Step Contest Results Puts Race In The Spotlight

There was an unexpected winner of the Sprite Step Off, a national step show sponsored by Coca-Cola: a mostly white sorority Zeta Tau Alpha was declared the winner. But after controversy surrounding the results, Sprite announced a post-competition scoring discrepancy and named members of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a black sorority, the co-winners. Lawrence Ross Jr., author of The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities, offers his insight.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

While many college kids and sororities and fraternities focus their extracurricular energies on planning parties, for black Greeks, a core component is stepping - that mesmerizing dance form that combines synchronized stomping, clapping and calls that turn a line of the best steppers into one precision unit. The Rockettes have nothing on these kids.

Listen to the recent winners of the Sprite Step Off National Step Competition in Atlanta.

(Soundbite of Sprite Step Off National Step Competition)

BLOCK: That's Zeta Tau Alpha from the University of Arkansas. They're white and when they won the competition, many black Greeks were shocked, outraged, online message boards lit up.

Then yesterday, the sponsor Sprite, which is owned by Coke, announced there had been a scoring discrepancy. The company said the black team from Indiana University that had finished second, the Alpha Kappa Alphas, would instead share first prize.

Here to weigh in on the controversy is Lawrence Ross. He's been a judge at many step shows and has written about this for the Root.com.

Lawrence, welcome.

Mr. LAWRENCE ROSS Jr. (Author, "The Divine Nine: The History of African-American Fraternities and Sororities"): Thank you very much for having me.

BLOCK: And you say that, in your opinion, the white team, the ZTAs won this thing fair and square.

Mr. ROSS Jr.: Yeah, there's nothing that disqualified them from winning. And if you look at the video - and you have to also understand that judging stepping contests is as subjective as anything else. You're looking at various aspects of rhythm, chance, you know, how well they're doing over a long period of time, how well they engage the crowd. And so you can actually make an argument for either, you know, ZTA - Zeta Tau Alpha - or Alpha Kappa Alpha, but the idea is that it is quite, you know, possible that they could win.

BLOCK: Lot of people on these message boards clearly do not agree with you. And here are just a few of the comments I saw.

These girls were good for white girls, but this was mediocre at best.

Another one said, way to steal another culture's style.

And that's probably the least of it. What's this all about?

Mr. ROSS Jr.: See, that's what gets me. You have to be able to understand your African-American history, your African-American fraternal history and understand that your organization came out of a rejection, rejection of African-American students on college campuses, the rejection of African-American fraternal organizations, you know, in the midst of white organizations. And when you understand that, you cannot turn around at the exact same time and reject others just on the basis of their own race.

The women who - Zeta Tau Alpha - who participated in the nationals, we can have an argument about whether or not you think that they won compared to another organization. But you shouldn't use the fact that they're white as the basis for eliminating them. It doesnt make any sense.

BLOCK: There is a lot of money at stake here. The winning team, now teams, get $100,000 apiece. There's also an MTV series that was spun out of this. Does that strike you as sort of influencing what happened here in some way?

Mr. ROSS Jr.: I think what it did, I think it exposed some of the weaknesses of the whole stepping competition. Stepping, typically, had been a local campus activity in the early '70s, early '80s. And there really wasn't that much of exposure except for what used to be called Greek shows, where regional Greek shows would occur in various areas and the local chapters from colleges would go and participate.

But this also does show something that I've always been concerned with, in that stepping has become too important within African-American fraternal organizations. And sometimes when you say this, you come off as the old guy who's, you know, long way from your college campus and you're saying, well, you know, stop having the, you know, the activity that provides the most fun.

But the problem is, is that stepping has garnered such of a importance amongst a lot of our college members, is that it's taking a lot of - disproportionate amount of our time.

BLOCK: Well, what do you make of this decision by the sponsor, by Sprite, after the fact to have two winners of this contest?

Mr. ROSS Jr.: That is sort of weird. The conspiracy theorist part of me says that Sprite looked at the reaction and decided, hmm, perhaps we should do something to mitigate the firestorm that we're actually getting from the main community...

BLOCK: That's part of your brain saying that?

Mr. ROSS Jr.: That's part of my brain. The others, maybe they did have a mistake. But in the end, for some reason, I, you know, I constantly keep thinking of Allen Iverson's famous practice. You know, we're talking about stepping.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSS Jr.: You know, it's not the end of the world if two organizations end up with $100,000 prize. We need to keep it in context. If Zeta Tau Alpha won and Alpha Kappa Alpha came in second, the world will keep spinning. If the both of them come in first, the world will keep spinning.

BLOCK: Lawrence Ross, thanks so much.

Mr. ROSS Jr.: Thank you.

BLOCK: Lawrence Ross is the author of "The Divine Nine: The History of African-American Fraternities and Sororities," and he's a member of Alpha Phi Alpha.

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