Messages between members of the Columbia chapter of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, nicknamed Fiji, have circulated over the past week, implicating several students in racist comments targeting a Black woman photographed in The Denver Post after being tear-gassed by police. One fraternity member’s concerns were dismissed when he expressed disgust with a joke that compared the tear gas—a toxin linked to chronic respiratory diseases and miscarriages that has been used as a weapon against protests—to semen.
“We’ve made jokes about sexual assault and so many other fucked up shit and all of you laughed including you … so don’t pick today to get a conscience,” one brother said in defense of the joke.
The messages minimized the recent anti-racism protests, which have erupted in all 50 states in response to the high-profile murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many other Black people at the hands of police. Black people are 2.5 times more likely than white people to be killed by police—a disparity that reveals structural racism in the criminal justice system that some critics have long called an extension of slavery.
After a request for comment following the release of the screenshots, Fiji’s chapter leadership said they had disaffiliated the implicated members and are establishing a fundraising initiative for Reclaim the Block and other organizations, according to an email sent to Spectator. However, fraternities have historically avoided larger consequences—including loss of space and permanent disbandment—after facing criticism for their ties to rape culture and white supremacy. The frat boy has remained a staple to the college experience as Columbia Greek life maintains a low profile, encouraging a culture of secrecy within fraternities to protect against threats to the brotherhood and keep the actions of members behind closed doors.
Archival research shows that even after fraternities’ racist actions have been publicly revealed, the tradition of Greek Life is protected by a University that permits these organizations to pose an active threat to students and residents alike. Predominantly-white Greek organizations occupy more than half of Columbia’s residential brownstones, which have almost four times the square footage of some senior housing suites. Due to policies that restrict parties in sorority houses, over a quarter of Brownstone social space is controlled by white-dominated fraternities. Outside of their disproportionate size in comparison to the space offered to the 11 multicultural fraternities and sororities on Columbia’s campus, these spaces also define the University’s broader social landscape, marking fraternities’ role in upholding a long history of white supremacy and hostility toward minorities.
Columbia fraternities’ adoption of robes, promotion of Black caricatures, and cross burnings in the early 20th century were an obvious ode to the Ku Klux Klan and its rituals. Not so obviously, historians have noted that fraternities and the KKK both structured themselves around a “brotherhood” by using tools like hooded masks to protect their respective organizations’ privacy and present an intimidating front. On campuses, these fraternities protect their presence with secrecy to obscure their anti-Black and sexual violence.
Michael Jones, CC ’87, wasn’t even in a Greek space when he and other Black peers were met with violence from fraternity brothers. On his way out of Ferris Booth Hall, he was called racial slurs and attacked by Matt Sodl, CC ’88; Drew Krause, CC ’88; Michael Bogacki, CC ’89; and Don Chiesa, CC ’88, all white members of Fiji and Sigma Chi. The violent confrontation grew as bystanders and friends joined. This event incited action by Concerned Black Students of Columbia, who organized a march down Frat Row to protest the blatant display of violence. From dormitory windows, white students threw eggs and water at protesters below.
Ultimately, the four students did not face any criminal charges and were issued only disciplinary warnings from the University. The one alleged attacker who faced disciplinary action from Columbia was exonerated when a federal jury claimed Columbia discriminated against him because he was white.
In 1988, when Marlo Young, CC ’92, attended a Fiji party, he was denied service at the bar, questioned by other guests, and mocked with growling and barking noises. Young received a letter of apology from Fiji president Michael Behringer, CC ’89, in which Behringer admitted that it “is apparent that something occurred that made [Young], as a Black student feel uncomfortable.”
However, Behringer denied that Young had been a victim of racism and insisted that he remembered the incident incorrectly. Although the chapter had no Black members, Behringer cited the presence of “Orientals, Hispanics, Jews, Christians, Catholics, [and] Indians” as evidence for the diversity of the 42-member fraternity.
“I think a lot of the brothers here feel that we have a reputation around campus as being a racist fraternity, and that’s just not true," Behringer told Spectator in 1988. Young did not accept Behringer’s apology.
