Race, outrage and white male excuses: It's much worse than just one frat boy

Let's celebrate bad-ass responses to outrages in Ferguson and Oklahoma. But don't confuse them with real victories

Published March 13, 2015 6:15PM (EDT)

       (USA Today)
(USA Today)

My Twitter feed is celebrating some unusually badass victories going down in the world of civil rights at the moment.

We have a clearly documented case of horrific, vicious racism verbalized as blatantly as you could ask for--brothers of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon gleefully chanting in praise of white supremacy and in mockery of murdered black men. We have an unusually badass university president who, rather than employing the usual stalling-for-time-till-the-story-dies approach of university administrators, expels the two identified ringleaders on the spot and immediately severs the University of Oklahoma's ties with SAE.

And despite the usual apologetics blaming peer pressure, alcohol and all the other usual white male excuses for white male behavior, it looks like the media isn’t having it regarding 19-year-old Parker Rice, the man caught on camera leading the boisterous “There Will Never Be A N***** SAE” chant. Rice has already lost his admission to OU, and the stain on his reputation will follow him for a long time. As it should.

Meanwhile the long, painful drama in Ferguson, Missouri, has finally achieved something like a positive result--after the grand jury’s infuriating refusal to indict Darren Wilson it seemed like no closure for the Ferguson protesters would be forthcoming. But the U.S. Department of Justice has provided, if not justice for the Brown family, at least validated the Ferguson protesters’ perception of entrenched, overwhelming racial prejudice in the police force that caused the Brown case to explode in the first place.

(We've also now seen Thomas Jackson’s resignation as chief of police of Ferguson and the subsequent shooting of two police officers by an unidentified protester or protesters, who, thankfully, are expected to recover.

Jackson’s resignation is good news and to be celebrated. The attempted murder of two police officers is a tragedy and to be condemned. Both events are signs that our culture needs to continue to change, and that we cannot tolerate a return to “normalcy” when normalcy means a world filled with violence and rage.)

Now, finally, someone is losing his job. We don’t have to settle for the anticlimax of Officer Darren Wilson voluntarily retiring in order to “heal the community,” still insisting he did nothing wrong, collecting $400,000 in crowdfunded support along the way.

Now we have a much more satisfying ending to the story, with disgraced city manager John Shaw taking full responsibility for the endless documented abuses of the Ferguson police force and stepping down immediately--only the most recent of five high-profile terminations, including a corrupt judge and three employees--two police officers and a clerk--shown to have passed around racist e-mails on the job. Yes, we all kind of knew that people must’ve been expressing nasty sentiments like that behind the scenes. Yes, we all kind of knew that the city’s “law and order” policies hid race-based motivations.

I should be happy about this news. I should be ecstatic.

So why am I instead kind of anxious and annoyed?

Well, for the same reason I initially clapped my hands with glee at the Racists Getting Fired Tumblr but then after reading a few pages of it decided I never really needed to see it again.

Here’s the thing. The truism goes that serious problems require serious solutions, not easy fixes. If something can be solved with an easy fix, that means it probably wasn’t that serious a problem in the first place.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not joining in the chorus of “What about the plight of white men?” apologists who are already lining up to deflect blame from the actual white male wrongdoers onto some other convenient scapegoat (like, of all things, hip-hop). I do, contrary to what some of my conservative colleagues think, believe in personal responsibility. These people fucked up and left public evidence of their fuckups and need to be held accountable for those fuckups.

But let’s be real here.

Parker Rice is a 19-year-old freshman. The fact that he chose to lead the chant speaks volumes to his personal character, yes, but the fact that others joined in speaks to the culture surrounding him. There’s no way he wrote that chant himself and then, spontaneously, a formerly non-racist and accepting frat suddenly decided to take it up en masse just for fun.

Moreover, it seems incredibly unlikely to me that the Greek scene as a whole is totally non-racist and accepting and one single bad apple frat decides, all by itself, to suddenly take up a horrifically racist stance against everything the school stands for, no matter how eloquently President Boren claims it goes against everything the school stands for. Which is why it’s to his credit that Boren isn’t just expelling Rice and his friend Levi Pettit but has formally cut ties with the entire fraternity, and says he’s looking into taking further action to reform the Greek system.

John Shaw is a municipal bureaucrat. He says he’s not some kind of mustache-twirling Grand Wizard of the Klan, and I believe it. I even believe him when he says he and his colleague Judge Bhad no conscious racist intentions--and I certainly don’t believe that the problems in Ferguson suddenly started when he took his position eight years ago.

The overwhelming theme of the DoJ report is that Ferguson’s bureaucracy was hungry for revenue and Shaw and his colleagues were simply trying to meet that need. The logic of capitalism and racism, as always, intertwine--money must be accumulated one way or another, and in a racist society it turns out the easiest people to put the squeeze on is black citizens, nothing personal. And if having to do a job that--for simple economic reasons--is a racist job starts to attract cops and clerks who are overtly, consciously, virulently racist, well, that too is just supply and demand at work.

Which is why it’s to their credit that the city isn’t just firing the people who put in place the most obviously racist policies and the ones stupid enough to leave electronic evidence of holding obviously racist beliefs. The city says it’s going to look to try to fix the system from the ground up, and I wish them luck.

