Did we help SAE racist event?

Published 10:06 am Wednesday, March 18, 2015

DALLAS — The Dallas media is all over the eyebrow-raising, outrageous — and ultimately sad — story of a now-infamous racist chant by some Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity members at Oklahoma University. You see, “Big D” has a special interest in this case, because the two high profile young chanters had seemingly been local success stories – – products of Dallas.

‘It could have been two kids from another city, but it wasn’t,” a Dallas Morning News editorial declared. “No, it was two young men from two of the Dallas area’s best high schools who led the way as Sigma Alpha Epsilon members and their dates skidded Saturday night into an intersection of privilege, alcohol, racism and youth. We owe it to our children and community to own our part of that cringe-inducing racist chant.”

Is it time for society to say “Je suis SAE?” — or not?

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Were the students in those 9 seconds of damning — and life-changing — video happily yelling a racist chant with the n-word and a line about lynching part of a bigger problem? Or did they represent just a sliver of the nearly 31,000 students who attend the University of Oklahoma? And (as their parents suggested) was this behavior not even representative of the students themselves?

What’s certain are consequences. University President David Boren, the former Democratic Senator from Oklahoma, swiftly denounced the chant, closed the frat house and announced that some students would be expelled. SAE’s national chapter repudiated the chant and mind-set it reflected, and denied any connection to it. The local fraternity hired Stephen Jones, the attorney who defended “Oklahoma bomber” Timothy McVeigh.

The chant was shocking. During my 1968-1972 years at Colgate University there’d occasionally be some now trite jokes not atypical at that time about Jews being cheap and references to Africa in jokes about blacks (not generally called African Americans in those days). You did NOT hear a chant including the the n-word and references about lynching (or jokes about Jews being gassed).

The two 19-year-olds (and others who will be identified) face major hurdles in getting an education and good jobs unless they really prove themselves different from their now-viral images. Until then, their parents’ pre-chant hopes and dreams are now burnt toast.

I’m betting it’ll eventually be documented by the press and investigations that the students were doing a chant unofficially passed down at this fraternity, and perhaps some others around the country.

It’s likely akin to secret pledges or initiation declarations used in fraternal organizations — not in terms of racism, but because it’s passed down orally. One cable show claimed there were reports of students hearing the chant elsewhere in the 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile, The Washington Times published a LONG list of race-related sorority and fraternity incidents across the country over the years.

Hate is alive and thriving — even though it’s taking different forms. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently issued a report saying that for the third year in a row the number of organized hate groups has declined. However, USA Today noted that Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the group, pointed out that this doesn’t mean hate has diminished.

It’s just riskier to belong to an organized hate group — and easier to escape detection. Some bigots dislike the stigma of a group, law enforcement is on the lookout — and who needs hate groups when you can go to online hate websites anonymously and share bromides and slurs about people you hate?

Racism has been around a long time (and it IS around today), but there’s another issue. Our 21st century America is a land where to be outrageous, un-p.c., and shocking is often associated with being witty, funny and assertive. It’s a way to fit in, gain audience share or readership and to create buzz. In addition to learning the chant, and not being strong enough not to chant it, the chanting teens were imprinted by a culture rewarding outrageousness.

So are we all SAE? No. But are we all enablers? Yes.


Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. He can be reached at jgandelman@themoderatevoice.com.