A Yankee’s point of view: some Southern traditions are not worth holding onto

I was born and raised in New England, and you can probably tell.

But despite my admitted Yankee tendencies, I have loved my time here in Tuscaloosa. My college experience has confirmed most of the positive things I already thought to be true about the South: the people are indeed more polite, the pace of life seems more relaxed, the weather is nicer, the women are prettier, and the football is better. In these areas, my friends’ experiences at Northern universities just can’t compare.

It’s not all sunshine and magnolias, however. There are still some things that happen down here that I just can’t wrap my Northern brain around.

For example, I will likely never understand why some organizations on campus think that true brotherhood is founded fundamentally on the ability to make freshmen, who are all too eager to please and fit in, suffer physical and verbal abuse for weeks on end. And, until last month, I couldn’t understand why the administration of such a prominent modern university refused to take a stand against these rampant and blatantly obvious hazing violations.

Though the administration did eventually act – after being prodded by this newspaper – you’re kidding yourself if you think abuses of this nature won’t continue in the future – but they will only continue because campus culture allows them to continue.

Worse still, I can’t understand why men and women at the University choose to socially segregate themselves based on skin color.

On a campus where de facto segregation in sororities and fraternities is rationalized by “tradition,” I am often left wondering what “tradition” really means. In the state of Alabama, it certainly means “Bear” Bryant and “Rammer Jammer” and dressing up for Gamedays; but it also means George Wallace and Selma marches and letters from Birmingham jails.

This obsession with “tradition” seems to be the final and most stubborn impediment to overcoming the South’s reputation for racism and injustice, a legacy that still rings too true today. When it comes to matters of racial equality, the last thing this university and this state need is more of the same “tradition.”

Finally, I can’t understand why voters in this state – who are undoubtedly intelligent and hard-working individuals – failed to sufficiently educate themselves in preparation for last week’s elections. Because so many Republicans couldn’t take the time to do a minimal amount of research on state and local races, a certifiable lunatic is now Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

Honestly, if you go into the election booth with the preconceived conviction that you will vote “straight ticket” for either party without educating yourself on the issues, you should probably do yourself and your fellow citizens a favor and just stay home.

I don’t believe Roy Moore was elected intentionally, or even that the majority of Alabamians support his radical beliefs; Roy Moore was elected because Alabamians were too apathetic to do their homework and make an informed decision. That is the greatest tragedy of the Nov. 6 elections: A demagogue is now in power because of indifference and willing ignorance. Now the whole state – Republicans and Democrats, well-informed voters and misinformed voters, blacks and whites – will suffer equally from this man’s judicial irrationality.

I get it; Southerners consider themselves rebels. I imagine that is why Alabamians voted to keep outdated and racist language in the state constitution, and I assume that is also why they irrelevantly decided to nullify Obamacare mandates – federal government be damned.

But while some of our Northern neighbors capitalized on the elections to make strides toward meaningful social progress, the South remains stagnated decades behind the rest of the country in so many unfortunate ways. Both on and off campus, I find myself continually reminded of our acceptance of social mediocrity.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Southerners today have two paths before them: On one hand, they can accept modern segregation and continued social backwardness, label it “tradition,” and comfortably turn away, or they can instead channel that distinctive rebellious streak and fight for the real progress that is so desperately needed in this region.

I acknowledge that I am an outsider here, and my Yankee opinions could very well fall on deaf ears. But, as someone who loves this University and loves the people of this state, I truly hope that’s not the case; I hope things can change. I believe things can change. But change must start with us – the young students, the educated, the privileged.

It is our responsibility – and the stakes are far too high to shy away now. We can do better, Alabama. We must do better.


  • http://www.facebook.com/brad.erthal Brad Erthal

    I completely agree. Apparently the Mayans were right, or something.

  • Chase Boyett

    To say we are misinformed proves your ignorance. As an American we are entitled to our own beliefs and values. And as far as your views on “hazing”, that shouldn’t concern you. If an incoming freshman makes a conscious choice to be involved in these organizations, that’s his right.

    • http://www.facebook.com/brad.erthal Brad Erthal

      As Americans, you are absolutely entitled to your own misinformed and ignorant beliefs and values. No question about that. But as Americans, the rest of us get to call you out on it. That’s what’s great about America.

      As to hazing, while I really couldn’t care less what y’all do behind closed doors, crimes committed against freshman are not suddenly okay because that student was seeking to join an organization on campus. And when one of these kids finally gets killed, or another is seriously injured, particularly if it is on university property, their parents are likely to sue the school, and may even have a good case. So hazing is actually every student of this school’s (and every Alabama taxpayer’s) concern.

