For Blair Brown, there are two tailgates before Louisiana State University home football games: One for white people and the other for blacks. Toward the back of the festivities, all the way back by Highland Dining Hall, black students and alumni set up their tents and coolers, all under the watchful eye of campus police officers. At the other end, around the Parade Grounds -- a lush green field underneath the Bell Tower -- white fraternities and sororities reserve and cordon off the heart of the campus for tents, trucks and RVs.
In this part of the crowd, at the center of the celebrations, a tension lurks beneath the exaltation of Fighting Tigers football: the presence of the Confederate flag. The "stars and bars," regarded as a symbol of the country’s history of slavery can be found throughout the parade grounds before the game: behind the windows of RVs, being hoisted on the back of trucks by fathers with their children, and, most disturbing to Brown, Confederate flags styled in purple and gold -- LSU’s school colors.
“I stopped going to LSU football games,” said Brown, a black woman who graduated from LSU in May. “It made me feel like people of color aren’t welcome on campus,” as though “there are people telling you ‘you do not belong.’ ”
— #exposelsu (@Unheard_LSU) June 22, 2015
On June 17, Dylann Roof is accused of shooting and killing nine people at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in a racially motivated terror attack. In an online manifesto discovered after the attack, Roof posted pictures of himself with the Confederate flag, to many, a symbol of white supremacy and racial violence. Since the shooting, politicians and public officials recognizing the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate have pushed to remove it from public spaces, including the South Carolina State House.
Greek life -- and fraternities in the South in particular -- have had a troubled history dealing with issues of race. In March, a widely publicized video emerged showing the University of Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) singing a chant made up of racial slurs and threatening violence against blacks, sparking national outrage. In that instance, a Confederate flag was ultimately found to be hanging in the SAE house on campus.
In light of OU SAE controversy, photo shows visible confederate flag hanging from OSU SAE house. Story to come soon. pic.twitter.com/hmJ3TRSSDD
â€” O'Colly (@OColly) March 9, 2015
But incidents of Confederacy-related fraternity racism on campus go back much farther and occupy a much wider territory than the SAE chant. Kappa Alpha Order traced its origins to Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, and annually hosts a spring formal called the Old South Ball on a nearby plantation, where fraternity brothers dress up in Confederate uniforms to complement their dates' antebellum-era dresses. While the national chapter banned Confederate uniforms from the event in 2009 after complaints from a black sorority at the University of Alabama, the event continues, albeit diminished, across many campuses. Only after the controversy did the University of Alabama chapter of Kappa Alpha Order take down a large Confederate flag hanging outside their house. A video on YouTube of the Old South Parade at Florida State University shows members still wearing Confederate uniforms in 2012.
At LSU, Brown intended to join a sorority on campus when she first started college. But when she went to the coordinator for Greek life on campus, she wasn’t given an application for white sororities; instead, she was provided with recruitment forms for the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), the historically black fraternities on campus, she said. Of the 1,500 freshman in non-NPHC fraternities and sororities, only four are African-American, according to LSU data requested by the Daily Reveille, the school’s newspaper, effectively segregating Greek life.
The American Greek letter system was made to perpetuate race, gender and class exclusivity and inequality, said Matthew Hughey, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and author of "Black Greek Letter Organizations 2.0," which examined the development of black fraternities and sororities in response to campus racism. The appropriation of racist symbols by fraternities shouldn’t be seen as divergent from the institution’s principles, but rather as another method of recruitment, according to Hughey.
“The iconography and symbols of white supremacy and white nationalism reflect a fraternity’s history and send an implicit message of who they want as members,” namely those from “a patriarchal, white, Christian, upper-class” background, Hughey said. “It’s talking about race without talking about race.”
Southern Fraternities Downplay The Role Of Race
Several students currently involved in Greek life on southern campuses and national fraternity leadership disagreed with Hughey's claims, disputing charges of institutional racism and describing the problems as isolated and individual incidents.
“The Confederate battle flag is not now, nor has it ever been an official symbol of the Kappa Alpha Order,” Jesse Lyons, a spokesperson for the national Kappa Alpha Order wrote in an email. “KA’s national convention … overwhelmingly voted 14 years ago to prohibit any public display” of the flag, he added, saying that the national board of directors “prohibited use of trappings of the Confederacy in 2009” and that “less than half of our chapters elect to name their spring social event/events ‘Old South.’ ”
The Kappa Alpha Order's chapter at the University of Florida still holds an Old South Ball, but one member downplayed its significance. “We’re pretty sensitive to progressive views,” said Preston Taulbee, who graduated last year and served as a recruitment chair. “But it’s … just a celebration of a past era and our organization’s history,” which he described as a tradition since 1865.
At the University of Mississippi, a chapter of the Kappa Alpha Order changed the name of its spring event to the Rose Ball and decreased the use of antebellum attire. The event still took place at the plantation where “12 Years a Slave” was filmed, according to the university’s newspaper.
'You Can’t Pick And Choose What Parts You Want'
While some defenders of the Confederate flag intend it as an aggressive political statement, many claim some kind of innocence to the racism and white supremacy associated with it and other Confederate symbols, said Ted Ownby, a history professor at the University of Mississippi and the director of the school’s Center of Southern Culture.
Witnessing controversy surrounding Confederate imagery at Ole Miss is nothing new, said Ownsby, who has taught there since 1988. Colonel Reb, a cartoon of a Confederate officer, served as the school's official mascot until 2003, when administrators caved to growing national pressure and discontinued him. A Confederate flag accompanied Colonel Reb -- and thousands of Ole Miss fans—to football games every fall. The removal of Colonel Reb as a mascot sparked an outcry among students and alumni. The Colonel Reb Foundation was quickly founded to protest the decision and circulated petitions as recently as 2011.
These are the "people who say: I would never support the Klan or racial violence, or it’s heritage, it’s tradition, it doesn’t mean anything but an old football team,” Ownby said, adding that “the entire past matters and you can’t pick and choose what parts you want.”
Ownby also recalled an incident last year in which three fraternity members hung a noose around the neck of a statue on campus of James Meredith, the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi. The noose was accompanied by a pre-2003 Georgia flag, which featured the Confederate battle emblem. Soon after the noose and flag were discovered, the Interfraternity presidents at Ole Miss released a response, condemning the actions of the individuals who vandalized the statue and said "[we] feel compelled to ask ourselves how we can open our doors, become more inclusive and take immediate actions in becoming part of the solution."
'It’s Too Deeply Embedded In The Culture'
University officials and fraternity leadership across the South have launched outreach programs in recent years aimed at addressing racism, with the Inter-Fraternity Council at University of Missouri hosting a race relations forum in May and the Chancellor of University of Mississippi announcing new policies in 2014 to create a more diverse and inclusive campus environment, including renaming Confederate Drive, which leads into Fraternity Row, to "Chapel Lane." But incidents of racism still appear on campus, regardless of collective efforts to change.
At LSU, Brown described harassment from white students, particularly in response to her protesting as part of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, started last year when a series of unarmed black people were killed at the hands of white law enforcement members. A racial slur was hurled at her by one young white man, she said, and she was told to get off his campus and enroll at Southern University, an historically black college in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Despite vows from fraternity leadership to abandon traditions of the Confederate flag, Brown said the practice of waving purple and gold Confederate flags at LSU will likely continue despite the Charleston shootings.
“There are still people in support of these ideas that refuse to believe they’re wrong,” said Brown. “It’s too deeply embedded in the culture to go away.”