Why Does Racism Surprise Us?

University of Oklahoma students march to the now-closed Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house during a rally on March 10, 2015.

Here’s a news item ripped from the pages of The New York Times:

Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of America’s largest college fraternities, closed its chapter at the University of Oklahoma late Sunday after a video posted hours earlier appeared to show fraternity members singing a racist chant. …

The video shows a group of young white people in formal wear riding a bus and singing a chant laden with antiblack slurs and at least one reference to lynching. A grinning young man wearing a tuxedo and standing in the aisle of the bus pumps his fist in the air as he chants, while a young woman seated nearby claps.

I have only two questions—and, correspondingly, a pair of theoretical answers—about this sordidly disturbing incident: Who in America is surprised that this happened? And why is it a national media sensation?

First, no sentient American should be shocked that a busload of white college boys—members, no less, of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, reputedly one of the nation’s “deadliest” Greek-letter college fraternities—would boldly flaunt their racist attitudes in the insular comfort and privacy of their peer group.

For all the secrecy that shrouds college Greek life, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, or SAE, offers a well-known and well-documented case study of bad-boy behavior. The fraternity claims more than 15,000 members in 219 chapters nationwide. Bloomberg News reported in 2013 that SAE chapters have been involved in at least nine student deaths since 2006 related to drinking, drugs, or hazing—the most of any college fraternity in the country. That investigation also revealed that universities have disciplined more than 100 SAE chapters since 2007, including the suspension or shuttering of at least 15 chapters in the three years before the news report.

According to a more recent report in The Oklahoman, the chapter at the University of Oklahoma had a “troubled history,” including being banned from the campus in 1989 after a hazing investigation. Since its reinstatement in 1995, the newspaper reported, the campus chapter has been involved in several additional incidents, such as violent confrontations and fights with neighboring fraternities.

To be astonished by these frat boys’ outrageous and anti-social antics is tantamount to believing that such activity is rare or nonexistent. Anyone who has set foot on a college campus with an entrenched Greek social culture knows better than to claim surprise, shock, or even horror at the public revelations of what goes on behind frat house walls.

The rank racism displayed in this case is just one additional link in the long anti-social chain of activities that make up life on college campuses. Rather than being an issue in and of itself, the community of Greek-letter organizations is a reflection of a larger societal problem.

Responding to the news of the SAE video, Nolan L. Cabrera, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Arizona, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that he wasn’t shocked by what the video showed, but he was surprised that it became public. Cabrera has conducted extensive interviews and research on the attitudes of white male college students on racial issues.

“What was displayed on that bus is only what was caught,” he said. “This behavior is endemic throughout the country. People say, ‘Well, this is only a couple of bad apples.’ This is something that occurs on a very, very regular basis. They just happened to have the bad foresight to have it recorded and then uploaded on the Internet.”

Then, all hell broke loose.

Which brings me to the second question and its equally disturbing answer: If we know that things such as racists singing about lynching blacks happen in private, why is the public display of it such a big deal? Perhaps the shame that’s now being heaped upon the erstwhile good brothers of SAE serves as a cathartic tonic for the rest of us. Their humiliation is our exoneration; we can feel good about ourselves because a cell of racists has been uncovered, shamed, and exiled from the decent people.

Officials at the University of Oklahoma responded to the leaked video with alarming alacrity. University of Oklahoma President David Boren decried the video as unrepresentative of the school community and ordered the fraternity off the campus. “This is not who we are,” Boren said at a news conference. “I’d be glad if they left. I might even pay the bus fare for them.”

Students staged an on-campus protest on Monday, drawing attention from national media. Prominent protesters included Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops and many of the Sooners players. On Tuesday, Boren expelled two unnamed students who he identified as “leaders” in creating a hostile learning environment at the university.

The response from Boren and the university community is all well and good, but something about it feels incomplete. There are many other questions that I can’t answer: Where in the school or the larger community has accountability been expressed for the attitudes revealed by the now-disgraced frat boys? Can it all be forgotten, allowing life to go on uninhibited, when the cameras leave campus?

In other words, aren’t the video’s clean-cut, tuxedo-wearing frat boys—and their sing-along dates—representatives of a much larger cohort of American life? Left untouched, weren’t these SAE chaps destined, perhaps, for success on Wall Street like so many SAE alumni, ranging from Texas oilman and investor T. Boone Pickens to prominent hedge fund managers Paul Tudor Jones II of Tudor Investment Corporation and David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital? Would anyone have really cared if the video had never surfaced?

Let’s be honest. The SAE members are products of and, more importantly, contributors to a racist system that most Americans pretend doesn’t exist. They got caught, but they just as easily could have escaped to lead productive, potentially influential lives with their racist behavior as little more than college hijinks among a tiny clique of pals. So why are people more concerned with being viewed as racists than they are with living among them?

If we carefully consider these questions through introspective analysis, it would go a long way toward holding accountable the people and institutions that perpetuate the systemic racism corroding American life. If the day comes when these questions are sincerely examined and answered, perhaps there won’t be any more leaked videos, and our horror over frat-boy behavior will be legitimate.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.