The only just and effective response to hazing

Hazing has been in the national spotlight again lately since Florida A&M University (FAMU) drum major Robert Champion was beaten to death on a band bus after a football game in late November. The reasons behind what has been ruled a homicide are unclear.

Some say Champion was beaten because he was seeking membership in the band’s “Bus C” clique. Others purport it was internal discipline because of mistakes he made during the band’s performance. His parents believe he was assaulted because he opposed hazing. Others still argue he was targeted because he was gay. All we really know is Champion was beaten to death. He is not the first and, unless something changes, he won’t be the last.

Because I wrote a book (“Black Haze”) in 2004 that deals with violent hazing and identity, I often get calls from various media outlets when these things happen. I’ll let you in on a secret that only those close to me know: Though I know it’s necessary, I hate talking about hazing, Greek-letter organizations and other groups (such as the FAMU band) that mimic them. It’s necessary to talk about because lives are at stake, but the engagements are often toxic.

Talking about these groups’ cultures of hazing is distasteful because Greeks, members of hazing bands and their advocates are so immersed in self-importance and group narcissism that they really believe the world revolves around them. They rarely intelligently argue facts. When challenged, they quickly sink to personal, ad hominem attacks that do not merit the attention of sensible people. They won’t do so in public, but through the anonymity of the Internet they puff their chests, blame injured and dead victims for choosing to be beaten, and brand anyone who opposes them and the cultures of their organizations as uninformed, not “real” members, haters or sellouts. Even death does not stop them.

I know now I was a romantic fool when I wrote “Black Haze.” I sincerely believed if hazers understood why they did what they did, they would stop. Greeks (and their copycat organizations) have disabused me of that notion. They neither want to nor will stop, and college administrators and legal officials need to be more aggressive with them.

Look at the FAMU case for instance. Less than a month before Champion’s death, fellow band member Bria Hunter was hazed so badly that she suffered severe bruising, blood clots and a broken thigh. This incident was reported to the university. Weeks before Champion was killed, band director Julian White suspended 26 band members because of hazing. The university obviously knew this, too.

Given this and other hazing incidents in the band running back over a decade, how is it possible that band activities were not shut down before Champion’s death? This is administrative neglect of the highest order, and Champion’s family is correct in suing everyone from the bus company to the school’s president and the school itself.

Yes, yes, I know Greeks, college bands and other hazing organizations do some good things. But by all accounts, Jerry Sandusky was a great football coach, too. They both have fatal flaws that “the good” does not cover up or excuse. No policy or procedural changes, revolving suspensions or even incarceration are going to stop these groups. They are clear: “We value pledging and hazing so much that we will not stop. We don’t care if someone dies from time to time. This is how we’ve always done things, the way we do things, and the way we will continue to do things.”

With that in mind, what should responsible administrators, politicians and citizens do? Start moving toward the same place that schools like Williams, Colby, Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Rice, Boston College and others have already gone. Tell these sociopaths (be they black, white, red, green or purple) that they may psychologically or physically injure or kill people, but they will not do it while being recognized student organizations at our schools. Since they won’t stop — wipe them out! It is only just.


MLK Justice Lecture Invite

Speaking of justice, join the Center on Race and Inequality on Jan. 26 as we welcome Dr. Peneil Joseph of Tufts University. He will deliver the 2012 King Justice Lecture at 2 p.m. in the U of L Library’s Chao Auditorium.