long shadow

The Long Shadow of Racism

See, I keep telling you that old-fashioned racism is alive and well in this country. After the fraternity bus sing-along at the University of Oklahoma, do you hear me now?

Frankly, the happy-go-lucky bigotry of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity brothers—captured on video and shown to the world—shocked even me. And I was raised in the South, back in the days when Jim Crow was under assault but still very much alive.

It wasn’t just the repeated vow of eternal segregation, with its implication of white supremacy: “There will never be a n——- SAE.” To put it mildly, it was jarring to hear such young people—millennials, usually raised on an intellectual diet of diversity and inclusiveness—casually tossing around the vilest racial epithet as if they had been using it all their lives.

But the real stunner was the line describing what to do with any black man who might have the gall to seek to join their fraternity: “You can hang ’em from a tree.”

Whoa. Just like that, they went all the way to lynching? And thought it was funny?

Now, I realize that these soft, pampered, privileged, ridiculous frat boys are not likely to attempt actual violence against black people. But they wouldn’t have to. The attitudes their words reveal can, and probably will, show themselves in other ways.

Let’s imagine the video never surfaced. With halfway decent grades, degrees from Oklahoma’s flagship university and the connections that Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s old-boy network could provide, the boys on that bus could be expected to end up in executive positions with the power to hire and fire. What chance would an African-American job applicant have of getting fair consideration?

Or imagine that one of the boys ends up in the real estate business. Is he going to treat African-American buyers fairly? Or is he going to find ways to perpetuate the unofficial redlining that sustains patterns of racial segregation in neighborhoods across the country?

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