselves were able to bond together to confront a common enemy – racism. Many white students marched alongside of African-Americans, who they might otherwise have chosen to ignore. Likewise, I noticed fraternity members, clad in T-shirts bearing fraternity symbols, marching with campus feminists without any confrontation between the two. For one temporary moment I saw solidarity in the campus community.
Yet, at the same time I saw conflict and division. It was likely that some of the marchers held sexist or homophobic beliefs while denouncing racism, and that many protesters were only paying lip-service to the issue of racism. Some of the student groups escaped internal conflict momentarily while attending the event in unity. Moreover, after the boycott many individuals would return to their own groups and have minimal interaction with the different communities that they had previously bonded with. At a less observable level, I could observe subtle hierarchies, competing authority figures, and dichotomies among the organizers and marchers in the boycott. On the outskirts of the march, I noticed several fraternity houses as we passed by them. I imagined fraternity members inside the house bonding together over the idea that the march was somehow directed at them. Indeed, both fraternity members and African-Americans felt that some wrong was committed against their group and, that the opposing group had demonstrated hostility and aggression against their own. For different campus groups the march somehow shaped the identity of who they are in this campus community and gave their existence meaning. The boycott had undertones of both conflict and solidarity and it was difficult for me to separate the two at times.
While the African-American students spoke out at the end of the event, I noticed that they made reference to racism at different levels, i.e., individual, group-to-group, and institutional. For me these levels will always be inter-connected in the campus social environment. Racism has to be understood at multi-levels, as does also male bonding in fraternities. It was tempting for me to make a major distinction between fraternity members and the activists by noting that fraternity members were economically inter-dependent. Fraternity members live together in the same house, therefore they must continuously construct social arrangement to negotiate power, delegate household labor, and pay their bills.
The social order finds meaning and continuity in fraternity ritual such as the Black Lantern Processional, although the same rituals can clearly lead to different conflicts depending on the situation. However, I realized my mistake. We are all economically interconnected in this campus environment, regardless if we live in the same house or not. Therefore, each group is responsible for negotiating an organized structure for living peacefully among ourselves. This social bond includes both those who live with us and those who live among us.