Mary Polk of Maryland didn’t learn that her son Marcus had been
hospitalized until he called his brother when he came out of the
operating room on April 8.
Marcus Polk, a sophomore majoring in computer science at the
University of Mary land-Eastern Shore (UMES), needed major surgery to
reconstruct parts of his buttocks, where so many of the blood vessels
were ruptured that he had developed gangrene, According to police, he
was one of five UMES students hospitalized after a Kappa Alpha Psi
fraternity paddling ritual that went on for eight weeks.
That Mrs. Polk wasn’t contacted by the school, the fraternity, the
hospital, or even Marcus himself shows how little control parents,
school administrators, and fraternity officials have over the problem
of violent hazing.
Two weeks after the UMES incident was reported, another Kappa,
twenty-three-year-old Ernest Harris, a recent graduate of Kansas State
University who majored in business, was hospitalized after a
“No one should have to undergo something like this to get an
education,” says Richard Lee Snow, the national executive director of
Kappa Alpha Psi.
Snow’s assertion raises the question of why? Why would such
talented, young, Black college students willingly submit to this kind
of treatment — not even to get an education, but simply as a rite of
passage for membership into a fraternity?
While campus administrators, law enforcement authorities, and Greek
organizations aggressively search for new ways to deter this perverse
and often life-threatening behavior, Black Issues spoke to a handful of
Black psychologists around the country to ask why they think students
continue to subject themselves to these disturbing rites of passage.
Links to Slavery, Abuse, of Sadomasochism?
To some onlookers, Greek hazing is painfully reminiscent of the
types of cruelty and abuse African Americans were subjected to during
slavery. After all, the increasingly popular practice of fraternity
branding appears, at least symbolically, to be a direct throwback to
Or maybe there is a link to childhood abuse. Wouldn’t students who
have been the victims of child abuse be more likely to tolerate abuse
at the hands of a “Big Brother”?
Hazing also bears a chilling resemblance to the kind of dominance
and submission found in acts of sexual sadomasochism. Could there be
some kind of an unconscious eroticized element that might draw young
men, and increasingly women, to subject themselves to paddling and
“These practices of branding and beating each other mirror the
experience we went through during slavery,” says Dr. Sandra Lewis, an
African American clinical psychologist in Newark, New Jersey. “The
saddest part is that instead of identifying with the slaves, these
young men are identifying with the slave masters.”
Lewis’s views closely approximate those of Wardell Pride, a former
Tennessee State University student who helped to break the fraternity
code of silence around hazing when fie sited Kappa Alpha Psi in 1994.
After being beaten with a cane, poked with needles, and branded, Pride
thought, “This is what slave masters did to slaves. And my only true
reward was that I had the opportunity to be a slave master as many
times as I want when it’s all over.”
Dr. Stephen Ruffins, a Black psychoanalytic psychotherapist at Long
Island’s C.W. Post University (and this reporter’s brother), rejects
the child abuse theory.
“I believe it’s really a matter of what we saw in The Lord of the
Flies, when a group of very middle class boys became violent when
unsupervised. By unilaterally withdrawing from a pledging process that
still goes on because members have a strong psychological need for it,
the national fraternities have abdicated their parental
responsibilities and left pledging in the hands of adolescents — with
predictable results,” Ruffins says.
The National Pan-Hellenic Council, which oversees all the Black
Greek organizations, formally banned hazing and pledging in 1990 and
replaced it with something known as the Membership Intake Process (see
Black Issues, June 12, 1997).
There has been little academic research on homoerotic issues in
Black fraternity life. In fact, most of the published discussions of
gay Black frat brothers have appeared in the novels of E. Lyn Harris —
the bisexual author of If This World Were Mine, And This Too Shall
Pass, Just As I Am, and other works that explore the bisexual and
homosexual feelings of middle-class and college-educated Black men and
Tradition and Poor Pressure
Hazing new students in fact goes back hundreds of years in European
universities. In America, it was quite common for upperclassmen to haze
freshmen until about 100 years ago. Today, hazing is largely restricted
to fraternities and military academies.