      • Chase Boyett

        Who are you to say anyone’s personal beliefs are ignorant? It is PERSONAL. I don’t call you ignorant for preferring Angel Soft over Charmin. And your statement about “hazing” makes absolutely no sense. As an incoming I knew what to expect and what would be done to me should I chose the Greek Life. Making a conscious choice to do that shows they accept the fact that these acts will happen. Most parents were members themselves and know exactly what to expect.

        • http://twitter.com/HMDownes Henry Downes

          I’m looking forward to this defense being used in a coutroom once charges are pressed for an excessive hazing violation: “But your honor, the pledge in question entered Greek life at the university with full understanding of what pledging entailed. My client was just fulfilling these expectations.”
          If you are driving late at night after a football gameday, aren’t you aware that the chances of getting hit by a drunk driver are relatively high? Does this mean that if you are hit and injured by a drunk driver, he is somehow not criminally liable for his actions because you knew what you were getting into?
          You see, just because the anticipation and/or expectation of crime exists in the mind of the victim, this doesn’t imply that the criminal is off the hook in any way. It might make the victim wish he had assessed his actions differently in retrospect, but the criminal is legally still at fault.

          • http://www.facebook.com/brad.erthal Brad Erthal

            It would be shocking, just shocking, to hear a member of a fraternity engage in victim blaming.

        • http://www.facebook.com/brad.erthal Brad Erthal

          Personal beliefs can still be ignorant, and if you support Roy Moore, yours are. Also, I challenge that there is anything personal (in the sense of “private”) about the beliefs of Roy Moore and most of his supporters. For insisting that these are just personal beliefs, they sure do a lot of insisting on forcing them on people who don’t share them.

          And what exactly did you know would be done to you when you came in? I doubt you knew the details of the hazing that would be done to you. And besides which, your consent beforehand, and even the fact that your parents agreed, would not have protected the school from the possibility of a lawsuit, if, say, an active had kicked you during ‘bows and toes and broken your ribs. Parents of injured teenagers are not often known for their consistency. They want vengeance, and they go after whoever they determine was responsible, even if they previously consented to the activity. And don’t, just for clarification, expect that that defense will work for you as an active, if you claim that you were just a bystander when one of your brothers hurts a pledge.

        • http://twitter.com/LifeNTimesOfB_O Brit O

          This is an OPINION piece. Calm down.

  • UA_Alum2012

    On the Racist language amendment it was the AEA who pushed to keep that from passing. The AEA which is made up of a majority of Liberals ad African-Americans. So… Your argument on backwards republicans keeping that from passing is invalid.

    • http://www.facebook.com/brad.erthal Brad Erthal

      I didn’t see him mention that amendment. Am I just missing it?

    • http://twitter.com/HMDownes Henry Downes

      The argument that Alabamian politics is backwards wasn’t exclusive to the Republicans (though in electing Moore they certainly fit this bill).

      I understand that the AEA lobbied against Amendment 4: they are therefore just as misguided. Please notice that in that paragraph I said “Alabamians” not “Republicans”.

      Here’s a novel idea to remediate the situation: take out the racist language and pass a new amendment guaranteeing the state’s responsibility to provide public education. Not that difficult.

      • http://www.facebook.com/brad.erthal Brad Erthal

        If those had been joined into one amendment, I’m sure that the AEA would have agreed. I do not think that it is reasonable to expect the AEA to support the bill which removes both, and then just trust that there will be a majority of voters to reinstate the part the state should have kept.

        • http://twitter.com/HMDownes Henry Downes

          Understood, but the fact that still nothing has been done about this today in 2012 speaks volumes about the state’s electorate. It’s not as if this is the first time this issue has presented itself.

          • http://www.facebook.com/brad.erthal Brad Erthal

            That I agree with. I am all for removing racist language from the state’s constitution (or from any legislation), but it should be done in a way which does not change the law in a substantive way. In this case, there is a good case that this would actually be bad, in particular, for black voters in this state, which was the awful irony of the way the amendment was crafted.

      • Smithdalefinesandyloam

        It is that difficult with such a horrible constitution. It was made to where it is very difficult to get rid of it. Not to mention we cannot trust the people in the legislature to actually pass an amendment without having underhanded deals in it.

  • http://www.anglaispod.com/ bucketachicken

    “I don’t believe Roy Moore was elected intentionally, or even that the majority of Alabamians support his radical beliefs”

    I’ve seen this written in a few different places, and I damn sure hope you’re right. My biggest fear? That it was completely intentional. I’ve had a few discussions with people who actually support him, and and it’s terrifying.

