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(Where’s the) Rage against the Machine?

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The University of Alabama’s student government may have flip-flopped its way into the 21st century. In mid-April, UA’s senate voted to adopt a resolution supporting the racial integration of the school’s nearly all-white fraternities and sororities after killing a similar measure just a few weeks earlier.

On its face, this is a historic move. To alumna Jessica Patrick, it may very well be “a step in the right direction” toward greater diversity. Patrick—Jessica Thomas while at UA and now a an attorney in Nashville—was the subject of Bama Girl, a documentary that chronicled her 2005 campaign to become UA’s first African American homecoming queen. (Along with other candidates of color, she lost.)

History, however, gives us ample reason for skepticism. Former governor George Wallace made his notorious stand in 1963 on the steps of the school’s auditorium for the “southern way of life,” known nowadays as “state-sanctioned racial discrimination,” and against the enrollment of Vivian Malone and James Hood. More recently, UA has made national news for eruptions of old-school Dixie racism in the social sphere. The Crimson White, the school newspaper, ran an exposé in 2013 of the systematic exclusion of African Americans from prominent and powerful white fraternities and sororities.)

The recent resolution is a symbolic statement by students, not a plan of action that commits anyone to do anything, including the school’s administration. But it is something, one might say. “It’s only a step forward, but it is a step forward, and it should be encouraged,” University of Alabama law professor Paul Horwitz said in an email.

The Root requested comment from the University President’s office about the measure but received only a general statement asserting the university’s commitment “to a welcoming and inclusive campus.” University President Judy Bonner did speak out against the segregation of and discrimination by white Greeks last year after the Crimson White’s 2013 investigation, which revealed that two high-achieving African American women had been rejected by 16 sororities. (The U.S. Justice Department found that situation so serious it assigned a U.S. Attorney to monitor the situation.)

Nathan James, a Crimson White columnist, sees the yes vote as a straight-up PR move. “It’s clear from the previous vote where our senators’ loyalties lie, and that hasn’t changed because media pressure forced them to backpedal,” he wrote in an email to The Root. The “pressure” James describes built up after national and international news media hammered student government’s March 2014 decision to kill the first “diversity resolution.”

Terence Lonam, a progressive activist on campus from the class of 2017, is similarly skeptical. “When the last SGA senate voted to kill the original integration resolution, which I think honestly represented the state of race relations in Greek life at Alabama, I was horrified but not shocked – the powers that control a large segment of my campus, namely the Machine, are stuck to traditions that have kept them in power with relative ease.”

The Machine? Yes, “the Machine,” a secret society with deep roots in the muck of Jim Crow whose members are chosen from 28 of the school’s white Greek societies. The Machine has fought the move to integrate the Greeks through the immense—and stealthy—political power it wields in student government. A chapter of Theta Nu Epsilon, an umbrella organization of historically white Greeks founded in 1870, the Machine has operated and schemed at UA for a century. No surprise that it’s kissing cousin to Yale’s Skull & Bones.

So how does the Machine run? “UA’s Greeks vote in a bloc,” explains James, “they always elect representatives from a specific set of Greek organizations; these representatives, once elected, fight to preserve a segregated Greek system; students who run against Machine-backed candidates are frequently the targets of harassment and death threats; and elections featuring Greek candidates are frequently affected by voter fraud.”

“Death threats” leaps off the page. So we asked James to substantiate that charge. He provided links to news stories, including one from CNN, in which students made credible claims of such threats and other forms of nefarious Machination. Some, like the CNN.com piece, are more than a decade old. Others are quite recent.

“The Machine shouldn’t be overestimated, but the simple fact of its continued secretive status should be recognized as an obstacle to everything else the University of Alabama, its students and administration, want to achieve,” said Horwitz.

He writes with some authority. His wife, Kelly, was defeated in a Tuscaloosa city—not UA campus—election for Board of Education by Cason Kirby, a 26-year-old recent UA law school grad and former SGA president, under dodgy circumstances. AL.com ’s reporter on the UA beat, Melissa Brown, and others reported on emails sent to voting-age students by Machine-connected Greeks, pledging free booze and limo rides to the polls. (Kirby, a former member of Kappa Sigma, a frat identified in the Crimson White investigation as Machine-connected, did not return a phone call from The Root.)

Horwitz notes that grassroots opposition to Machine politics cannot be ignored. “Some of the most important moments on campus this year—complaints and marches about continued segregation, resistance against adults who were involved, disgust with corrupt voting-bloc tactics that spilled off campus this year and into the local school board elections—came about because of undergraduates, mostly in the sororities, who were disturbed by what they saw and heard and willing to put themselves on the line to do something about it.”

So where does that leave us? With a student organization that has Alabama influence and national ties and clings tenaciously to inherited privilege and power. It may not be able intimidate and machinate with impunity as it did when it still had Jim Crow muscle, but it remains an influential and clandestine political bloc —members do not acknowledge the group’s existence—at a public university with a long history of racial discrimination.

The Machine’s power endures in large part because the UA’s leaders, the adults in the administration, have chosen to remain silent about the group for decades upon decades. Their silence equals tacit approval. That tacit approval amounts to active support for a secret clan of hyperempowered and historically privileged youth to discriminate.

“The Machine is not all-powerful or all-important,” Professor Horwitz wrote in a recent Crimson White op-ed. “But as long as it’s around, every other problem will be that much more intractable. It needs to become a public, accountable group. Or it must be killed, forcefully and publicly.”

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