Frat Boy Admits Singing a Racist Song about Lynching Ni**ers Was a “Horrible Mistake”–But Was the Incident Indicative of More Widespread Racism in the Greek System…and the Country?

By Elaine Magliaro

In his article titled The Ugly, Racist, Deadly History of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Jake New provides a brief history of the college fraternity. New said that SAE has been known as “the singing fraternity.” He added that there is “nothing quaint about the nicknames SAE has these days.” New said that “on many campuses people say the initials stand for ‘sexual assault expected’ or ‘same assholes everywhere.’” According to New, SAE is the fraternity that is also “known as the one in which members are most likely to die.” He added, “And now it may be called the most racist.”

A video of University of Oklahoma SAE frat members singing a racist song recently ignited a national furor.  The University and SAE’s national headquarters “moved quickly to punish the chapter and distance themselves from what they hope will be seen as an isolated incident.” School officials “expelled SAE members Parker Rice and Levi Pettit…after identifying them from a video as leaders of the chant, singing, ‘There will never be a … SAE.’” The racist chant also “alluded to lynching black people.”

New said that “rather than depicting an anomaly, the video may be a rare, tangible piece of evidence of a much larger and persistent problem among America’s predominantly white fraternities.”

The national SAE headquarters responded to a remark made by Parker Rice that the song had been taught to frat members by issuing a statement:

SAE:

“The national fraternity does not teach such a racist, hateful chant, and this chant is not part of any education or training.

“Our investigation has found very likely that the men learned the song from fellow chapter members, which reiterates why Sigma Alpha Epsilon did not hesitate to close the chapter completely because of the culture that may have been fostered in the group,” the SAE statement said.

(Los Angeles Times) looked into the matter of whether or not the video depicted an “anomaly.” The three authors wrote an article titled Racist fraternity chant may not be limited to University of Oklahoma. They said that 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.” They noted, however, that social media had provided “possible glimpses through the veil, suggesting the chant was not an isolated practice.”

“I was an SAE at a university in Texas from 2000-2004. The exact same chant was often used then. This is not isolated,” one Twitter user wrote in a tweet that is no longer publicly viewable.

One of the most damning posts on social media was published weeks before the incident, when a Reddit user wrote the racist lyrics in a comment about a fraternity at the University of Texas, adding that his friends in an SAE chapter called it “their favorite song to sing.”

New:

Despite the fact that its members agree to memorize and follow a creed known as the True Gentleman, SAE has frequently been accused of racist and discriminatory behavior over the years. Now the largest fraternity in the country, SAE seems to have played a disproportionate role in some of the most offensive incidents in recent decades, yet it remains a house in good standing at more than 200 campuses.

Matthew Hughey, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, was quoted as saying, “We have to remember that the Greek letter system in the United States was founded on pretty harsh and legally supported exclusionary practices. There’s a normal, mundane type of racism that functions every day, but it’s harder to see. We really shouldn’t be surprised at incidents like this when they get out, as they probably happen a lot behind closed doors.”

In his Salon article titled Race, outrage and white male excuses: It’s much worse than just one frat boy, Arthur Chu wrote the following:

Parker Rice is a 19-year-old freshman. The fact that he chose to lead the chant speaks volumes to his personal character, yes, but the fact that others joined in speaks to the culture surrounding him. There’s no way he wrote that chant himself and then, spontaneously, a formerly non-racist and accepting frat suddenly decided to take it up en masse just for fun.

Moreover, it seems incredibly unlikely to me that the Greek scene as a whole is totally non-racist and accepting and one single bad apple frat decides, all by itself, to suddenly take up a horrifically racist stance against everything the school stands for, no matter how eloquently President Boren claims it goes against everything the school stands for. Which is why it’s to his credit that Boren isn’t just expelling Rice and his friend Levi Pettit but has formally cut ties with the entire fraternity, and says he’s looking into taking further action to reform the Greek system.

Chu added that the SAE chapter at Oklahoma University doesn’t have “a monopoly on toxic racism.”

Chu continued:

And while we could put some of the blame on SAE’s roots in the antebellum South, pillorying SAE specifically won’t fix the fact that de facto segregation is de rigeur in fraternities and sororities across the country. It won’t change the ugly, dehumanizing culture that infects frat life in general, even at fancy Ivy League schools way above the Mason-Dixon line, even in the frats that pledge future senators and Presidents of the United States.

As Chu noted, it’s not likely that a bunch of frat boys would “develop an oral tradition of singing racist chants laughing about lynchings without racism being deeply woven into the culture of our fraternities, our schools, our whole society.” He continued, “A single small town doesn’t systematically put its black citizens under apartheid to generate revenue–a town’s officials don’t feel safe joking about its black citizens as subhuman–without racism being deeply woven into our politics, our legal system, our methods of policing.”

