I didn't realize that racism was formally enshrined in my college fraternity (Kappa Sigma, at Fresno State College) until the day in 1955 when I discovered it also honored anti-Semitism.
One of my best friends from high school entered FSC a year behind me and wanted to join our fraternity. He went through "rush", won the enthusiastic support of all the members, and was poised to be inducted into Kappa Sigma when I got a call from the alumni advisor to our chapter.
"Eliot, I need to have a little chat with you about your friend Mr. Schoenstein whom you're sponsoring. Could you drop by my office?"
I did. He looked across his big desk at me with a well-practiced mixture of empathy and sadness. "I'm afraid I have to inform you that he is not eligible to become a member of Kappa Sigma."
He tapped the red leather-bound volume of the Kappa Sigma constitution and by-laws before him. "It says right here -- let me show you," he spun the book around and flipped it open to a bookmarked page, "Here in the opening sentence of our charter it says that 'Kappa Sigma is a fraternal organization for the mutual pleasure and benefit of white Christian college gentlemen'. I'm afraid that doesn't include your Mr. Schoenstein."
I gaped at him perplexedly, so he spelled it out. "A 'Mr. Schoenstein' is clearly not a Christian. So the fraternity may not invite him to join."
My brain began roiling like hot lava, my vision going blurry. "Hey, nobody's ever read this crap. That's the stupidest damned thing I've ever heard of!"
"Well," he continued ever so reasonably, "we certainly can't violate the charter of our national organization, now, can we? I mean, that would bring about de-certification of our local chapter and our expulsion from the national body. It would mean death for our brotherhood here at Fresno State. Now you wouldn't want that, would you?"
"But what the hell is the point of having the chapter here if it doesn't include the people we want it to include?"
"Well," he smoothed along, "you'll come to see as you grow over the years that sometimes one simply has to abide by the rules as we receive them, and that it is not ours to question the wisdom of those who made them."
I stumbled from his office blindly -- furious, frustrated, helpless. Well, the hell with that bullshit. I'll just quit the God-damned fraternity. I don't want to be part of any organization that has that kind of prejudice baked into its charter anyhow.
But somewhere in the middle of my volcanic rage, I was stopped short, suddenly remembering his supercilious words: One simply has to abide by the rules as we receive them, and it is not ours to question the wisdom of those who made them.
Hot damn! Two can play that game!
Among the hocus-pocus rules of fraternity life is the ritual of "blackballing." As each prospective invitee's name is put up for a vote, a wooden box and a velvet sack are passed from member to member. Each in turn reaches into the velvet sack, selects and removes either a small white wooden cube or a round black ball and deposits it in the box. If even one black ball is in the box among the white cubes, that candidate can never be invited into Kappa Sigma fraternity. And no challenge can ever be made to undo the blackballing.
I returned to our alumni advisor's office.
"I've been thinking about what you told me about following the rules," I said, "and so I wanted to let you know I have decided to do just that."
"Oh, good," he responded, no doubt thinking: Smart boy. Learns his lessons well.
"Yes, you see, I still have three years to go at Fresno State, and here's what I intend to do. Every time a new member is proposed, I will blackball him."
Confusion rippled across his face. He looked away briefly to compose a thought, struggled but came up empty, and returned his gaze uneasily to me.
"Right. You get it," I continued. "Three years. No new pledges. I'll blackball every single one. Come 1958 the fraternity house will be empty. Adios to Kappa Sigma at Fresno State."
I savored his look of incredulity for a moment and then finished. "You said the national office would kill us off if we take Schoenstein in. I'm telling you that I'll kill us off if we don't." I turned and left.
Later that day he called to say he had decided that my Mr. Schoenstein was clearly "Christian in spirit" and that was plenty good enough for him.
Today I wonder how he would have handled it if the issue had been the word "white."