Sally Kohn: News of fraternity abuses should remind us that danger comes from young white males as well as members of other groups
Kohn: People need to set aside their biases about who commits crime
Police in Pennsylvania are investigating the Delta Kappa Rho fraternity at Penn State University regarding two private group Facebook pages where members of the fraternity allegedly posted pictures of naked or partially dressed women, some of whom appeared to be passed out or asleep, “or in other sexual or embarrassing positions.” Many of these pictures, it appears — though hopefully it goes without saying — were posted without these women’s consent, or even awareness the photos were being taken. The Facebook pages also included pictures of frat members engaged in drug deals and hazing rituals.
This comes on the heels of members of a University of Oklahoma fraternity being caught on video singing an explicitly racist chant. In 2013, the Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter at the University of Texas at Arlington was shut down after three separate incidents of rape were reported to have taken place in the frat house. In 2010, members of a fraternity at Yale marched past a female dormitory chanting, “No means yes, yes means anal!”
Most, though certainly not all, of these fraternity members are young white men. To be clear, the identity of the students involved in the Delta Kappa Rho Facebook posts has not been made public, but 73% of students at Penn State University are white and since Delta Kappa Rho is not a historically black fraternity, it’s safe to assume that the Penn State frat is at least as white as the student body, which is to say predominantly so.
These incidents and more remind us of the rampant but often-ignored danger posed by young white men in America today. Although the news media and popular culture constantly cast suspicion on young Muslim and African-American men and the supposedly disproportionate and ever-present threats these communities pose, the fact is young white men are just as dangerous. But because our biases have us so busy looking the other way, we’re ignoring the magnitude of this reality.
Certainly not all those perpetrating or advocating sexual and racial assault, within fraternities and outside of them, are young white men. Several of the instances of rape and sexual assault made public recently have certainly also included black and Latino young men. But while studies show that men who join fraternities are 300% more likely to rape, it’s simply too easy to blame fraternities alone.
Maybe fraternities are boiling points of rape culture, but that culture is simmering everywhere else. And it makes sense we should examine every factor. This must include race and gender – including whiteness and maleness. (Of course, the vast majority of young white men are law-abiding and present no risk; but that is also true of the vast majority of young black men and of Islamic men.)
Whites account for 69% of those arrested for crimes. And yet although blacks and Latinos comprise a total of 30% of the population, they account for 58% of the prison population. Black men are six times more likely than white men to be incarcerated. And according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, since 9/11 more Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by white right-wing radicals than by Islamic jihadists.
At a moment in our society when we magnify the threats posed by Islamic radical terrorists and attempt to rationalize the killing by police of unarmed black men across the country by over-hyping fears about black male violence, the simple fact remains that white men are an ever-present if not greater threat to our safety. Our racial and Islamophobic biases blind us to the dangers posed by young white men, allowing them to continue unexamined and unaddressed.
A white friend in law school once pointed out in a discussion that one of the less-talked-about ramifications of racial profiling was that guilty young white kids were getting a pass. She said that if her white son were doing drugs in a park somewhere, she’d want the cops to find out and do something about it. But her white son would likely be overlooked, in a system irrationally and irresponsibly focused on the over-dramatized fear of black criminality. I’m not endorsing increasing rates of incarceration; we already have too many imprisoned for a free society in which rates of crime are dropping overall. I’m saying we should culturally, politically and, where appropriate, legally, scrutinize the criminal behavior of white men in equal proportion to the serial bad behavior in which they’re engaged.
Is it time to think about banning fraternities as apparently rampant cesspools of misogynistic and racist culture? Maybe. But it’s definitely time to acknowledge and address the violent and criminal actions of young white men as part of a broader, troubling trend that has for too long been overlooked.
Note: An earlier version of this article cited an incorrect figure on the percentage of violent crimes committed by white men.