In college, I was a member of Kappa Alpha Order. It was a fantastic experience. I met some of my closest friends, with whom I remain in regular contact. It gave me super cheap housing in the country’s toughest rental market. I am also probably the first person in the history of fraternities to actually use my fraternity connection to get a job—it turns out the second engineer at Uber was a KA at a small school in the midwest. Debauchery was kept to a minimum.
Even though I’m now several years out of school, I still get together with my fraternity brothers once and awhile. Most recently, a group of us went down to Ole Miss to experience a gameday in the Grove and watch our beloved Golden Bears pull out a victory (but not before giving everyone a heart attack). I was wearing a KA shirt while I was down there, and many of the locals were honestly shocked. “I didn’t realize they had KA out at Berkeley,” they would say while handing me a cold one.
Why would people be so surprised that a national fraternity has a location at Cal?
Because our “spiritual founder” is Robert E. Lee.
This fact played virtually no role in my lived experience. When we talked about “down south”, we meant SoCal. The confederacy ddidn’t play a part in “new member education”. We didn’t hold Old South events which, to this day, remain thinly-veiled CSA cosplay events.
But the fact remains that Robert E. Lee and, by extension, the confederacy are inextricably linked with the organization. In fact, KA’s mission statement currently reads:
Kappa Alpha Order seeks to create a lifetime experience which centers on reverence to God, duty, honor, character and gentlemanly conduct as inspired by Robert E. Lee, our spiritual founder.
For years, racists have used the confederate battle flag to give plausible deniability for their words and deeds. Similarly, KA’s continued association with Robert E. Lee serves no real purpose yet provides a venue for racists to organize and espouse antiquated beliefs behind the protection of a legitimate organization.
The national organization is in a bind. The fraternity must emphasize its mission to mold men of good character or else tacitly admit that fraternities are simply glorified drinking clubs, and Robert E. Lee plays a crucial role in legitimizing that narrative. Yet, to maintain that the association with Robert E. Lee is problematic because the focus is only on his “gentlemanly” aspects ignores the reality that KA members regularly and repeatedly do racist things: members wearing confederate uniforms during Old South, building walls around their frat house(I’ve heard rumors of KA chapters doing this in the past under the guise of “secession”), and most recently, shooting up a sign memorializing Emmit Till. It cannot be a coincidence that these incidents to occur so frequently in association with a single organization, one that identifies the most prominent member of the confederacy as its spiratual founder.
But you know what? I’m pontificating. What do the members themselves think about eliminating aspects of KA that are associated with the confederacy? Please read the comments on this article and you’ll see that in many cases, these associations are features of the fraternity, not bugs.
To me, especially now that I am out of college, my fraternity association is a non-event. I can sleep well at night knowing that our Cal chapter took proactive steps to make it known that we rejected this part of our fraternity’s “culture”. Perhaps the best proof I can offer of Cal KA’s aloofness is the fact that on a campus that protests absolutely everything, no one ever protested our presence.
However, the unfortunate reality is our discourse, especially in the politcal realm, has lost all sense of nuance. My association with this particular organization will always have a nefarious appearance, regardless of reality. Indeed, I was surprised that my opponent did not use this information against me during my run for office. The district’s Democratic population is heavily black and assumedly would not have been thrilled to hear about their Democratic nominee’s past association. One of my advisors was convinced that the only reason the Republicans never disclosed the information was because it would have actually helped me with the Republican base in the district.
If I could do it over again, would I pass over KA due to this association? No. Given my lived experience, I wouldn’t give up all the friendships I made and the richness it lent to my campus life for, at least in this specific case, a non-existent problem. Yet, I am sure some would say that this is exactly why progress cannot be made, because rich white people are unable to make sacrifices to achieve change.
If you have thoughts on the matter and would like to have a civil discussion about it, please contact me so we can set up some time to chat.