I have a slightly different take from what others are saying about the racist chant by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon boys at the University of Oklahoma. I think that Jamelle Bouie is correct, Don’t Expel Members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon for Racism. The subtitle is, “Educate them. Show them what their words mean.” Bouie went over the SAE’s history of racism and then noted that it wasn’t specific to them. He quoted Nolan Cabrera, “This behavior is endemic throughout the country.” Bouie also quoted research that showed that white millennials are no less prejudiced than their parents are. That, I think, is the critical point.
I don’t think these SAE kids are outliers; they just got caught. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be punished. And I’m not sympathetic towards them. When I was in college, fraternities were just coming back to my school. And the kind of people who gravitated toward fraternities were exactly the kind of people who should not have been in fraternities. Fraternities work as a way of closing off extended social connections. They don’t just separate by class and race; they also separate by personality types. There weren’t many physics and math majors running to join fraternities. Colleges should be about breaking down barriers, not setting up even more.
So it doesn’t surprise me at all that these frat boys left to themselves would develop a culture where they would sing a song about lynching black students. I’m sure they saw it as funny: they were singing something racist but in an ironic way because, of course, they aren’t racist. Bouie pointed out that this was common, “The ‘joke’ framing is important: it allows participants to use racial language or express certain attitudes without acknowledging any personal prejudice.” But a better way to deal with this would be to force everyone in the fraternity to take two years of African American studies. And, of course, the fraternity itself has to go. I think that was totally appropriate — but then, I generally think they should all go.
The big problem that I see if the problem that I always see in these cases. We have a racist society. When a rancher wants to tell us another thing about “the negro” or some kids sing about hanging African Americans from trees, the establishment is outraged. “How can there still be such racism in modern America?!” Meanwhile, these same outraged media sources allowed Obama’s birth certificate to be a thing in the mainstream media for two years. But that only barely scratches the surface of it.
What hurts us most is the idea that using the n-word is the real problem. And look: I get it. If people are willing to actually say things like this, it is a very bad sign. But the focus on it seems to be a way of defining the problem away. As long as we aren’t being explicitly racist, there’s no problem! Right? Right?! Well, wrong. What hurts us is actual inequality. African Americans make a lot less than white Americans. And we are fine with this. But the only way we can be fine with this is if we actually think that African Americans are stupider or lazier or generally less than white Americans. Do we actually believe this? I’ll bet there are a lot more people who believe that than we want to believe.
But that’s the philosophical basis of racial economic inequality not being a major political issue. Fox News is quite explicit about their belief that racism is a thing of the past. But CNN and MSNBC also live with pretty much that same worldview. And that worldview is simply racist. So it is true that what the SAE students did was racist. It’s fine to point that out. But it should be used to highlight the more important racism in our society, not to blind us of it.
Update (12 March 2015 9:09 am)
It’s interesting that I can spend so much time thinking about media commentators who are outraged about this stuff and gloss over the systemic problems, yet there are those who are determined to apologize for this stuff. Think Progress this morning reported, No Apology From Morning Joe Over Blaming Waka Flocka Flame for Racist Frat Chant. “Liberal” Mika Brzezinski said, “We’re all trying our best here to figure out our way through this and yesterday the conversation got real and I think some people conflated it with other things, but there’s no moral equivalency between something like rap lyrics and what happened on that bus.” No, they didn’t get real. They were claiming that these kids were chanting about lynching while using the n-word was due to having heard said word in rap lyrics. There really is no difference between that and the old conservative complaint, “Why can black people use that word and I can’t?!” The supposedly liberal MSNBC has this kind of garbage on three hours every day. When Fox News hires Rachel Maddow to do its morning show, then I’ll admit that Fox News and MSNBC are equivalent.