Fraternity’s Racist Chants Show Institutional Racism is #NotJustSAE

March 12, 2015  |  

A few White college frat boys have had the Internet in an uproar over the past few days.  Sunday saw the emergence of a video showing racist chants by the alleged Oklahoma Kappa chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.

The video shows a bus full of SAE brothers from the University of Oklahoma chanting, “There will never be n****r in SAE, There will never be a n****r in SAE, You can hang him from a tree, But he’ll never sign with me.”

The fallout was swift. By Sunday evening, the national SAE chapter suspended the OU chapter for the offensive song. OU President David Boren also came down hard, expelling two of the students and booting the entire chapter from its frat house.

President Boren even issued a sternly worded email to the entire University unequivocally condemning the students’ actions.

To: All Student, Faculty, and Staff

“To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you. You are disgraceful. You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves “Sooners.” Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect. Real Sooners love each other and take care of each other like family members.

Effective immediately, all ties and affiliations between the university and the local SAE chapter are hereby severed. I direct that the house be closed and that members will remove their personal belongings from the house by midnight tomorrow. Those needing to make special arrangements for positions shall contact the Dean of Students.

All of us will redouble our efforts to create the strongest sense of family and community. We vow that we will be an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue. There must be a zero tolerance for racism everywhere in our nation.

 

Boren has received much praise from the public for his willingness to call the offensive act what it was: racist. Indeed, his passionate response was gratifying to read. But some of the wording in his message to the OU community troubled me.

In his attempt to distance the University from the SAE students, Boren says, “Real Sooners are not racist.” By this he means the students have violated the principles the school purports to stand for. But one thing is for certain: that chant existed in the Oklahoma Kappa chapter of SAE long before those young men boarded that bus.

SAE was founded on the campus of the University of Alabama in 1865, in the heart of Dixie, at the onset of the American Civil War. It is more than likely that old American institutions like SAE have harbored racists within their ranks for centuries. Racism predates these institutions. Racism unified them.

The racist University of Oklahoma SAE brothers and their forefathers were “Real Sooners” whether Boren claims them or not.

A recent Twitter hashtag springing from the controversy, #NotJustSAE, captured the sentiments of people frustrated by attempts to frame SAE as singular. Many expressed concern that the SAE students would later go on to be policymakers, teachers, pastors, and policemen. I wondered: if the video had not been leaked, would these students still be considered “Real Sooners?” Would they have graduated, singing little ditties about lynching under cover of secrecy? The answer is yes.

Pretending racism does not exist until there are 11-second YouTube clips of it underscores the idea that it’s only bad to be racist if you get caught at it.

Boren’s attempt to distance the University from lynch-happy students is a smart PR move. It is the right move. But it is incorrect and, might I add, disingenuous, to rhetorically separate the specter of racism from an institution where it obviously still thrives.

I would much rather the institution shine a light on the racism in its ranks, own it, and pledge to clean it up, than say, “Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots.” Yes, President Boren, they can be. Racism is #NotJustSAE. It’s not just OU, either. And the sooner we recognize that no American institution is exempt, the closer we can get to an honest, national conversation about race and racial healing.

 

Feature Image: uinterview.com

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