There is nothing wrong with having to earn your stripes. There’s nothing wrong with going through a rite of passage. And yes, there’s nothing wrong with hazing.
But there is something wrong with homophobia, violence masquerading as tradition and automatically turning criminal acts into federal charges. Yesterday, 13 Florida A&M University students were charged with hazing Robert Champion to death. While justice needs to be served there is also a chance that this case will obscure the real causes of this tragedy and never lead to real solutions.
Robert Champion was a 26-year old drum major in Florida A&M’s world famous Marching 100 band. One night last November after a loss, Robert was savagely beaten in the back of a university bus – he was found hours later, sick, vomiting and barely conscious. He died later in a hospital due to complications from his beating.
The ‘beat-down’ he received was believed to be part of a notoriously violent hazing process for the Marching 100, although there are questions as to whether or not Champion’s hazing was worse due to the fact that he was a homosexual. The FAMU band has been suspended and Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL), nicknamed the HAZE BUSTER, was planning to introduce what she calls a federal “anti-hazing” bill in January. However, the timeline on that was changed.
“The Congresswoman still plans on introducing her bill, but the timetable has changed since … December,” her spokesperson Eric Parker tells Politic365. “She is still in discussions with college presidents and Greek-letter organizations to fine tune the bill.”
The press will cover this impending case as a big expose’ on hazing. But it’s important that the issues behind Champion’s death be de-coupled … rather than simply chalking it up to a bad day at HBCU band camp. What we really have here is a hazing issue, a bigotry issue and ultimately a legislation issue.
Most hazing involves being woken up at 4 a.m., having to run until you puke and doing embarrassing crap before you go to class in the morning. It’s not fun but it won’t kill you. The Florida legislature passed the Chad Meredith Act in 2005 chocked full of definitions between good and bad hazing and legal punishments specifically to protect students like Robert Champion. The law was named after Florida State student Chad Meredith, who in 2001 was ordered to swim across Lake Osceola drunk during his pledge process and drowned 34 feet off shore. The law clearly defines hazing as:
Pressuring or coercing the student into violating state or federal law;
Any brutality of a physical nature, such as whipping, beating, branding, forced calisthenics, exposure to the elements, forced consumption of any food, liquor, drug, or other substance, or other forced physical activity that which could adversely affect the physical health or safety of the student;
Any activity that which would subject the student to extreme mental stress, such as sleep deprivation, forced exclusion from social contact, forced conduct that which could result in extreme embarrassment;
Other forced activity that which could adversely affect the mental health or dignity of the student.
Making folks uncomfortable is a pretty normal part of pledging, but the rest of the rules are clear and make a lot of sense.
Honestly, though, hazing is a lazy explanation for this Robert Champion’s murder. Alfred University’s definitive survey on college hazing shows that over 250,000 students experience some form of hazing to join a college athletic team every year. Yet, only 89 hazing deaths have been recorded from 1970 to 2011. So as a hazing death Champion was an anomaly. But on another level his death was all too common.
Hazing processes, especially for men, are notoriously homophobic. A good friend of mine told me that his Black frat had a “No Faggots” rule where they put pledges through ‘tests’ to make sure they weren’t gay. One such test required the pledges to sit naked and blindfolded in a circle and pass a boiled egg from person to person using only your mouth. If your penis stirred you were deemed a ‘faggot’ and got the tar beaten out of you.
This kind of ‘testing’ isn’t uncommon in ‘hazing’ rituals throughout colleges across the country. Is it that hard to imagine a scenario where Champion was actually attacked due to his sexual orientation? The National Black Justice Coalition released a statement suggesting the whole ‘hazing’ element of these attacks might just be a justification for anti-gay violence, which has been on the rise in recent years.
With that in mind, Congresswoman Wilson’s federal anti-hazing legislation is also a bad idea. In light of the FAMU case, HBCUs and Black Greek organizations are going to be unfairly associated with hazing despite the practice being fairly universal. It is highly likely that HBCU students are going to be disproportionately prosecuted. It’s the hazing equivalent of the powdered vs. crack cocaine sentences where a seemingly neutral law is going to disproportionately harm Black folks. There are already state laws against hazing, hate crimes and assault. Why get the feds involved in what can already be fixed on the state level?
Robert Champion’s death is a tragedy but his death is more the result of violent homophobic band mates who used ‘hazing’ as a shield to gay-bash than ‘hazing’ itself. Their actions shouldn’t tarnish the other members of the FAMU band, or the thousands of other pledges and sans across the nation who aren’t out to kill or harm anyone. The solution is to prosecute the offenders and enforce the laws that exist, not to over-legislate and lose site of the real causes of this tragedy – violence, stupidity and bigotry.
DR. JASON JOHNSON, Politic365 Chief Political Correspondent, is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell. You can read more at www.drjasonjohnson.com or follow him on Twitter @Drjasonjohnson