Oklahoma frat closed after racist chant: Are fraternities finally taking racism seriously?

The University of Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon has been shut down after its members were seen chanting racist verses in a video posted online. How is this response different from cases of racism at other universities in the country?

YouTube screen grab
Members of the University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon chant racist slurs in a video posted online.

A University of Oklahoma fraternity has been shut down after a video posted online showed members singing a racist chant.

The video, which surfaced Sunday afternoon and quickly went viral, shows members of the university’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon chanting a racial slur against blacks and referencing lynching.

Oklahoma News9.com reported:

In the brief video, you can hear and see the members loudly chanting together, "There will never be a n***** SAE." SAE is a reference to the fraternity's Greek letters.

The chant repeats the first verse, then goes on to say, "You can hang them from a tree, but they'll never sign with me."

The video is believed to have been shot on Saturday while the fraternity was on a chartered bus for a date night.

The national fraternity immediately responded with a statement in which Sigma Alpha Epsilon president Brad Cohen said he was “not only shocked and disappointed but disgusted” by the members’ display of racism.

We apologize for the unacceptable and racist behavior of the individuals in the video, and we are disgusted that any member would act in such a way. Furthermore, we are embarrassed by this video and offer our empathy not only to anyone outside the organization who is offended but also to our brothers who come from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities. This type of racist behavior will not be tolerated and is not consistent with the values and morals of our fraternity.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s University of Oklahoma chapter has been disbanded and the participating members expelled from the fraternity.

The college fraternity embodies a stark dichotomy in the American university system. On the one hand, the fraternity is founded on “a set of old, deeply American, morally unassailable convictions” that relate to leadership, intelligence, and strength, Caitlin Flanagan wrote for The Atlantic.

It is billed as a brotherhood “bound by rituals, symbol, and tradition,” and has been since the first one was established in the late 1700s, Maria Konnikova wrote in another Atlantic piece.

Plenty of US leaders were fraternity men, including Fortune 500 CEOs, lawmakers, judges, and presidents. A 2006 study on leadership qualities within fraternities also found that fraternity men do exhibit “higher levels of personality traits associated with successful leadership later in life,” Dr. Konnikova added.

But the success of such a brotherhood lies in part in its ability to distinguish itself from the rest; in developing an “us-versus-them” mentality that emphasizes the group’s importance.

The result, wrote Ms. Flanagan, who conducted a two-year investigation into the issue, is that while these organizations raise millions of dollars in charity and steer thousands of young men into lives of service and success, they also “have a long, dark history of violence against their own members and visitors to their houses, which makes them in many respects at odds with the core mission of college itself.”

Sexual violence and hazing are part of that history. So is racism.

Notably, the University of Oklahoma was part of a case that marked the beginning of the end of the “separate but equal” doctrine in graduate and professional education in the United States: In 1950, George McLaurin went to the US Supreme Court to appeal a US District Court ruling that upheld the university’s decision to admit Mr. McLaurin, who was black, but to segregate him from the rest of the student body.

The high court overturned the decision.

The years since have seen plenty of progress in race relations and equality in American universities. But racism is far from being eradicated, especially from fraternity culture.

Last year, Arizona State University investigated accusations against Tau Kappa Epsilon for mocking black culture during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday: Non-black students posted photos of themselves sporting loose jerseys and flashing gang signs, and used hashtags such as #MLKblackout and #hood, The New York Times reported.

In 2013, Kappa Alpha members of Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College held a “USA versus Mexico” party that had students dressed as illegal immigrants and border patrol agents, NBC12 reported.

Duke University’s Kappa Sigma also held an “Asia Prime” party in 2013, during which students donned silk robes, fake sumo wrestler outfits, and chopstick hair accessories, and mimicking Asian accents, according to The New York Daily News.

In many cases, such reports result in little more than a slap on the wrist for fraternity members – typically in the form of statements from university or fraternity officials expressing disapproval and distancing themselves from discrimination of any kind.

Duke University did temporarily suspend Kappa Sigma following their Asian party, as student groups held a protest and called for an apology.

But Larry Moneta, Duke’s vice president for student affairs, told The Herald Sun that there may not have been any violation of university rules, making it difficult to effect sanctions against the organizers.

“The event was thoughtless and offensive but we’re not sure if it actually broke any rules,” Mr. Moneta said.

Which makes the response against Sigma Alpha Epsilon notable, at the very least. On Monday morning, University of Oklahoma president David Boren took to Twitter with an updated statement saying that the fraternity’s local chapter is officially closed and that members – who were called "a disgrace" to the university – have until midnight to get their belongings out of the fraternity house.

“We vow that we will be an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue,” the statement read. “There will be zero tolerance for racism everywhere in this nation.”

A protest against racism was also held Monday morning at the university grounds. Students wore tape on their mouths to represent the black student group Unheard and brought signs that said things such as, “Racism is alive and well at the University of Oklahoma.”

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