09 March 2015
An Oklahoma frat is racist; is that news?
Google News thinks so. As I write, the top news story on that page is the disbanding of the University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity after a video made the rounds showing the frat boys riding a bus and singing of how they'll never let a black man -- they use a coarser word, of course -- into the frat. I don't know exactly how Google identifies a top story, but I'm sure that presumed reader interest matters as much as any editorial decision. So why has this become such a big story? Timing explains it a bit. This story broke while the nation was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday" bridge crossing in Selma, and at a point in our history when just about everyone concedes that race relations in the U.S. are worse under the first black President than before he took office. At the same time, however, many Americans on the right insist that racism is a thing of the past. What they mean to say, since none would dare deny the existence of negrophobic bigots, is that the U.S. is no longer a racist society -- that blacks are no longer systematically oppressed on the national or local level. This is the argument for doing away with certain safeguards of the Voting Rights Act: America isn't like that anymore and never will be again. Blacks and many liberals of all races see evidence to the contrary in the recent cases of white cops killing unarmed black men -- most recently in Wisconsin last weekend -- and tend to see Republican-inspired measures to suppress alleged voter fraud as attempts to disenfranchise blacks. For one side, the presidency of Barack Obama, however unfortunate for the nation, is sufficient and irrefutable proof that no real obstacles prevent any black person from rising to the heights of public life. The other side sees Obama being relentlessly sabotaged for reasons they suspect to be fundamentally bigoted. So what does this fratboy scandal prove to either side? For right-wingers, every such incident is an individual, isolated incident. Again, they'll grant that any number of individuals are bigots while insisting that the society isn't. Libertarians of the Rand Paul sort might go so far as to defend the frat boys' right not to associate with blacks -- while making sure to deplore their refusal. Liberals, progressives, multiculturalists, etc. obviously deplore the situation as well, but refuse to leave it at that. Libertarians (if not the right wing as a whole) presume that bigots will suffer consequences in the marketplace, while the left is understandably more concerned with the immediate consequences for the people who are denied inclusion. Libertarians are satisfied to conclude that bigots are stupid, while the left remains determined to correct bigots' errors. The why of bigotry matters to them in a way it doesn't to libertarians, while others further to the right seem increasingly tempted to blame white bigotry on other races' attitude problems. To sum up, the SAE scandal indicates either that there's only something wrong with those college kids -- that they're personally responsible for their bigotry -- or that there's something wrong with our society or culture that has to be fixed through a collective effort. In the end, some may say that as long as an Obama can become President, or an Oprah a billionaire, then the casual bigotry of frat boys doesn't matter and isn't news. Should it matter, however, that a black student can't join a particular fraternity? I think it should, even if I wouldn't place it at the top of the headlines. If some would oblige us to address the religious chauvinism of Muslims, then the enduring cultural chauvinism of white Americans deserves some attention as well.