In a primary debate Sunday night, 39-year-old Rep. Joe Kennedy III was asked again about his decision to join a famously racist, Robert E. Lee revering fraternity in the early 2000s and why he’d only recently made the decision to disaffiliate himself from it. Kennedy punted again, saying that “I wish I hadn’t joined” but that his Stanford chapter of Kappa Alpha “had almost no relation with the national organization, and had none of the behaviors or traditions of that national organization,” while suggesting that he knew nothing about those behaviors or traditions while he was an undergrad. Those were the same talking points he’d used in June, on the carefully put together Facebook Live forum where he’d first announced that he’d disaffiliated himself, in a letter sent privately last year, from the fraternity, due to its “racist roots and a record of racist actions to this day.” The ambitious scion of America’s most famous political dynasty still hasn’t explained why he’d waited nearly 20 years, until he was preparing to run for a U.S. senate seat, to separate himself from the group.
Five of Kennedy’s former fraternity brothers—two of whom are Black, and all of whom had also cut ties with the group last year—joined him on the virtual panel, each taking pains to distinguish the “inclusive and diverse” Stanford University Kappa Alpha chapter they joined as undergraduates from the “deeply problematic” national organization. When Nathaniel Fernhoff, chapter president during the group’s college days, stated their collective decision to join Kappa Alpha was mostly to evade Stanford’s housing lottery and instead “live with our buddies,” a couple of the others nodded in agreement. Kennedy, who lamented his naïveté in not having “done the homework” on the frat beyond the Stanford chapter, also seemed just slightly annoyed he hadn’t foreseen his name appearing on the frat’s “Famous Alumni” list in perpetuity.
“I do wish that there was somebody [who] would’ve pulled me aside and said, “Hey, understand the reputation that this organization has nationally,” Kennedy said, “and that you can’t wholly hope to divorce your endorsement of your affiliation with the national organization…Because they’ve used your success as part of the affirmation of their organization. I wish that I had known that. I wish that somebody had told that to me.” But even within the storied history of anti-Black racism among most white American fraternities, Kappa Alpha stands out for its unwavering reliance on signifiers of white Southern terror and slavery apologia—and it’s tough to take Kennedy’s claims of youthful ignorance about Kappa Alpha’s racist legacy at face value given the tributes to the Confederacy that fill the frat’s literature, and the explicit nostalgia for Old Dixie in its long-standing rituals and traditions. What’s more, the Kappa Alpha membership handbook states “there is no such thing as an ‘inactive’ member. Once you have decided to become a Kappa Alpha, and have pledged to uphold the ideals of the Order, there is no release from your obligations except by expulsion.”