What the University of Oklahoma Scandal Means

I’m going to take a short break from my series on the uses and misuses of the Middle Ages in modern discourse to comment on the situation at the University of Oklahoma. Like many black people, I wasn’t shocked that a group of white college students would use racial epithets and sing about lynching black people behind closed doors. That this episode was “caught on tape,” so to speak, simply illustrates what many civil rights activists have been saying for a long time, namely that the United States is far from being post-racial (whatever that means) and that the kind of old school “naked aggression against the Other” style of racism that we usually associate with the elderly is alive and well among millenials. As is usual in these sorts of situations, I feel like the media isn’t asking the right questions.

Up until now, the media has been harping on the fraternity’s extensive use of the n-word, while ignoring the more disturbing fact that they were singing about killing other human beings. To me, that should be classified as making a terroristic threat, but I guess I stand alone on this. As of this writing, only two students have been expelled, presumably the ones who could be easily identified from the shaky cellphone video, but the entire fraternity has been shut down. Presumably, the entire OU campus knows who belonged to the now disgraced fraternity and a proverbial cloud of suspicion must hang over them. What needs to be asked of them is whether they truly meant what they said when they chanted about “hanging n——-s from a tree,” because I wouldn’t feel safe in a community knowing that others had said such a thing.

This incident also challenges the widespread belief among conservatives that institutional racism doesn’t exist. The video clearly indicates that the SAE fraternity, as an institution, was teaching and spreading hatred of blacks among their members. These young men will one day be the ones who will decide who gets bank loans, who gets to have mortgages, how criminals will be sentenced, how voting districts will be zoned, and who gets to run for public office. In other words, the same fraternity members who are chanting about discriminating against and lynching blacks will be the ones running the world and shaping the destinies of people they have yet to meet. If there’s any question about how the white legal and law enforcement community in Ferguson, Missouri ended up treating their black populace as a resource to be mined (see here: http://www.theatlantic.com/ta-nehisi-coates/), all you have to do is look at the OU SAE fraternity. Today’s drunken racist fratboys become tomorrow’s corrupt officials.

It would be easy to isolate this incident and say that it was caused by the residual Lost Cause ideology present in the SAE culture (SAE was the only major fraternity established in the antebellum South) or it was the result of a rot within a particular chapter, but this problem goes deeper than UO or the SAE fraternity. Oklahoma has its own history of racism, in particular the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 that obliterated the so-called “Black Wall Street” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulsa_race_riot). Malcolm X was always eager to point out that he had lived his entire life in the North and all of the racism he encountered was from the de facto segregation that left blacks disenfranchised and impoverished in ghetto conditions. The “plantation porn” industry that gave us The Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, those pro-Confederacy Shirley Temple movies, the Coon Chicken Inn franchise, minstrel shows, and the Natchez Tour of Homes would not have been as popular or profitable as they were if it was just Southerners supporting them. Much like how religionists claim that the original sin of Adam and Eve corrupted subsequent generations of humanity, so too does the original sin of racism pollute the entire United States.

Lastly, there is a religious element to this story that is worth mentioning. Parker Rice, one of the expelled students, attended a posh Jesuit prep school in Dallas, Texas. Like fraternities in general, the Jesuits imagine themselvesĀ  a “band of brothers” contra the world, which is a rather silly idea, given the historical priviledges and prestige that the Jesuits have traditionally enjoyed as well as the fact that frat members tend to be fairly well off. But justified or not, the idea of a “band of brothers” persists, and when one “brother” is threatened, the tendency is to circle the wagons against increased scrutiny. This has been illustrated quite graphically in the way that the Catholic hierarchy has continually shielded “brother priests” who were sexual predators, and the “wall of silence” that often discourages frat members from turning in “brothers” who have committed sexual assaults, brutal hazings, and other misdeeds.

I’m not going to claim that this Jesuit high school was responsible for Rice’s current disgrace, but it makes you wonder what kinds of ideals are being instilled in young people at Catholic institutions to where they could join in a racist, terroristic chant and not find it problematic until they were publicly shamed. Personally, I think that the emphasize on obedience to authority that is found in all religions, but particularly in Catholicism makes it easy for believers to become passive followers. The old dictum of “pray, pay, obey” could quite easily be applied to a fraternity, especially those that operate under the delusion that they are creating “Christian gentlemen.” Critical thinking isn’t important in Catholic institutions nor Greek organizations; what matters is your ability to become one with the will of the group.

As with the Justin “I gave my child to a sex offender, but I’m the real victim” Harris case (see here for the latest: http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/casting-out-demons-why-justin-harris-got-rid-of-kids-he-applied-pressure-to-adopt/Content?oid=3725371), the Catholic background of Parker Rice shows that having a religious background or being personal pious doesn’t mean that one will act in an ethical fashion. Granted, we don’t know if Rice is a practicing Catholic in any sense of the word, but he must have had some kind of religious instruction at his Jesuit high school, and his home state of Texas is well-known for noisy displays of piety. There is significant evidence that the more “Christian” one is the more racist one will be (see here: http://mic.com/articles/29397/religious-people-tend-to-be-more-racist-study-finds). There’s a difference between loving Jesus and loving human beings who happen to have a different skin color, and more often than not, the more people love the former, the less they love the latter.

What will it take for millenials to be less racist? Clearly, just being around individuals of other races isn’t enough, and who knows if that bare minimum is being met, given how segregated American schools and neighborhoods are more than sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education. The time when having a black/Jewish/Hispanic/Asian/(insert other ethnic group) friend actually meant something is long over. I think what is needed is an honest appraisal of the United States’ racial history, where events like the Tulsa Race Riot are taught, where the poisonous legacy of “plantation porn” is dissected, and where current Latin American immigration patterns are linked to the result of US foreign policy. Given how much pushback there has been against AP history courses that dare to suggest that the United States isn’t a perfect “Christian country,” I doubt that this approach will gain much currency, except perhaps in ultra-blue states and cities where this is already the norm. Many millenials of all races are ignorant of our country’s real history, and that’s why these ugly episodes keeps getting repeated.