Fraternities’ denial of criticism has been bolstered by a culture that promotes protecting the brotherhood above all else. Fiji disaffiliate Brendan Mernin, CC ’88, wrote in a 1986 Spectrum essay that he faced criticism when he questioned his frat brother’s use of the N-word to refer to residents of Harlem while waiting at a stoplight.
“When I questioned the speaker’s motive, I was asked if I was ‘another one of those damn liberals,’” he wrote. According to Mernin, the fraternity ingrained in its members that offensive activities were “systematic, traditional and institutional.”
Mernin ultimately left Fiji after his friend was raped by one of the brothers. In his reflection on his experience, he wrote that the duty to protect the fraternity as an institution was so strong that the brothers were willing to take whatever means necessary to oppose a threat to their secrecy.
“When there is opposition, because of a rape or something, fraternities have an automatic system which protects itself,” Mernin told Spectator in 1988.
Despite numerous similar incidents across historical archives, fraternity brownstones still dominate undergraduate social culture, hosting exclusionary parties that serve as one of the few spaces where students under 21 can socialize on weekends. Students who do not belong to these organizations often must either pay or receive an invite from a member of the fraternity before entering the brownstones. Even after doing so, many students have found the fraternity culture inside to not be welcoming.
Walter Jean-Jacques, CC ’14, a former member of the Greek Judicial Board and Sigma Lambda Beta, a multicultural fraternity, experienced hostility from predominantly white fraternities firsthand during his encounter with them at Columbia.
“The white frats would push us outside and tell us you can’t come to this, you can’t enter our door,” Jean-Jacques said. “I had one incident and I never went back. I felt disowned. I felt like, ‘Wow, this isn’t welcoming. This isn’t why I came to Columbia.’ A lot of us who were students of color would hang out and find ways to come together by ourselves because we felt that tension with those organizations.”
As fraternity spaces remained predominantly white, Black students have largely been denied non-dormitory residential space where they themselves could dominate the social scene. . Historian Ibram X. Kendi, in an analysis of the racial history of fraternities, wrote that these policies created a population of minority students that were “socially homeless, invisible to the majority, with no virtual or physical dwelling.”
To overcome the exclusionary social barriers of white Greek life, students across the country turned to multicultural fraternities and sororities. But these organizations—Black fraternities and sororities in particular—were described by administrators in the 1970s as “self-segregating,” and despite their history of activism against gentrification, apartheid, and police violence, they were not granted the same privileges as white fraternities.
Of the 17 fraternities and sororities belonging to the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association, nine have brownstones on 113th and 114th streets. Of Columbia’s 11 multicultural fraternities and sororities, on the other hand, only one has designated space, and it is in East Campus. Only three of the Divine Nine, a group of historically Black fraternities and sororities, have members present on campus as part of the Multicultural Greek Council.
According to Jean-Jacques, spatial disparities play a significant role in the smaller presence of multicultural and Black Greek organizations on campus. After multicultural Greek life provided four years of programming centered on giving a voice to underrepresented students and supporting the local community, Jean-Jacques and other members of multicultural Greek life were frustrated when an empty brownstone went to a predominantly white sorority his senior year.
“We were just like, ‘Wow, this makes no sense,’” he said. “I would say, even coming into Columbia, that [discrimination] was one thing I thought about or had heard about from people that went to the school. And when I was there I experienced the same thing. You could say it’s still the same problem.”
Nisa Rashid, CC ’22, a member of the Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, attributed the prominence of white-dominated fraternities and erasure of Black social culture to the allocation of space between the two.
“Columbia hasn’t allowed us to take up the space that we deserve,” Rashid said. “It makes sense that someone knows about, for example, KDR, because they have a huge house with a huge flag and if you walk down that street you’re going to see it.” Kappa Delta Rho is a fraternity under the Interfraternity Council.
Rashid noted that the University’s allocation of social spaces echoes its erasure and exclusion of Black spaces as it expands into Morningside Heights and Manhattanville.
“Columbia has never wanted Black people,” Rashid said. “Columbia has never wanted to make space for Black people. I think it’s really as simple as that. This was never a school for Black people or even a space we rightfully take up. We still can’t.”