Fraternity’s racist chant resonates far beyond campus

BY ERIC MINK

Last Friday, David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma, released the results of a three-week investigation into the use of a racist chant by members of the university’s chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity.

They sang the chant during a March 7 bus trip to an SAE event, and Boren indicated that two women who were dates of members recorded it on cell phones. An O.U. student activist group named Unheard got the video almost immediately and distributed it via Twitter. It also quickly materialized on YouTube. 

The chant –- based on the nine-second video I saw — is as bizarre as it is nauseating. The lyrics are sung in a manic rhythm and festive tone to the tune of the children’s song “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.” The chant repeatedly uses the n-word in referring to African-Americans and vows that blacks never will be members of SAE. One line makes a light-hearted reference to lynching.

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Boren, a former Oklahoma governor and U.S. senator, acted fast. Within a day, he had ejected the SAE chapter from the campus, expelled two students who appeared to be leading the chant, suspended 23 others, ordered the fraternity house closed and gave residents two days to get out. He instructed the university’s Office of Student Affairs to investigate the chapter and learn how the chant got to the university.

The report released last week determined that SAE members who were at O.U. four years ago learned the chant informally from other participants on an inaptly named national leadership cruise sponsored by SAE headquarters in Evanston, Ill. The members brought the chant back to Oklahoma and eventually incorporated it into efforts to recruit new members, which says a lot about what kinds of new members they hoped to attract.

Bigotry, it seems to me, tends to be pretty inclusive when it comes to denigrating others. People who deny the humanity of black people aren’t much inclined toward open-mindedness when it comes to Hispanics, Asians, recent immigrants or people with sexual identities other than hetero. 

Or Jews.

It was no shock, for example, that the original bylaws of SAE, founded at the University of Alabama in 1856, excluded from membership non-whites and anyone with at least one Jewish parent. The bans officially stood until midway through the 20th century and, unofficially, past that.

But why single out college social groups and their pretensions of status? Similar prohibitions and worse existed at the time in duly enacted statutes, ordinances and legal covenants covering housing, education, public accommodations, law enforcement, voting and more throughout the United States.

And when civil rights activism forced the official rules to change, resourceful racists developed unofficial systems that preserved the injustices. 

I’m not sure when I first became aware of anti-Semitism and racism, but I know it was during childhood. My consciousness of the Holocaust may well have been stirred by early family discussions, public school lessons (or Hebrew school or Sunday school lessons), or maybe TV news programs, but I can’t recall the specifics. It just seems to me that at some point, I knew the awful outlines of what had happened.

Knowing that the Nazis’ immoral pragmatism had trapped Jews, I felt connections to the subjugation of American blacks in the institution of slavery: arbitrary violence, the ripping apart of families and the belief that blacks were a sub-human species that could be bred for labor, then used and discarded when they were useful no more.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to appreciate some significant differences. Institutionalized power had been used, for example, to try to erase history, culture and accomplishment from the collective memory of African-Americans and systematically deny them economic and educational opportunity. On the Jewish side, it turned out that the Nazis’ ultimate goal had not been to use Jews as a renewable source of free labor but, rather, to exterminate them from the face of the Earth.

Historical details aside, there never had been any doubt in our home about the seriousness of racism. It was underscored by one of the rules our parents had set for us when we were growing up: the absolute prohibition on use of the n-word. A violation, our mom told us, would result in her washing out our mouths with soap. There were no violations.

As a teenager, I also became aware of continuing, if quiet, discrimination against Jews by country clubs, neighborhoods, schools, political and social groups and restaurants.

I hear echoes of those practices in the recent SAE incident in Oklahoma. They resonate, too, in the findings, released in February, of an impressive survey of American Jewish college students, more than half of whom said they witnessed or experienced anti-Semitism on their campuses. And I see it in the attempt by some Missouri Republicans to use suggestions of Jewishness to discredit the gubernatorial candidacy of one of their own, state auditor Tom Schweich, an Episcopalian with Jewish ancestors. A disgusting negative campaign ad went so far as to say Schweich would be squashed like a bug, invoking historical anti-Semitic depictions of Jews as vermin. After complaining of sneaky tactics being used against him, Schweich committed suicide on Feb. 26.

The Internet, I think, hasn’t been helpful. I used to believe that racists, anti-Semites and their ilk eventually would just die off and be replaced by generations, who have had much more personal contact with different kinds of people. They would see warped racist and anti-Semitic perspectives for what they were and reject them. The process would be aided by cumulative societal judgments that racism, anti-Semitism and the other prejudicial variants were now simply unacceptable.

But changing demographic patterns and political alignments overseas have clouded that outlook, and the Internet has not been helpful. It allows racists and bigots of all stripes to come together electronically and bolster their prejudices while shielded from the condemnation of society. Rather than feeling isolated and rejected, they gain a sense of community and solidarity among others who share their vile views.

Finally, back in the real world of racial tension, the U.S. Department of Justice released a blistering report in March that supported citizen complaints of racial prejudice in Ferguson government, excessive use of force and racial disparities in enforcement by Ferguson police, and gross abuses of power, mainly against low-income residents, by the Ferguson municipal court. Meaningful changes are already underway that should improve the lives of Ferguson residents and, eventually, many others in the St. Louis region.

A second Department of Justice report found that all physical evidence and all credible witness accounts supported the assertion of former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson that he feared for his safety last August when he shot and killed Michael Brown, who was unarmed.

The absence of evidence to the contrary meant that Wilson committed no crime under relevant federal law and applicable U.S. Supreme Court decisions and could not be prosecuted. Nor were there any credible witnesses or physical evidence to support early claims that Brown made a clear gesture of surrender before Wilson opened fire.

The first report was far more significant. DOJ confirmation of deep-seated problems in Ferguson, many of them race-based, represents a huge step forward. The fight against racism, like the fight against anti-Semitism, continues.

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University.  He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York.  Contact him at [email protected]