Individualizing a collective problem

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Last week, the University of Oklahoma (OU) was rocked by a viral video of members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity loudly singing a song replete with themes of lynching and anti-black rhetoric.

After the video went viral, angry backlash could be heard coming from all corners of the university, as well as the country. Two of responses that received the most attention involved two football players: one a current OU player and the other a recruit who previously planned to attend OU on a football scholarship.

The recruit, Jean Delance, de-committed from OU, citing the video as one of his reasons. The current OU player, Eric Striker, in a expletive-laden tirade against the fraternity, criticized the SAE members in the video: “These are the same [guys] shaking our hands, giving us hugs, telling us how they really love us.” Striker later called them phony and frauds.

These responses, in addition to a growing chorus of consternation elsewhere, forced the fraternity headquarters for SAE and the university to take action. SAE pulled its charter from OU, and the university president David Boren evicted the members from the chapter house, stating, “real Sooners are not bigots.” Later, he chose to expel two students that he believed were the leaders of the racist song.

Some members of the editorial board believed that the decision to expel the two most boisterous members singing the song was unfair. They cited that alcohol likely played a role and that the two receiving the harshest punishment from the university likely don’t harbor any more racism than any other SAE members on the bus where the video was taken. The editors argued that the discipline levied towards the SAE members was unequally distributed, saying that either all of the SAE members participating in the song should have been expelled or none of them. One editor considered the future implications of how future racist actions would be treated within the university when two have already been expelled for a similar offense.

Many of the editors agreed that individualizing the discipline was problematic for another reason as well: by disciplining the students as individual racists, the university is seemingly ignoring the systemic nature of racism. All the members were equally contributing and condoning a racist culture, many without even realizing their participation in such oppressive practices.

Some editors believe that these outward forms of racism seem to be largely limited to the former antebellum South, citing the example last year of a sorority chapter in Alabama that had never accepted a black woman.  However, one editor remembered an example at Washington University in St. Louis only two years ago. In this instance, SAE pledges were singing racial slurs towards fellow black students; the chapter was ultimately suspended for this event.

Eventually, our board discussed ways to reconcile what happened at OU for SAE, and for people in general. A couple of editors suggested that SAE devote more resources towards diversity and anti-racist training and perhaps devote its philanthropy to address racial oppression.

One editor argued that proactive training in diversity and anti-racism could go a long way to both preventing racist performances seen in Oklahoma and St. Louis and alleviating the more subtle forms of racism that many people harbor, and perhaps allow communities to heal and foster greater inclusiveness.

Throughout this discussion, we agreed that what happened at SAE was not limited to Oklahoma, SAE or Greek Life. Racism, vocalized through song or not, is a problem that demands the attention of everybody, Greek and non-Greek alike.