To summarize: members of the University of Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the nation’s largest and oldest national fraternities, participated in an obscene chant targeting African American males. Slurs, including mention of lynching, were sung to the melody of the popular kiddy ditty, “If You’re Happy and You Know It”. The recurring stanza was, “There will never be a n*gger at SAE.”
SAE. Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
According to its national website, there are 239 total chapters and colonies and approximately 15,000 undergraduate/collegiate members. Since being founded in 1856, it has initiated more than 325,000, with approximately 200,000 living alumni. More than 26,000 have graduated from its celebrated John O. Moseley Leadership School.
|School bus chant refers to this homegrown form of terrorism|
This is not to suggest some diabolical racial agenda exists. That’s ludicrous. It does however call into question how well we are preparing our young people to lead in a growingly diverse culture. And that’s bad for business and worse for society.
News of the Oklahoma incident flies in the face of detractors and distractors who incessantly claim race no longer matters in the United States. And that today’s youth don’t see color.
It’s ironic that news of this incident broke nationally on March 9, the fraternity’s historic founder’s day, when Sigma Alpha Epsilon turned 159 years old. It’s also not the first time a SAE chapter was caught being untoward and disciplined by the national office.
Last year, SAE members at the University of Arizona were suspended for attacking Jewish students. The same year, SAE members attending Clemson University were suspended for conducting a racially denigrating, "Cripmas" party. Two years ago, the SAE chapter at Washington University in St. Louis was suspended for singing racial slurs to African American students. These are not the only incidents reported.
|Sad to say SAE has the same frat colors as mine|
In each case, the national organization of Sigma Alpha Epsilon took swift and decisive action, as did local colleges and universities. In the latest debacle, the charter of the University of Oklahoma SAE chapter was suspended, along with its members.
Swift and decisive action.
Yet it’s not enough. And I’m not referring to the foolish and immature students involved. Rather, I’m outing the national presidents of all fraternities and sororities. That’s because Sigma Alpha Epsilon isn’t alone.
In 2013, at the University of California Irvine, an anonymous racist note was slipped beneath the door of an African American student athlete on an academic scholarship. It read, “Go Bakk 2 Africa Slave”. On the same campus, another video surfaced. This one depicted what appeared to be students from an Asian fraternity dancing, with at least one in blackface. The result was that the campus fraternity chapter was shut down for a year.
Also in 2013, at the University of Alabama, accusations of racial discrimination were leveled at white sororities. According to a 2013 story reported in the campus paper The Crimson White, African American female students were set to be allowed in, but sorority alumni told current campus sisters not to let black pledges join.
What the students did in Oklahoma was reprehensible. Yet there’s more to this incident than a bus loaded with students participating in a hurtful racist chant. The bigger issue is what continues to be the elephant in the room when it comes to this country’s conversations about race. And that is the systematic and institutional nature of racism.
Since the end of slavery, freed African Americans have been systematically targeted by patterns of racist behavior, policies and politics. And a lot of it was/is government sanctioned. So much so that it’s culturally acceptable.
Not at the individual level anymore, mind you. These days, we’ll slap down any and all people acting racist. The bigger problem is at the systems level, an abstract realm where there’s a heaping helping of ambiguity. And little accountability.
On the surface most folks understand that racism and prejudice are affronts to collective societal values. The problem is many consistently refuse to take the microscope off individuals and soar upward to take in a bird’s eye view of our social landscape. Only there can we turn a critical eye on and perceive how our institutions and policies perpetuate, and in some cases encourage racism in America.
To be sure, not all policies and regulations on the books are intended to exclude, discriminate and oppress African American and other people of color. (For that matter, let’s include those who are disabled, possess a non-heterosexual orientation or are of limited financial and social means.)
Americans need to stop muddling around and take the bull by the horns. It’s time to move onto deliberate anti-racism footing; one that systematically identifies, confronts and dismantles racism – individually, institutionally and culturally.
Anti-racism is a strong term. Yet at its essence should be no more incendiary than “antibiotic,” which one takes when ill; “anti-inflammatory,” which one employs to relieve inflammation; or even “antifreeze,” which all of us are glad to have in our vehicles this winter.
Like it or not, racism was institutionally embedded into the fabric of this nation during its very founding. Read the documents. That’s before any of us were born. We may not be responsible. But we are all accountable.
Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.