University of Oklahoma fraternity has history of racist incidents elsewhere

Sigma Alpha Epsilon was founded by southerners who fought for the Confederacy. In addition to the racist video at the University of Oklahoma, there have been racist incidents at other fraternity chapters.

Sue Ogrocki/AP
People walk on the Oval at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla. Two students have been expelled from the university following an incident in which members of a fraternity were caught on video chanting a racial slur.

The University of Oklahoma fraternity banned for a videotaped racist chant – Sigma Alpha Epsilon – is considering legal action to retain its campus status.

At a press conference Friday, attorney Stephen Jones said the SAE alumni he represents could take legal action against the university on grounds that free-speech rights were violated.

While declaring that there was “no justification for what occurred” in the video, Mr. Jones criticized the university for a “premature rush to judgment.”

“The university still has codes of conduct,” he said. “Whether any of those trump the First Amendment is yet to be determined.”

Jones is most well-known for defending Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh,

The national SAE organization has scrambled to distance itself from its disgraced chapter, which it closed, and the organization claims no association with any legal efforts by its University of Oklahoma chapter.

“Like others, we were shocked and appalled at the despicable and unacceptable behavior shown in the video of students at the University of Oklahoma,” the national organization declares on its web site. “Within an hour of learning about the video on Sunday, March 8, we put the OU chapter under temporary suspension, which was followed by a formal closure notice within several hours…. Discrimination and racial bias of any kind has no place in our organization and will not be tolerated.”

The national fraternity makes a point of noting that data gathered since 2013 show approximately 20 percent of its approximately 15,000 members on 239 campuses “self-identify as a minority or non-Caucasian.”

Assuming the accuracy of that statement, it represents a potentially significant change since SAE’s founding in the antebellum South at the University of Alabama. Many of the fraternity’s early members – honored by the present-day organization – came from plantation-owning families, and most fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Gawker and other news sources report evidence that SAE removed from its web site references to early members fighting for the Confederacy.

The racist chant shown in the video – which uses a particularly hateful slur for African-Americans and refers to lynching – may have been used at other SAE chapters, according to several reports.

The two SAE brothers expelled by the University of Oklahoma – Parker Rice and Levi Pettit, both from Texas – have apologized. But in his statement, Mr. Rice said, “the song was taught to us.”

As the Los Angeles Times points out, “The culture of insularity that typically shrouds many college fraternities, especially during controversial episodes, makes it difficult to know exactly how widespread the chant is – perhaps even for the fraternity’s national leadership.”

Still, SAE has had other racial incidents, reports Inside Higher Ed, an independent journalism organization. Among the examples cited by this organization:

• In 1982, the University of Cincinnati suspended its Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter after they organized a racist party around Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. 

• In 1992, the Texas A&M University chapter hosted a "Jungle Fever" themed party which featured "black face, grass skirts and 'slave hunts.'" 

• In 2006, two SAE students were suspended at the University of Memphis after harassing another member for dating a black woman and bringing her to the chapter’s house.

• In 2013, the Washington University in St. Louis chapter was suspended after some of its pledges were instructed to direct racial slurs at a group of black students.

• In December, Clemson University's SAE chapter was suspended after the fraternity hosted a "cripmas" party at which students dressed up as gang members.

According to several reports, a user on the online forum Reddit wrote that a nearly identical version of the racist chant was a “favorite” of SAE members at universities in Texas. On Monday, a Twitter user wrote that he “was an SAE at a university in Texas from 2000-2004. The exact same chant was often used then. This is not isolated.”

In its online statement, SAE’s national organization insisted that "Sigma Alpha Epsilon is not a racist, sexist or bigoted fraternity," and that it provides its members with anti-discrimination education and training.

"Several other incidents with chapters or members have been brought to the attention of the headquarters staff and leaders, and each of those instances will be investigated for further action," SAE stated. "Some reports have alleged that the racist chant in the video is part of a Sigma Alpha Epsilon tradition, which is completely false. The fraternity has a number of songs that have been in existence for more than a century, but the chant is in no way endorsed by the organization nor part of any education whatsoever."

Since the video surfaced, some SAE members have reported being accosted or threatened, including death threats. The now-vacant chapter house at the University of Oklahoma has been vandalized. An anti-racism rally was held at the home of one of the expelled students in Dallas.

The fraternity acknowledges the improvements needed in its traditions and training of young men who become brothers.

“Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s leadership has engaged with members of the African-American community and others who have reached out to the organization to build a partnership that will address the need for additional training, awareness and resources on cultural and diversity issues,” SAE states. “The fraternity is dedicated to making sure that its members are model citizens and leaders as part of their membership experience but also to understanding how SAE can improve its relationship with men and women of all ethnicities, heritages and nationalities.”

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