Zito: Oklahoma fraternity’s actions symptomatic of systemic racism

A 10-second video of Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers at the University of Oklahoma has been the center of a recent controversy. In the video, members of the fraternity could be seen and heard participating in a blatantly racist chant.

With racial slurs and celebratory messages about lynching incorporated, the chant declared that that there would never be a black individual in the fraternity. In response to the video being made public, OU President David L. Boren did the right thing: he shut down the fraternity chapter immediately. His statement minced no words, calling the members of the fraternity “disgraceful” and condemning their behavior completely.

I applaud President Boren’s response to this blatant racist offense, but it definitely raises the question of why it takes such a vulgar, hateful act to prompt this kind of punitive action. I doubt that any group of people goes from being a paragon of acceptance to chanting about racist murder without any kind of warning. I find it much more likely that earlier displays of racism were present, but reactions to them were labeled as “politically correct” overreactions.

If that was not the case in Oklahoma, it is certainly the case in many incidents in which actions that demonstrated bias and prejudice towards marginalized groups must be handled with great tact, lest one be accused of being too sensitive. This is compounded by a tendency to only see bigotry in forms that are not only the most obvious, but the easiest to distance oneself from.

It is not hard for the average person to admit that the Ku Klux Klan is racist or that the Westboro Baptist Church is homophobic. It is much harder, however, for the average person to look inside themselves for more subtle kinds of bias and reflect on it.

Racism and other forms of bigotry are not only present in the chants of rowdy fraternity brothers. They are present in the highest echelons of academia and society. Similarly, homophobia is not only present in the chants of the Westboro Baptist Church, and misogyny exists outside of conservative religious institutions.

I agree with President Boren’s harsh response to the racism exhibited by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter. I believe that rather than just extending this response to those who are obviously bigoted, everyone engaged in higher education needs to exercise this level of scrutiny towards our own behavior. Racism and other kinds of bigotry are not always as obvious as the drunken antics of frat boys yelling racial slurs. On some levels, racism is insidious, acceptable and institutionalized.

University of Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker released a video on social media using profanity and aggressive language towards the racist behavior demonstrated by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter. He also addressed the hypocrisy that becomes obvious in a system that insists that “racism doesn’t exist” when events like this are made public. Striker apologized for his use of profanity in addressing this injustice, and it is in events like this that we need to examine our prejudices more deeply.

While the linebacker of a football team is representing the school and must behave accordingly on social media, there is nothing inappropriate about reacting to racism and bigotry with profanity. An apology from Striker is not necessary, however, an apology to Striker and every student receiving their education within a system stacked against them because of racism is.

Responses to bigotry being aggressive and strict might not be pleasant, but they are necessary. They are necessary not only when the racism is as obvious as it is in the leaked video, but when it is subtle and ingrained into our culture. I hope that all institutions in higher education can follow Boren’s lead in reacting to bias-related incidents, both big and small.