Human beings are not born being racists, misogynists, or religious extremists. But they sure can learn. And the white male patriarchy has taken care to preserve a number of institutions that train young men to see themselves as superior and deserving of the privilege that they grant only to themselves. All-male private schools (particularly Christian ones) aside, consider the fraternity network.
How many times have you read about a rape/death/hazing at a university fraternity? That’s because it’s part of the “Lord of the Flies” culture: we are the kings here, you will submit, and once you submit to us, we will reward you with benefits and keep each other’s secrets. “What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep.” Substitute Greek letters here.
Brett Kavanaugh was in Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) at Yale, as were both presidents Bush. “They were loud, entitled, pushy, and creepy,” said an alumna quoted in The New Yorker. Some of the “hijinks” DKE members got up to included making a flag out of women’s underwear, assaulting women, chanting “No means yes, yes means anal,” and, of course, humiliating underclassmen until they learn the rules of conformity, cruelty, and secrecy.
Why would any decent young man pledge himself to such a fraternity, you might wonder, assuming you’re a decent person yourself. And the answer is simple: this is how you make the connections that allow you to rise to power. Take a look at this list of powerful and influential people who have been members of DKE nationwide alone. If you can meet the bar (or have daddy pay to get you in) to an ivy league school, and then you successfully pledge “into the club,” your brothers in hijinks will have your back and help pull you up the ladder of influence for the rest of your life. But you have to sell your soul first. You have to become one of them. There is no meritocracy in America. If you’re not in the club, you might get lucky. But most likely you won’t.
Of course, the only thing better than being in the “in” crowd is being in an even more elite “in” crowd. Societies like Skull and Bones (check their member list), Freemasons (including many “founding fathers” of America), and others make sure that all the benefits accrue to those in network.
As Hannah Arendt stated in The Origins of Totalitarianism:
The totalitarian movements have been called “secret societies established in broad daylight.” Indeed, little as we know of the sociological structure and the more recent history of secret societies, the structure of the movements, unprecedented if compared with parties and factions, reminds one of nothing so much as of certain outstanding traits of secret societies. Secret societies also form hierarchies according to degrees of “initiation,” regulate the life of their members according to a secret and fictitious assumption which makes everything look as though it were something else, adopt a strategy of consistent lying to deceive the noninitiated external masses, demand unquestioning obedience from their members who are held together by allegiance to a frequently unknown and always mysterious leader, who himself is surrounded, or supposed to be surrounded, by a small group of initiated who in turn are surrounded by the half-initiated who form a “buffer area” against the hostile profane world. With secret societies, the totalitarian movements also share the dichotomous division of the world between “sworn blood brothers” and an indistinct inarticulate mass of sworn enemies. This distinction, based on absolute hostility to the surrounding world, is very different from the ordinary parties’ tendency to divide people into those who belong and those who don’t. Parties and open societies in general will consider only those who expressly oppose them to be their enemies, while it has always been the principle of secret societies that “whosoever is not expressly included is excluded.”
The fraternal society of brothers owes its loyalty first and foremost to itself. Everyone else is secondary. In order to maintain the cognitive dissonance of fidelity to themselves alone and believing that their actions are somehow justified, the fraternity believes inherently in its own superiority and that they are deserving of more than everyone else. Racism and misogyny, celebrated by the group, cements their bond.
In this context, Governor Ralph Northam’s blackface photo from Virginia Military Institute shouldn’t surprise anyone. It was an in-group “joke” at an in-group event. (It should be noted that the military also uses fraternity principles in socializing its recruits to achieve the desired outcome.) From the secret society’s point of view, the only thing unfortunate about the photo is that it exposed the group.
Before someone posts that they “knew a black guy” in their fraternity, that does happen. The secret society is always willing to accept people who will play along, and if it gives them some cover (“See? We have a black guy!”), they are more than happy to oblige. White men are very good at selling out, but they aren’t the only ones in history to do so. (Or you can try to have your cake and eat it, too, like Ben Carson, who lied about being a member of Alpha Phi Alpha.)
A lot of white people claim they don’t see any white privilege or “institutional racism” or a “glass ceiling,” but they should get their eyes checked. The privileged know the secret handshake, the meaningful wink, and they’ve got each other covered. These are the folks sitting in our governments, on corporate boards, on Wall Street, and in the justice system that is so well skewed toward their own interests. These are also the folks who will tell you to believe in “meritocracy.” Don’t believe them.