    (from another outsider, born in DC, here for grad school)

  • Sophia Renee

    I’m sorry I’m from the North and I completely disagree with this article. You act as if they don’t Haze up North or that the North is completely racist free. I also would like to remind you that most scholarships awarded to students at this university come from donations made by alumni who were members of the Greek System. I don’t condone hazing, but I find it funny that most articles written in this newspaper are mainly hearsay and when someone defends the Greek System and says that new members know before hand what they are getting themselves into, you claim that is hearsay and reject their claim. The Crimson White constantly writes articles slandering the Greek System and putting it in a bad light. I think they forget that the Greek System is made up of individual members, and as a member I am tired of being characterized as racist and ignorant. I am neither! The Greek System may not be perfect but I do not regret my decision to be a part of it, and for you to continually criticize it’s members for doing so is very ignorant and prejudice.

    • http://twitter.com/HMDownes Henry Downes

      I see you’ve chosen the first path I outlined in the article: acceptance and rationalization. That’s unfortunate.
      I have a lot of friends that are Greek at this university, and a lot of friends who are Greek at Northern universities. I can tell you from experience, not hearsay, that there are real and concrete differences. If you disagree, than I would have to assume you are probably a freshman and just need some more time to figure it out.
      If you aren’t part of the solution you are part of the problem, Sophia. I wouldn’t directly accuse you or any other specific individuals of racism, but how many non-white members does your sorority have? If you contribute to this culture, you are part of the problem, regardless of your personal beliefs. Silently accepting the status quo is just as reprehensible as vocally propogating it.
      And as far as your claim that most of the anti-Greek CW articles re: hazing are hearsay: I believe there was quite a lengthy report a few weeks ago which contained plenty of facts, right from the source. I do not “continually criticize” Greek members in fact (this is the first article out of many that I’ve written which even discussed the subject) so I don’t know where you got that idea.
      You say the system isn’t perfect: We agree there. I think the difference is that I acknowledge this fact and hope for change, while you turn away and choose to accept it because “that’s the way it is”. Disappointing.

      • Sophia Renee

        Actually no I’m a Senior graduating in December and attending Medical School in the Fall. I find it odd that you would assume that just because I don’t agree with your “opinion” piece. I think instead of bashing the organizations on this university you should focus your energy on writing opinion pieces that will help bring awareness to things that are more important than the Greek system, things like cancer awareness and Hurricane relief. I assume since your from the “Northeast” hurricane relief would be important to you. I would certainly take you more seriously as a writer. And by the way I take offense to your use of the term “Yankee” considering I am from the North. And let be more specific, I am from the City of Chicago, so I’m not as naive as you presume me to be.

        • http://twitter.com/HMDownes Henry Downes

          I’m sorry you take offense to that term but it’s not exactly pejorative (I’m from Connecticut…).

          Hurricane relief and cancer awareness are things that are important to me…but as an opinion writer, there’s not much substance there. Issues like that are the domain of news reporting.

          But I’m sorry that you think I’m not a serious writer. Since you brought it up, however, here is a list of topics I’ve written on for the CW in the past 6 months:

          Affirmative action, creationism, cars and culture, the Chicago teacher strike, the economy (from various perspectives), gun control, immigration, healthcare, the Penn State scandal, gay marriage, Romney and Mormonism, energy and the environment, Ron Paul, Roy Moore, the South Alabama school shooting, fiscal responsibility…and now I’ve written about the South, from my outsider perspective.
          All of these are floating around the internet, and are still on my computer if you want to see them. I hope they are serious enough for you, unlike the campus issues I mentioned which apparently you recognize but don’t seem to care about.

        • http://www.facebook.com/brad.erthal Brad Erthal

          Henry Downes has spent a great deal of time writing about things which are more important than the Greek system. I disagree with him on most of them, and stated that disagreement vehemently. What I do not remember ever doing was imagining some conspiracy by the Crimson White to paint me personally as a horrible person, which you seem to have done.

          So let’s get a few things straight. There has not been an article printed in the CW accusing all Greeks of racism, nor of ignorance (and you’re not helping with that one right now). The CW’s reporting on this has been constrained to the facts. To the extent that they are unflattering, they tend to fall into four categories:

          #1: The Greek system remains segregated.
          #2: Fraternities engage in hazing.
          #3: Greek organizations get special (arguably undeserved) privileges, like block seating.
          #4: Members of the Greek system go to great ends to maintain as much control as possible in the SGA to protect their privileges.

          There are also flattering articles printed about the parties which raise like $10 a head for some charity, where the headline is about how many thousands of dollars that some Greek organization’s philanthropy raised (facetiousness aside, that’s not nothing).

          For articles, I see no systematic conspiracy to undermine the Greek system, but there is factual reporting, and my habit of thought is that whoever is arguing that facts are untrue is losing a debate with themselves. If you don’t like being portrayed as racists, stop fighting tooth and nail to preserve segregation. If you don’t want to be called out for dirty tricks in SGA elections, don’t engage in dirty tricks in SGA elections. And if you personally aren’t a racist, and no one has said that you are a racist as an individual, then just stop being so thin-skinned maybe.