Those who started Black fraternities and sororities had to make tip
their own rituals, such as pledging, many of which were copied from
white fraternities or such secret societies as the Masons.
“Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., was the first Black fraternity
founded at Cornell University in 1906,” says twenty-seven-year-old
Alpha Phi Alpha member Dewayne Boyd, who pledged with the Eta Sigma
Chapter at the University of California-San Diego in 1987. “I heard
that hazing became a tradition as many of [those early] pledges were
faced with a physical threat from their White counterparts who were
opposed to the idea of Black fraternities. That’s how the whole line
tradition began: they wanted to see if you were able to protect one
another in those kinds of situations.”
Black fraternity folklore reveals that even before paddling and
caning became the dominant form of hazing, some of the older, less
violent pledging traditions involved such activities as “line walking”
— which often involves close physical contact between the pledges.
In 1990, when Rutgers University’s dean of Greek affairs, Theresa
Loser, was considering which rituals should be banned as hazing, the
“back-to-belly” form of line walking is one that was prohibited. In
back-to-belly formations the pledges stand and march so close to each
other that the stomach of the man behind touches the back of the
lineman in front of him.
One gay Black psychologist who asked to remain anonymous comments,
“There may be some homosocial elements to fraternity hazing just as in
the bonding rituals among football players or men in the military, and
there are clearly some gay men in fraternities.”
Nevertheless, the psychologist agrees with Dr. Ruffins’s assessment
that this wouldn’t explain any increase in violence over the past
couple of years.
“If anything, gay students feel a lot freer to express their
feelings, and therefore are probably less likely to have to join frats
— either as a way of getting close to other men, or as a way of
confirming their status as normal and just one of the boys,” says the
anonymous psychologist. “In addition, it’s not clear that gay men are
any more into spankings than straight men or women.”
Dr. Walter Kimbrough, a psychologist and researcher is the director
of student activities at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.
With the publication of two articles — “The Membership intake Movement
of Historically Black Greek Organizations,” which appeared in the
National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Journal
(Spring, 1997), and “Self-Assessment, Participation, and Value of
Leadership Skills, Activities, and Experiences for Black Students
Relative to Their Membership in Historically Black Fraternities and
Sororities,” which appeared in the Journal of Negro Education (Winter,
1995) — he has taken, perhaps, the closest look at the psychological
traits of Black fraternity members.
In reviewing the literature on both Black and White Greeks,
Kimbrough concludes that, in general, fraternity members are more
peer-oriented than other students — which may also make them more
subject to peer pressure.
However, the trait that Kimbrough has studied in Black Greeks that
might do the most to explain their acceptance of violent hazing is
their attitude towards the value of leadership.
In surveying sixty-one African American students on a predominantly
White campus, Kimbrough compared Black Greeks to students active in the
gospel choir and the Black Student association (BSA). He found that
“although most of the surveyed students had no leadership involvement
in terms of actually holding an organization office, they considered
themselves leaders at a level of 92.7 percent for [fraternity] members
compared to 94.2 percent for nonmembers.”
The biggest disparity between frat members and nonmembers was in
their assessment of whether fraternal organizations actually provide
opportunities for leadership. Among fraternity members, 100 percent
felt that membership in the frat offered opportunities for leadership,
compared to 64.6 percent of the students participating in the other
groups. On the question of whether Greeks are campus leaders, 92.6
percent of fraternity members thought so compared to 52.9 percent of
students in the other groups, In short, although Greeks saw themselves
as leaders, their non-Greek peers disagreed.
While his sample is small, twenty-seven Greeks and thirty-four
non-Greeks on a single campus, Kimbrough’s research suggests that
although Black frat members highly value the trait of leadership, they
are slightly less likely to actually consider themselves leaders than
students who belong to other groups on campus. In fact, what may really
differentiate frat members is their strong desire to be led in return
for the chance to lead later on.