And much has been written about the particular history of the St. Louis metro area and why it’s such a basket case--its history as a breeding ground for racist ideologues, the way racial tensions have been exacerbated, accountability deflected and economic incentives perverted by the slicing and dicing of the area into 91 separate municipalities, and so on. There’s a lot that’s specific to St. Louis and to Ferguson that needs fixing.

And yet.

The Oklahoma University chapter of SAE does not have a monopoly on toxic racism. And while we could put some of the blame on SAE’s roots in the antebellum South, pillorying SAE specifically won’t fix the fact that de facto segregation is de rigeur in fraternities and sororities across the country. It won’t change the ugly, dehumanizing culture that infects frat life in general, even at fancy Ivy League schools way above the Mason-Dixon line, even in the frats that pledge future senators and Presidents of the United States.

On a larger scale--while the rest of the country is looking down our collective nose at the benighted conditions in Ferguson, the USA as a whole has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world, with black men six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. It doesn’t matter how racist Ferguson is--a single small town in Missouri is nothing more than a tiny blip in this trend.

And wagging fingers about Missouri’s slaveholding Border State past and the dysfunction of backward old St. Louis are a convenient distraction from 12-year-old boys being shot up north in Ohio, and from the organized, militant dysfunction of the police force of the great metropolis of New York City, which, it turns out, also has issues with exploiting its most vulnerable citizens for revenue.

A bunch of fratboys don’t develop an oral tradition of singing racist chants laughing about lynchings without racism being deeply woven into the culture of our fraternities, our schools, our whole society. A single small town doesn’t systematically put its black citizens under apartheid to generate revenue--a town’s officials don’t feel safe joking about its black citizens as subhuman--without racism being deeply woven into our politics, our legal system, our methods of policing.

The urge to find a single scapegoat after a tragedy is overwhelming. And unlike the common use of the term “scapegoat” I’m not saying these people don’t deserve what they get--just as Michael Brown (the other one) deserved to be raked over the coals for the aftermath of Katrina, just as the buck stopped with George W. Bush for the war in Iraq, just as in most complex human tragedies there nonetheless is a specific person who, through negligence or malice, pulled the fatal trigger.

But it’s ridiculous to say that our history would’ve been completely changed if Bush had died or been incapacitated after choking on that pretzel in 2002--a Cheney presidency would’ve been no different. It wasn’t him, it was the apparatus around him, it was the cultural and political and legal mechanisms that got him elected in the first place, and if you replaced him with another guy from the list of Republican candidates he got drawn from it’s hard to see how history would change.

Just as if Parker Rice hadn’t pledged SAE we’d see that same video only with some other fratboy douche leading the chant. Just as if Darren Wilson hadn’t been on patrol that day some other cop would, eventually, have shot some other unarmed teenager (as we can tell by the number of other atrocities that have happened in the past few years across the country). Just as if Capt. Henke and Sgt. Mudd had never been hired there’d be two other civil servants comparing the President to a chimpanzee on government e-mail servers somewhere--and there probably are now, even as I write this.

Just as the Racists Getting Fired Tumblr is ultimately a grandstanding waste of time. Sure, it proves that we’re in an enlightened enough society that people foolish enough to openly broadcast their racism on a social media platform linked to their real identity get fired for it.

So what? There’s millions of other racists with protected Facebook or Twitter accounts, or who are smart enough to use a pseudonym, or who are smart enough to not post racist rants at all, going around doing as much or more damage than some random careless insurance salesman who gets caught by the Internet.

I’m worried about celebrating victory over individual obvious racists not because it’s too harsh on racism but because it’s too soft on racism. It reinforces the idea that racism is an outlier, an aberration, the belligerent drunk shrieking racial slurs, and that once we remove a few bad apples things can get back to “normal.”

And a certain great man had words to say about the idea of “returning to normalcy.”

After all, it’s relatively easy to punish a single college student, or a single city administrator, or a single random racist who slithers into your Twitter mentions. Reforming a whole college campus or a whole town is harder--but if it’s a town far away from you, what does it cost you to voice your disapproval and your support for reform?

What’s hard is reforming the whole country, the whole culture, the whole world. What’s hard is looking at the systems that cause racism in your own workplace, your own community, in yourself. Because that’s a fight that doesn’t end with a “return to normalcy,” which usually just means people learning not to let their racism get caught on video. That’s a fight that requires we acknowledge that none of us in our lifetimes have ever seen “normal,” that we shouldn’t settle for a version of “normal” that’s anything less than “the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all of God’s children.”

I worry that the ebb and flow of social change isn’t determined by the resistance of the reactionaries--that revolution doesn’t slow, stall or even reverse because the Right finds new reservoirs of strength. It happens because the revolutionaries get fatigued. We want to declare an easy victory, get some racists fired and go home. Progressives had a huge rowdy party the night we fired the GOP from the White House in 2008 and then, seemingly, spent the next four years in bed.

What’s happening in Ferguson is great. It’s not over. The outcry on college campuses against SAE because of the Oklahoma University video is great. It’s not over.

Getting racists fired is always satisfying. It’s never enough.

By Arthur Chu

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