Perpetua Tenibris on 28th Street: Patterns of Racist Behavior in Greek-Letter Organizations at the University of Southern California

Of Many Strands Dec 19, 2020

By Giacomo Green, USC 22'

On October 24th, 1988 the Daily Trojan reported that on the previous Thursday, several pledges of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity distributed flyers around the University of Southern California advertising a “Slave Auction”. These flyers included a ‘Fiji Man’ logo, a caricature of a slave chained to a spiked collar, the purpose being to advertise a slave-auction themed funding campaign for the fraternity (fig.1).1 These advertisements sought to “attract ‘lady buyers’ who could ‘own’ a Fiji pledge for 12 hours.”2 The ‘Fiji Man’ was depicted as an African American in a way that echoed racist memorabilia produced during the Jim Crow era. This ‘Fiji Man’ was briefly the mascot of the Phi Gamma Delta house at USC and was only removed after direct intercession from the national chapter.3

Incidents like these, while seen today as abhorrent, are not out of place when examining the broader history of racism in Greek life at the University of Southern California. In short, racism in Greek life at USC is not a rare phenomenon – even gentle inspection of the microhistory of 28th street reveals systematic and recurring incidents that substantiate a deep racist presence in USC’s sororities and fraternities. These events have cast almost a “Perpetua Tenibris” or “perpetual darkness” over 28th street at the University of Southern California since its inception in 1880. 4

Understanding the circumstances behind the formation of Greek-letter social organizations in the United States is of critical importance when seeking to establish and understand patterns of racially discriminatory behavior. Sororities and fraternities, as known today, stem from all-male, white, selective literary clubs dating back to the beginning of the 19th century.5 In his monograph, The Company He Keeps, a History of White College Fraternities Nicholas Syrette outlines the rationale behind the formation of these organizations: “I have also come to see the fraternity as an artificial means for the creation and maintenance of social divisions based primarily on race and class. . . Class and race have been, in many respects, the driving force behind the exclusivity of fraternities.”6 In this way, Syrette brings to light a key issue, that all Greek-Letter organizations themselves stem from core ideals of racial segregation, class hierarchy, and strict gender conformism. It is these racial archetypes and inherent roots in racist practices that have shaped the modern sorority and fraternity that can be found on almost every college campus across the United States; USC is by no means an exception. Therefore, it is through this lens of historic racial repression that one must analyze the patterns of behavior that took place on West 28th street, Los Angeles...

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