The Need to Belong
The most important psychological trait of frat members may be their
strong desire to be part of something larger than themselves, and to
follow others who will give them entry into the organization.
Dr. Don Corr is an African American psychotherapist and practicing
school psychologist in Princeton, New Jersey. He pledged Kappa at the
University of Michigan during the mid-seventies and believes that a
more useful approach to understanding the current rash in violent
fraternity hazing incidents is to focus on why the current frat members
choose to brutalize the new pledges. After all, Corr maintains, it is
the brothers who have already crossed over who have the most choice and
voice in what types of rituals are imposed.
“If someone has a strong need to join, they have no other choice
but to go along with anything that happens. However, once you are a
member, you never have to participate in beating anyone if you don’t
want to,” he says.
Corr also notes that there can be tremendous social and family
pressures to join a frat that may have little or nothing to do with the
individual motivations of the young man who is pledging.
“Your father, and all of your uncles may be Greeks,” explains Corr.
“They may all be telling you, `Oh, be a man, son. I went through it,
and it’s not so bad. However, because they are not supposed to tell
anyone who is not already a member what actually went on, there may be
no way for either the younger or the older person to communicate the
fact that this new process of sick beating is nothing like it used to
“I will never forget the tremendous psychological fear and
intimidation of pledging, but I barely remember being paddled once or
twice,,” he continues. “The older men [who say], `Oh I went through
it,’ don’t realize that what the young brothers are going through now
can get you hospitalized — or worse.”
Comments posted on Black fraternity bulletin boards on the Internet
provide additional evidence to support Corr’s assertion that young
Black men come under tremendous pressure to join a particular frat. One
young man recently described his uncle teaching a four-year-old nephew
Omega Psi Phi step show moves and saying, “You can go Omega or you can
The Process of Elimination
Even if a young man is “normal and well adjusted,” once he decides
to join, the entire pledging process itself is designed to break down
individual decision making and encourage pledges to conform.
“I think it’s a mindset you go through,” says Boyd, an Alpha. “You
may not be fully apprised of what kinds of things will go on when you
make your decision to pledge and once you’re on line, it’s challenging
to leave. Some people may look at their brothers who have already
crossed over and think, `If they endured it, why can’t I?'”
In exploring how the pledging process itself inspires compliance,
Kimbrough cites Paula Giddings’s 1998 book, In Search of Sisterhood:
Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement. In
the book, Giddings notes, “The stripping away of individuality is
accomplished through activities that were designed to `humble’ a pledge
(some would, accurately, characterize it as humiliation)…. All of
these things — the need for unity, for taking responsibility for
another’s actions, for understanding that one’s actions will affect the
entire group — have particular resonance in terms of the Black
During the pledging process, many of these tactics are justified
and manipulated in the name of African American solidarity. Line
brothers, for example, are encouraged to do everything possible to help
each other make it. As a result, pledges are expected to encourage each
other to complete the process — which may, in many cases, require
accepting a beating.
Johnson believes that the recent increase in violent hazing is most
probably due to the influence of gangs, which even touch the lives of
many college students.
“These beatings look a lot like the `blood in, blood out’ rituals
of the gangs,” Johnson says, noting that the nationwide rise in gang
popularity, which began in the late eighties and early nineties,
coincides with the formal ban on pledging. Once pledging was banned,
gang rituals filled the cultural vacuum, becoming part of the now
secret rite of passage. This might explain why rituals like branding
have become almost equally popular with both gangs and Greek
Defenders point out that hazing at the Black fraternities is really
no worse than what takes place at schools like the Citadel or in
military units like the Green Berets. However, Dr. Samuel Johnson, a
Black psychologist and vice president for student affairs at Baruch
College in New York City, believes something else is involved.
