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The SAE Video and America’s Whack-a-Mole Treatment of Racism

x_lon_frat_150309.nbcnews-video-reststate-480This week, a video showing members of the SAE’s (Sigma Alpha Epsilon) fraternity singing a song the KKK is kicking themselves for having not written first emerged. It is already being treated just like every other incident involving racism in this country, like an isolated situation and not as part of a larger problem, and I, for one, am tired of it!

I’m tired of racism in modern America being treated like some kind of whack-a-mole arcade game where it randomly pops up from time to time, we hit it hard when we catch it, pretend it’s gone and then act surprised all over again the next time it happens – and there is always a next time. The only thing this intense surface level attention to the problem succeeds in doing is driving it further underground.

In regards to this situation, the University of Oklahoma (UO) was very quick to act. The president has been decisive and unequivocally condemned the students caught on tape. SAE’s national organization has done the same. Students from across the racial spectrum have literally rallied to denounce it. Bravo! Slow clap! All that good stuff. But the talk from UO’s president and SAE’s national leadership is already treating this like an isolated event. UO has suspended this one frat, and SAE’s national organization has already said this doesn’t reflect their organization and that this chapter is an outlier.

Bullshit! That song was not made up on the spot. It had clearly been rehearsed. The one guy featured on the video was not the only one singing. It was a racist choir of voices. Those people on the bus are not the only ones to have ever heard it. It was most certainly passed down from one class to another for years. And the hatred behind it did not originate on that bus. It was learned, taught and institutionalized in that bigoted fraternity, which was founded in Alabama in 1856. In short, that video did not catch a one time occurrence, it captured a proud tradition. And to not acknowledge that is to contribute to its continuation.

I would also like to make one prediction that will also exemplify just how hard it is to deal with the reality of racism in this country. All the parents of these students are going to say they did not raise their child to be like this. With some, that might be true, but the fact that not a single parent will admit to having had a hand in passing down racism to the next generation speaks volumes as to why this country can’t even come close to addressing this issue. No one will take ownership of it or even acknowledge it unless it is literally caught on tape.

2765541278_a18fe5606a_bActs like this might not be the rule anymore, but they are not as much of an exception as so many in our society want to believe or pretend it is. In modern America we hit racism with a mallet anytime it dares to come to the surface, but we continue to be OK with it so long as it stays underground. We pretend it’s not in operation if it is not in our face or blatant enough. But just like the whack-a-mole game, the machinery behind it is working all the time, even when nothing is showing above ground.

That’s what we saw in Ferguson. The laws in the city were not written in Jim Crow language, so everything there was just fine. Nothing on the surface was showing in an explicit enough of a way to make white America care or believe the claims of the city’s black citizens. It wasn’t until the Department of Justice (DOJ) looked into the city’s arrest reports that the reality of the situation could be seen in a way that would satisfy even some of the most fervent racism deniers.

At the same time, however, far too many will be content with treating Ferguson as an anomaly. They will be fine to ignore the complaints from the minority citizens in the cities to the North and South of Ferguson who say the exact same things are going on. Ferguson was the only police department to make the mistake of getting caught, so only they will have to pay the price.

But at least with Ferguson, the DOJ will be addressing issues at the heart of the problem. The changes they have suggested are meant to change the culture in that one small town. They will be going after the behavior that occurs behind closed doors and attacking the institutional machinery that was responsible for creating the environment in the first place.

That will not be the case at OU and with SAE because far too many will be fine to only deal with the act caught on video. They will call for the students and the chapter to be punished, but have no interest in looking at the bigger picture or the culture behind this incident. They will be fine with ignoring the fact that so many Greek institutions, universities, school districts, neighborhoods and social circles in this country are as racially segregated as ever. They will not want to go below the surface and will continue to pat themselves on the back as being post-racial because they quickly deal with racism when they are forced to act.

Meanwhile, frat boys in other parts of the country, who didn’t get called out, will continue singing songs like the ones that just shocked our nation, but they will work harder to not get filmed. An even larger number will continue to know that these kinds of things go on and say nothing. However, they will join everyone else in acting shocked and ready their mallets the next time a situation like this pops up.

Brian M. Williams
Brian is the author of the recently published travel memoir "Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea." (Click this profile for more information.) He's also a law school grad with Southern charm and Virginia roots. He recently returned to America after nearly seven years traveling and working abroad. He loves dive bars, international travel and foreign accents. He's particularly good at small talk and was the first person to notice there's no "I" in "team."

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