Voluntary Association Membership: Black Greek Men on a Predominantly White Campus

Article excerpt

There is a stunning disparity between the number of African Americans who start college and those who complete their degree. In 2000, 30% of 18-24-year-old African Americans were enrolled in college, compared to 36% Whites of the same age. However, in the same year only 15% of 25-29-year-old African Americans had finished college, compared to 29% of Whites (Massey, Charles, Lundy, & Fischer, 2003). Black students on predominantly White campuses often report high levels of alienation and social isolation as well as a pressure to conform to the White ideal (Allen, 1992; Feagin & Sikes, 1995; Feagin, Vera, & Imani, 1996; Willie & Cunnigen, 1981; Zea, Reisen, Beil, & Caplan, 1997). Significantly, Black males have the highest attrition rates of any college student population and consistently report higher levels of isolation and alienation than do their female counterparts (Allen, 1992; DeSousa & Kuh, 1996; Mow & Nettles, 1985/1996; Taylor & Howard-Hamilton, 1995). Price (2004) reported that in the year 2000 the persistence rate for Black men at NCAA Division I schools was 31% as compared to 57% for White men. Allen (1992) attributed this disparity to lack of structural and normative change in the college environment since predominantly White institutions began admitting African American students. However, in addition to research that explores reasons for Black male failure in higher education, Allen suggested "more must also be known about what enables black students to experience personal and academic success" (1992, p. 27). Scholarship in this area must be able to provide evidence regarding how specific organizational contexts, particularly minority-serving organizations, uniquely function to facilitate the success of minority students, in light of current questions regarding their validity (Kimbrough, 2003; Orfield, 2001; Taylor & Olswang 1997).

In light of the statistics on Black male college student attrition and simultaneously in keeping with Allen's recommendation, in order to address this issue we must not only look at failures but also potential locations for success. This research explores the function of membership in a Black Greek organization (BGO) as one possible mechanism of success for undergraduate African American men. The research seeks to delineate the influence and function of fraternity membership for 20 undergraduate members of one Black fraternity as it relates to their college experience at a large, southeastern university. Previous research on Greek organizations typically ignores the different history and structure of BGOs, as compared to their predominantly White counterparts. This takes the form of writing about White Greeks but using the term Greek without a racial modifier, so that race (in this case as in most, Whiteness) is made invisible. Existing literature on the process of student integration also rarely incorporates research on the structure and function of voluntary associations, a body of work that can be instructive in understanding the undergraduate student experience, particularly as it relates to BGO membership.

In order to frame the findings properly, I begin by reviewing what is known about Greek organizations in general and BGOs in particular. I then relate this to existing theories of college student integration, particularly in the context of the minority student experience at a predominantly White institution (PWI). Next, I review the literature on voluntary association membership and how it connects with what is known about BGOs. Finally, I review three areas of "connection" that emerged in analysis of the interview data as significant to the participants regarding their membership and that indicate the potentially positive functions of BGO membership for black men at a PWI.

Literature Review

Greek Organization Research

Most of the research on the impact of Greek membership on college students' college outcomes (including cognitive growth, openness to diversity, college GPA) focuses primarily on the experiences of White students, with mixed results. …