“In [military units], the hazing is explained and justified by
being connected to the purpose of the institution. They say, `We’re
doing this to you because you have to be tough enough to withstand the
pain of war, or the torture of being interrogated by the enemy.’ On the
other hand, it’s hard to see how the Black fraternity hazing fits into
the mission of colleges, universities, and fraternities that pride
themselves on producing polished Black professionals.”
RELATED ARTICLE: Curing the Madness
As institutions and police attempt to crack down on fraternity
hazing, college officials hope that concerns about expulsions, fines,
lawsuits, and jail may cause enough worry within the Greek
organizations to temper the process dramatically.
Dr. Dolores Spikes, president of the University of Maryland-Eastern
Shore, where five Kappa Alpha Phi pledges were hospitalized following a
hazing ritual that involved daily paddling for eight weeks, wants to
punish hazing victims as well as the ones who inflict the beatings.
“How else are you going to break the cycle of hazing for
generations and generations?” Spikes said after the ritual came to
light. “The person being hazed has to accept some responsibility.”
A proposal to punish hazing victims as well as those who are doing
the hazing is under consideration at the school. It would surpass
hazing restrictions at other schools in the University of Maryland
system and include expulsion from school as a punishment option.
However, use of the judicial system can bring mixed results.
In mid-June, a Maryland District Court Judge Robert Horsey dropped
felony assault charges against four members of Kappa Alpha Psi
fraternity who were accused in the UMES incident. He said the pledges,
who paid $500 to join the fraternity, should have left the group — as
others did — once the hazing began.
“I think they should have gotten smarter…and gotten out,” said
Horsey in a Washington Post story. “I don’t think it’s a case of
assault that can be proven in court.”
The four fraternity members still face misdemeanor charges of hazing and reckless endangerment.
An incident at Bennett College provides another example of an
institution that tried to impose stricter penalties on those involved
in hazing incidents that the court would allow.
At the Greensboro, North Carolina, school, officials tried to bar
from the commencement ceremonies two members of the Alpha Kappa
sorority because of their alleged participation in a hazing incident. A
Guilford County Superior Court judge eventually ruled in favor of the
sorority members, saying exclusion from the graduation would cause the
students “irreparable injury” to their future careers and public
In a recent article in the APA Monitor, contributor Dr. David
Wilder is quoted as advocating the following: putting adults into
fraternity and sorority houses, having gender integrates Greek clubs to
help offset insensitivity and sexual aggression, and limiting alcohol
However, because Black fraternities and sororities seldom have
official housing on campus, these strategies have little impact on
them. The national organizations have a limited ability to control what
their chapter members do off-campus.
One fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, has taken the novel approach of
countersuing a former pledge who had filed suit claiming he had been
hazed by fraternity members.
“This is an attempt to protect the fraternity against individuals
who participate willingly in these activities, pop up injured, and then
seek to bring action against the fraternity,” says Emerson Carey, the
attorney who is representing Omega Psi Phi in the countersuit.
“We will not sit idly by and let Omega’s good name be tarnished and
our long record of service and community leadership be diminished,”
says Dr. Dorsey Miller, Omega’s Grand Basileus.
The following are suggestions national Greek organizations might
want to consider to send a clear and powerful message that hazing will
not be tolerated:
* Sit down with younger members and negotiate a difficult
nonviolent pledging process that undergraduates — and their big
brothers and sisters — will accept as legitimate.
* Create a Web site or 800 number, that is open to the public,
where pledges have to register in order to be officially entered into a
Greek organization’s membership rolls. This way the national offices
can control who gets to be listed as a “real” member and which chapters
can operate membership intake programs.
* Offer a substantial reward or scholarship for anyone who reports
hazing to the police. This would send a powerful message to young
members who believe they are upholding the fraternity’s or sorority’s
* If necessary, hire detectives to infiltrate rogue chapters.
* Go to the criminal trials of members arrested for hazing and testify against them.
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Division Director, Division of Graduate Education
National Science Foundation
Dean of the College of Social Work
The University of Tennessee Knoxville
Dean of the Tickle College of Engineering
The University of Tennessee Knoxville