The emergence of a video of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers from the University of Oklahoma singing a racist song has created an uproar across the country. In the video, several fraternity brothers and their female dates can be seen and heard singing (to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”): “There will never be a n****r in SAE! You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me! There will never be a n****r in SAE!”
What is most obviously disturbing about this is the use of a racial slur with a long and horrific history paired with reference to lynching, a practice that killed some 2,400 black people between 1880 and 1930, predominantly in the Deep South of the United States.
What this display of behavior communicates is first and foremost a disregard for black lives. On a very superficial level, we can watch this video and understand that what these students did was very wrong. Even though these words were not directed at any individual, their very use reflects an insidious side of white privilege that allows white people to say things without regard for their historical meanings and racial implications.
A deeper level of analysis reveals to us an even more troubling dynamic: it used to be that the use of this specific racial slur was what designated outright, overt racism; however, the family of the boy seen leading the chant in the video has come to his defense and stated that he is “not a racist.” If he and his fraternity brothers are not racists, what are they? What is the new qualification for being classified as a racist, if happily proclaiming a desire to murder black people is not it?
The investigation following the release of this video resulted in the boys seen in the video being expelled from their university, their chapter of the SAE fraternity being shut down, and other universities’ chapters coming under investigation. The University of Oklahoma president David Boren called the acts of the fraternity brothers “disgraceful,” stating, “I hope they think long and hard about what they’ve done.”
Reactions like that of the OU president are a large part of why racism persists today. To “think long and hard” about one’s actions is not enough of an indictment–it allows those who participate in disgusting behavior to emerge unchanged and uneducated about why their actions were wrong and utterly inhumane. Expelling these boys is no “punishment” at all because it fails to address the de facto and the implicit institutional racism that causes people to act this way. The actions of these boys reflect the state of our society at large, which has been allowed to go unchecked yet again in the wake of this incident.
What’s been missing from the coverage of this situation is addressing the effect these kinds of actions have on the black community and on society in general—or, more accurately, the lack of effect this has on society because of the inadequate action taken to make sure our behavior and attitude towards racism change. A drastic shift in social climate is required to make this happen, and education on a mass scale is how it needs to happen. The action taken against the SAE individuals is the equivalent of putting a mere band-aid on a gaping stab wound.
To those who believe the reactions to this video are exaggerated or that the boys are being treated unfairly, I challenge you to imagine a world in which someone who proclaims violence against you and your life becomes protected by law enforcement officials in case their despicable behavior incites upset—and when you take to the streets to proclaim that your own life is valuable, you get arrested and thrown into jail.
This is the essence of the Black Lives Matter movement: those who declare war on black bodies are protected and preserved, while those who desperately try to affirm the value of their own lives are silenced. And this is why this University of Oklahoma scandal is linked so tightly to the movements all over demanding racial justice.