I was not shocked when I heard members of a University of Oklahoma fraternity sing “There will never be a n----- in SAE.” The video is a predictable outcome of our flawed understandings of racism and the unique structure of the residential Greek system on campuses. The problem extends well beyond fraternity houses, and as long as we fail to see how the SAE video reflects society at large, no progress will be made against the problem.
For more than six years, we have been inundated with “postracialism,” the dubious claim that because we have a black president, we cannot possibly live in a racist society. This premature triumphalism ignores the ways that racism structures our society at the most basic levels — educational opportunity and attainment, wealth and income, life expectancy, infant mortality and incarceration rates. One black president, however symbolically important, cannot erase these disparities. In practice, postracialism masks the ongoing reality of structural racism.
Just as important to understanding what happened at OU are the special characteristics of residential Greek life at colleges around the country. This is the one area where students, not administrators or faculty, have the power to exclude other students. Unsurprisingly, housed fraternities and sororities are often homogenous in their racial, ethnic and socioeconomic composition. Greek houses also lack meaningful oversight and accountability, which sometimes creates an environment in which members throw offensive, racially themed parties. Veterans of the Greek system are often among the most powerful alumni at a given college, which furthers the ability of current members to act with impunity.
Dodging the racial question
One reason we have not yet meaningfully addressed racism on campus is the false promise of political correctness. The core of PC behavior is identifying offensive terms and then refraining from saying them. Instead of meaningfully engaging with racism, this kind of verbal policing only drives it underground.
Another problem is the limited understanding of what constitutes racism that often prevails on campus. As psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum’s defined it in 1992, racism is “a system of advantage based on race.” As this formulation highlights, racism is about more than just good (nonracist) and bad (racist) people. Racism is a structure of race-based social stratification that benefits white people, not just the aggregate of individual attitudes.
Conscious racial hatred is largely irrelevant to racism as a social structure. Much more important than people’s intentions are the effects of their actions.
Years after Tatum offered her definition, however, many still deny the existence of racism by insisting that it emanates only from racists. For example, the president of a high school that graduated one of the SAE members in the video criticized the students’ actions but called them an “isolated incident.” Instead of exploring how specific actions embody larger racist structures, the conversation is derailed as people focus on proving that they are not personally racist. “Racists are bad people,” they might tell themselves. “Since I am a good person, I cannot be a racist.” This misguided logic can take another form: “Racists hate people because of the color of their skin. Since I don’t hate anyone, I am not a racist.”
But conscious racial hatred is largely irrelevant to racism as a social structure. Much more important than people’s intentions are the effects of their actions. As Jay Smooth puts it, “I don’t care who you are. I care about what you did.”
Beyond teachable moments
Some commentators have argued that rather than expel the SAE members, OU should have treated the situation as a teachable moment. I understand the impulse, but this situation is beyond teachable. The students almost certainly knew this was wrong, and they did it anyway. They might have even enjoyed it, at least in part, because they knew it was wrong.
This highlights another longstanding problem on college campuses. Too often, we worry about the moral improvement of the offending group instead of tending to the needs of those who are targeted by racism. Instead of debating how to educate the SAE brothers, we should have been asking the most important question, What message does this video send to black students at OU?
OU President David Boren’s strong statement on the issue was encouraging, but his claim that OU has a “zero tolerance policy” for racism gave me pause. As Michael J. Dumas, a professor of education and African-American studies at the University of California at Berkeley, has rightly argued, no institution of higher education in the country has a zero-tolerance policy for racism. Racial bias — much of it unconscious — is so ingrained in American society that any institution that actually enforced zero tolerance would have to expel half its freshman class before winter break. What Boren actually means is that OU has zero tolerance for overtly racist actions that are caught on camera, are posted to YouTube and embarrass the institution in the national news.
Looking within ourselves
The SAE incident is another example of strong condemnations of individual racism taking on the additional social function of demonstrating general racial innocence. With so much focus on the offensive chant, individuals who have never sung such an overtly racist song can condemn the fraternity and let themselves off the hook.
If our criticism stops with the fraternity, we miss yet another opportunity to meaningfully engage the problem of racism. We should be asking more difficult questions about ourselves. How can these fraternity members be so removed from the painful realities of racism that they can turn it into a playful song? What kind of group dynamics might have pressured some on the bus to participate? Would each of us have acted differently under similar pressures? What racial biases does each of us harbor?
Racism is not a Southern issue or a fraternity issue. It is a national issue. To grapple with this reality, we must recognize that our society is structured by racism. In the absence of such an engagement, incidents like the one in the SAE video will remain voyeuristic distractions rather than catalysts for meaningful change.