University of Oklahoma frat brothers taught racist chant at leadership event

The University of Oklahoma report on Sigma Alpha Epsilon details the origin of a racist chant taught to new members. University President David Boren says the matter cannot be closed ‘until the culture at the national level has been addressed.’

Teresa Crawford/AP
A sign post is seen outside the international headquarters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon in Evanston, Illinois. SAE's headquarters may be in Illinois, but the fraternity's roots are firmly planted in the antebellum South.

“You've got to be taught/To hate and fear/You've got to be taught/From year to year/It's got to be drummed/In your dear little ear/You've got to be carefully taught.”

These lyrics from “South Pacific,” the musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, easily come to mind with the latest news about a racist fraternity chant at the University of Oklahoma.

An investigation ordered by university President David Boren reveals that the videotaped racist chant by brothers of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity had been taught at a leadership event organized by SAE’s national organization four years ago.

"That chant was learned and brought back to the local chapter," Mr. Boren said at a news conference in which he disclosed the school investigation's findings. "Over time, the chant was formalized by the local chapter and was taught to pledges as part of the formal and informal pledgeship process."

Boren said about 25 members of the school's SAE chapter will face punishment ranging from two expulsions the school announced previously to mandatory community service and cultural sensitivity training. The video, which surfaced earlier this month, showed fraternity members yelling the chant on a chartered bus while headed to a formal event at an Oklahoma City country club with their dates, Boren said.

Boren said the investigation found alcohol was "readily available" at the fraternity house before the start of the event, and that about a dozen high school students whom he described as "potential recruits" were also on the bus.

Beginning in the fall, Boren said all current and future OU students will be required to take diversity training.

Given the scope of the investigation and its outcome – limited to the University of Oklahoma – it’s unclear how widespread the chant (or any other racist practices) are throughout Sigma Alpha Epsilon, which has groups on 237 US campuses.

The national fraternity makes a point of noting that data gathered since 2013 show approximately 20 percent of its approximately 15,000 members “self-identify as a minority or non-Caucasian.” In addition to current members, SAE has approximately 200,000 living alumni.

SAE's headquarters are in Illinois, but the fraternity's roots are firmly planted in the antebellum South. It was founded at the University of Alabama in 1856, and many of the fraternity’s early members – honored by the present-day organization – came from plantation-owning families. Most fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

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.”

Inside Higher Ed, an independent journalism organization, reports that there have been racial incidents at other SAE chapters.

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.

The Fraternity’s national leadership quickly responded to University of Oklahoma President Boren’s findings Friday, agreeing that “members of [SAE’s] former University of Oklahoma chapter likely learned a racist chant while attending a national Leadership School about four years ago.”

“We remain committed to identifying and rooting out racist behavior from SAE, and we are actively investigating all of our local organizations to determine whether there are issues in any other location,” executive director Blaine Ayers said in a statement. “We intend to conduct a thorough and complete investigation, and this will take time. However, we will share the results of our investigation when it is complete. Our current findings at the University of Oklahoma are similar to those announced on Friday by University of Oklahoma President David Boren. But our investigation to date shows no evidence the song was widely shared across the broader organization.”

SAE closed its Oklahoma chapter shortly after the video became public, and it subsequently announced a four-point initiative – including an anonymous hotline, mandatory online sensitivity training, the hiring of a diversity-and-inclusion officer, and the appointment of a national advisory panel on diversity and inclusion.

The goal, SAE leaders said, is “to eradicate racism and other forms of discrimination from the fraternity.”

In his letter to Mr. Ayers, Boren wrote: “The matter cannot be closed in our view until the culture at the national level has also been addressed.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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