For our beloved Victoria Starks there was the added barrier of race, the silliest of all membership qualifications. That such considerations exist among blacks or whites who are otherwise affluent and educated people half a century after 1963 proved a point I make in lectures around the world: despite considerable progress mandated by federal courts, race still occupies the core of Alabama’s social structure. The main difference between then and now is that overt racism is passé (except in emails to me and in the reader-comments section on AL.com, where racist jokes, taunts and hate still flourish). Our racism now is mainly covert. We are told that Alabama’s regressive tax system and inequitably funded schools result from a conservative, anti-tax white population, not racism. The 2013 Education Accountability Act had nothing to do with race. It just seeks to ensure that poor white, Hispanic and black children in “failing” schools have access to private academies (paid for by partial state tuition scholarships, which equals only a fraction of the costs, meaning that only more affluent families can afford them).
The newest covert racism is the alleged explanation of an alumna adviser to her University of Alabama sorority that a qualified black woman should not be pledged because she might feel uncomfortable amid the white sisters (which seems to be more true of aging white sorority advisers than current white sisters, given the uproar at Bama). A coed from Corvallis, Ore., (who doesn’t have to worry about her social future in Alabama) and courageous staff of The Crimson-White (who do) blew the whistle on their timid administrators and 1963-era advisers.
When I was growing up in Alabama, the equivalent and more honest explanation was: “I’m not racist. Some of my best friends are n…… They have their place, and we have ours.” Dear anonymous alumna adviser: when extended sufficient kindness, fairness, respect, friendship and love, any person feels comfortable in any group. Check out the Gospel stories of Jesus, for example.
But back to Auburn. Tom McCaskey, a member of Delta Chi fraternity, told me this story. His was the first all-white fraternity to pledge a black student in 1984. When the brothers discussed Tommy Lanier, a black student from Huntsville and a former football player, members did not mention race. Discussion centered on his status as a member of the outstanding 1983 football team and his decision to give up the sport to concentrate on academics. The brothers considered Tommy a real coup who would enhance Delta Chi by bringing football players to parties, improve their intramural teams and raise the fraternity grade point average. He was also easy-going, personable and fun to be around.
Like all choices, this one had consequences. During spring 1985, the fraternity arranged a joint party with an all-white sorority. On the appointed date, none of the sisters showed up. Profuse apologies followed, even an offer to reschedule the party. But the prideful brothers of Delta Chi declined the offer, concluding that the source of the rudeness was not conflicted schedules or bad manners but the presence of their black brother.
As we process what happened this fall at Alabama, we need a balanced story. Of the 1,188 women rushed by Auburn’s 17 predominantly white sororities, only two or three were black. All received bids to a white sorority, raising total black membership to five. That number is pathetically small, though perhaps it is evidence that many black women prefer their own sororities where they are welcome rather than white organizations where they are not. And kudos to the women of AD Pi for recognizing in our god-daughter a diamond when they saw one: great mom and dad; strong Christian faith; high regard for learning; president of her Auburn High School senior class; high-hurdler and pole-vaulter on her track team.
Exclusion based on skin color contradicts both democratic values and vocal pretenses to govern our lives by living out the answer to “What would Jesus do?” Our private organizations have the legal right to refuse whomever they please. But in doing so, racism rules, democracy fails and the teachings of Christ are mocked.
Wayne Flynt is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Auburn University.