In Defense of Fraternities
Racism isn’t a problem at just that one Oklahoma frat, or fraternities in general—and by vilifying a few kids, we let the rest of us all of the hook.
We have a strange tendency in America, or perhaps as human beings, to try to rationalize massive systemic problems as isolated, individual incidents. And so it goes with the latest outburst of bias—this time at the University of Oklahoma, where members of the fraternity SAE were captured on video repeating a violent and racist chant.: “There will never be a n****r SAE . You can hang him from a tree, but he will never sign with me. There will never be a n****r SAE.” Here, members of a fraternity unquestionably behaved horribly. But fraternities, and these few students, are not the problem. We all are.
The students involved in the SAE video have been expelled—incidentally, a legally questionable move for a public university—and the fraternity has been shut down. That’s all appropriate—individual students and the groups that condoned or encouraged their offensive behavior should in some way be held responsible. Perhaps, to some extent, some of the very particular pathologies at play here are distinct to this particular frat. The two expelled students, Parker Rice and Levi Pettit, learned this specific behavior somewhere. But a problem arises when we fixate on individual behavior or even fraternities to the exclusion of the rest of society.
Certainly, fraternities seem to be cesspools of racism and misogyny in many cases on many campuses, but the simple fact is that they’re just intensified Petri dishes for that which infects our culture more broadly. And focusing just on fraternities—or any other singular site or incident—lets our broader society (that is, the rest of us) off the hook.
Just days before the SAE video surfaced, the Department of Justice released a report documenting that in Ferguson, Missouri, a largely white police force routinely violated the rights of the city’s majority black population. The stark and frequent incidents ranged from multiple racist “jokes” emailed by white Ferguson city officials to the fact that black motorists accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops and were twice as likely to be searched as white drivers. Searches of white drivers, meanwhile, were more likely to turn up illegal contraband.
Ferguson and the University of Oklahoma fraternity may seem like aberrant or spontaneous weeds. But they grow, quite deliberately and predictably, from the same rotten soil of American racial bias.
These are not isolated incidents. Already, reports have surfaced of another fraternity at the University of Texas with a ritual chant about forbidding gays, interracial dating and Mexicans. Yes, these situations need to be identified and eliminated, but we also need to tear up the broader culture of implicit racial bias and explicit racialized hazing in which such incidents are clearly rooted.
This is, for instance, why feminist men and women were so explicit in talking about “rape culture” in the wake of accusations about cases of rampant sexual assault on campuses across the country. As Marshall University has defined the term in school materials: “Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.” As writer Rebecca Solnit put it, talking not just about isolated incidents of rape and sexual assault but rape culture “lets us begin to address the roots of the problem in the culture as a whole.”
Mind you, whenever the “powers that be” do concede to a conversation about structural causes of such incidents, those causes tend to further place blame on victimized communities themselves. Rape is blamed on how women dress, or how much they drink. Police violence against African Americans is blamed on “black-on-black crime.” And on Wednesday, Joe Scarborough and Bill Kristol partly blamed the SAE chants on rap music—in other words, putting the blame for anti-black racist chants on black musicians.
Every nine seconds, a woman is battered in America. Young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than young white men. Almost one-fifth (PDF) of all women in America have reported experiencing rape at some point in their lives. A black college student has the same statistical chance of getting a job as a white high school dropout. If these situations were reversed, if the same reality were facing white men, we wouldn’t even need statistics to make the case for widespread action.
Do fraternities feed and intensify rape culture and racial bias? Probably. We can and should scrutinize fraternities and these stupid, inhuman, offensive, awful incidents. But in doing so, we should not and must not let our broader culture off the hook.