    • http://twitter.com/LifeNTimesOfB_O Brit O


  • Smithdalefinesandyloam

    You call us ignorant and misinformed but I would like to point out that on the point of Amendment 4 (which claimed to take racist language out of the constitution) you are quite misinformed and ignorant of the back room, under handed deals and fine print that this amendment carried. Yes, people were crazy for electing Roy Moore (I didn’t vote for him) but people were not stuck in backwards tradition when they voted no for Amendment 4. First, the amendment wasn’t needed because segregation language is already voided by a past amendment. Secondly, the fine print that was not on the ballot would be a first move to taking money away from public schools to, supposedly, by used on charter schools. It would also relieve partial responsibility of public education from the state. If everyone else thinks we are all back wood racists then I will gladly let them judge us based on their ignorance and misinformation than let the state take more money away from public schools in the guise of progress.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tngilmer Mike Gilmer

    Please move back up north.

    • http://www.facebook.com/brad.erthal Brad Erthal

      They just got internet in Mike Gilmer’s trailer two days ago apparently.

      • http://www.facebook.com/jimmy.w.brantley Jimmy W. Brantley

        funny you never get an article written towards the “right” from this newspaper….. just saying….

        • http://www.facebook.com/brad.erthal Brad Erthal

          Other than every other piece Henry Downes has ever written, you mean? I have a hard time believing that you have read other opinion pieces in this newspaper if you are willing to make a statement like that.

  • http://twitter.com/marpup69 Mary Branton-Housley

    Thank you for writing an article that I would imagine has garnered some backlash. I was born in Texas, raised in Alabama and Arkansas and now live in Colorado (almost 10 years now). As your piece notes, there are some wonderful things about the South – and I miss it more deeply the longer that I am away. However, when I visit my family in Arkansas/Alabama, I always come home to be reminded of how much work there is to be done in the world to create more equity and dismantle injustice done in the name of tradition. While racism/ignorance exists everywhere (including Colorado), it still seems to be more overt in the South.

    I think you are correct that it will take the educated and privileged to make change, and I thank you for acknowledging the role that you and all white folks (including myself) must play in changing the systems that exist. I wish you strength and fulfillment as you continue (I hope) to critically look at and challenge the world around you.

    • http://www.facebook.com/brad.erthal Brad Erthal

      As a native Coloradoan transplant to Alabama, I totally agree.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jimmy.w.brantley Jimmy W. Brantley

    Hey Man…. if you don’t like it… you are quite welcome to LEAVE. This has been the whole conflict since day one: We don’t like Northern Carpetbaggers like you sticking your fingers in our business trying to tell us what is right and wrong. And by this election, clearly you should see…. We the people don’t want your “progress.” We are not “progressive Democrats,” We don’t want to be like Eastern Europe, and We like our English/Irish/German and other western European roots. We don’t want to be a melting pot. We want to have our own culture preserved, and standing on the roots of what we believe in…. The Holy Bible. Have you ever considered we don’t always segregate intentionally, that it is just that we would rather associate with people like us with similar views than with people with quite different views? It is a choice, and its based on lifestyle, not color.

    • http://www.facebook.com/brad.erthal Brad Erthal

      Who opened the wormhole from 1860 to let Jimmy Brantley through? Here’s a guy in the twenty-first century who doesn’t even like Eastern Europeans, much less black people (an irony-less throw-back to the painfully ironic “Native American Party”).

      And it’s awfully rich to talk about the preservation of Biblical Southern culture, and not wanting to be a melting pot, when Western European Southerners (could there be a finer and genetically or culturally less meaningful splitting?), with the help of Northern and foreign merchants, of course, claimed land on which one group of non-European people were living, and then decided they didn’t want to work hard enough to make their own food (in contravention of Gen. 3:17), so that they imported another group of non-Europeans. The tirelessly ballyhooed “Protestant work ethic” in this part of the country could just as easily have referred to the fat “planter” watching others make his money for him.

      Segregation and slavery were, of course, justified on the Biblical roots which you believe in. The Southern Baptists split from the Northern Baptists in part over their teaching that the mark of Cain was black skin. That teaching was shared among other (though not all) churches, and was generally not abandoned until around the 1960s (1978 for the LDS church, which for context, is when Mitt Romney was 31). So for you to act like there is some distinction between “lifestyle” (read country-clubs, private schools, and suburbs post white-flight) and race in the South is just more of that old-school self-serving bigotry that has never been sufficiently weeded out in this country.