Chu said that there is an urge to find a single scapegoat after a tragedy or an incident such as the one involving the SAE chapter at Oklahoma University. He noted that it’s fairly “easy to punish a single college student, or a single city administrator, or a single random racist who slithers into your Twitter mentions.” It’s much more difficult, however, to reform “a whole college campus or a whole town…”

Chu:

What’s hard is reforming the whole country, the whole culture, the whole world. What’s hard is looking at the systems that cause racism in your own workplace, your own community, in yourself. Because that’s a fight that doesn’t end with a “return to normalcy,” which usually just means people learning not to let their racism get caught on video. That’s a fight that requires we acknowledge that none of us in our lifetimes have ever seen “normal,” that we shouldn’t settle for a version of “normal” that’s anything less than “the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all of God’s children.”

Chu said that what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri, since the release of the DOJ’s report is great. He added, “It’s not over.” He continued, “The outcry on college campuses against SAE because of the Oklahoma University video is great. It’s not over.” Chu said that getting racists fired “is always satisfying”–but it’s “never enough.”

SOURCES

Here’s What’s Wrong With the OU Frat Boys’ Apologies (Huffington Post)

Racist fraternity chant may not be limited to University of Oklahoma (Los Angeles Times)

University of Oklahoma frat investigated after video of ‘Never be a n****r SAE’ sing-along goes viral (Raw Story)

It’s not a ‘horrible mistake’ to sing a racist song – it’s horrible that you’re a racist (Raw Story)

Race, outrage and white male excuses: It’s much worse than just one frat boy (Salon)

The Ugly, Racist, Deadly History of Sigma Alpha Epsilon: The fraternity’s problems aren’t limited to the University of Oklahoma or the South. And they stretch back decades. (Slate)

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8 Responses to Frat Boy Admits Singing a Racist Song about Lynching Ni**ers Was a “Horrible Mistake”–But Was the Incident Indicative of More Widespread Racism in the Greek System…and the Country?

  1. swarthmoremom says:

    SAE is the frat for wealthy white boys. The majority have strong legacies. Learned that when we lived in Texas. It is considered to be the most exclusive. Those rich Dallas OU frat boys must not fave been admitted to UT so they found the closest school with an SAE chapter. Frats are everywhere but they reign supreme in the south, and SAE is the most elite.

  2. Elaine M. says:

    swarthmoremom,

    I’m working on another post about fraternities. I’ve read about some terrible things that have happened at frat houses or that were perpetrated by frat boys. No one refers to frat boys as thugs, though, do they? I wonder why?????

  3. bigfatmike says:

    “As Chu noted, it’s not likely that a bunch of frat boys would “develop an oral tradition of singing racist chants laughing about lynchings without racism being deeply woven into the culture of our fraternities, our schools, our whole society.” ”

    If you follow the logic of this statement, fraternities are not the problem they are the symptom.

    I think that gets it about right. The overt, lawless racism of the last century has been largely suppressed. But racist attitudes persist and are reflected in many, maybe most, institutions in the society including fraternities and sororities.

    That does not mean that we should not take strong action against fraternities and individuals for racist activities. But I doubt that eliminating the fraternity system will have much effect – aside from changing the location of the racism.

  4. Bob Kauten says:

    Getting caught on video singing a racist song was a “horrible mistake.” Not singing the song or being a racist.

  5. Mike Spindell says:

    When I was a freshman in college and people asked me about joining a fraternity I looked at them as if they were crazy. The idea of being hazed and meeting the expectations of some older assholes seemed absurd to me even then. In my sophomore and junior years I spent a weekend at a Fraternity at Syracuse University, where a high school friend had pledged. Both times I remember as best I can days of drunkenness and boorish behavior. I think the are sad affairs that people join to advance their careers and are willing to debase themselves for the privilege.

  6. bron98 says:

    I joined Sigma Nu and left after about three weeks. I went through one night of hazing and that was enough, I couldn’t believe someone would put up with that crap to belong to a group.

    One of the actives was deathly afraid of snakes and before I left I had the opportunity to coil a dead green snake in his underwear drawer. I never knew his reaction but I would see the pledges around campus and they would tell me stories about what they had to do. I was glad I had enough self-respect to leave.

    As an aside there was a SAE chapter at the school I attended, that house was full of spoiled little rich boys way back when.

  7. Elaine M. says:

    Here’s What’s Wrong With the OU Frat Boys’ Apologies
    By Briallen Hopper
    Lecturer in the Yale English department and Faculty Fellow at the University Church in Yale
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/briallen-hopper/heres-whats-wrong-with-the-ou-frat-boys-apologies_b_6856366.html

    Excerpt:
    Let me be clear. I don’t believe that the bad things you do when you are 18 or 20 (or 40 or 60) should define you for your entire life. Whether you are a frat boy or a felon, you deserve another chance. You should be given the opportunity to prove that you can recognize the wrong you have done and try to change and make amends. But in order for that to happen, you need to make a real apology.

    For Levi Pettit and Parker Rice, just like for me and the rest of white America, the journey to justice begins with acknowledging our own complicity in racism, and being honest about the fact that we are not the victim: we may even be the oppressor. Only then can we help to build the kind of community that Oklahoma University president David Boren so eloquently describes: a place of equal opportunity where people treat each other with respect, love each other like family, and have absolutely zero tolerance for racism.

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