When it comes to college, from the moment African-American high school students receive those wonderful large envelopes, the ones with the beautifully written acceptance letters from a predominately white university saying. “Congratulations!,” little do they know that despite the brochure showing smiling, happy multicultural faces, they’re about to set foot on some of the most racially hostile spaces in the United States. And in their most formative years, when their belief in American ideals is the strongest, or being questioned, these African-American students will learn that their white university, their white fellow students and their white faculty are not automatic allies in their journey toward educational success. And that’s been a fact for over a century.
Before they buy their overpriced books, settle into their tiny Spartan dorms and eat their first bad meal in the cafeteria, they’ll learn that overt acts of racism on their campus are often dismissed as a series of disconnected incidents, outside the collective responsibility of the university and always surprising to those who are exposed to them, particularly white university administrators.
“We’re surprised and shocked that this would happen on our campus, and we’d like to say that this racial incident doesn’t reflect the values of who we are as a university community . . .” is the pro forma response.
Even more extreme than Santayana’s picture of the past, which gets less accurate by the day, white America never recalls the events of college racism at all, leaving the burden of remembering to 18- to 21-year old African-American college students. From there, those students are tasked with creating new solutions for old and present problems, often involving white people who refuse to recognize the historical context of racism. And they have to do it every four years, as a new group of black students cycle in and out of the university, while the campus racism always remains. What is the resulting mindset of typical African-American college students after they experience episodes of campus racism? Again, it’s to question themselves and their sanity: “Are we going crazy, or is there a racist incident on a college campus every day? If so, why are people saying this is an isolated incident . . . again?”
One space where all Americans hoped race would be inconsequential is on America’s college and university campuses. As colleges and universities have moved from being the providence of the elite to reflecting the populace of a young democracy, they’ve long vacillated from openness to the idea of an egalitarian society (as at Berea College in 1850s Kentucky—the first college blacks were welcomed to attend below the Mason-Dixon line during slavery) to fighting to keep blacks out (as at Southern schools during the turbulent Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s).
College campuses are supposed to be places where the young elite of all races, sexes and creeds seek knowledge, a knowledge that throws off the shackles of racism, sexism and other “isms” in order to create a better, more just society. And that utopian vision is often expressed in Latin, through official school mottoes.
At Amherst it’s “terras irradient,” which translates to “let them give light to the world.” At the University of Arkansas it’s “veritate duce progredi,” which means “to advance with truth as our guide.” And Harvard’s famous one-word motto is “veritas,” which translates as “truth.”
It’s with college students, the future leaders of American society, that we place our dreams, hoping that the ignoble sentiment of racism will erode to the point where everyone can move forward without that burden. New ideas of equality and respect for all will, we hope, trump bigotry and prejudice through a college education. But when you look closely at America’s colleges and universities, the veritas, the truth, is much stranger than the fiction we Americans tell ourselves. The truth is that for African-American college students, there’s a campus racism crisis going on.
And no one seems to recognize that truth.
The University of Oklahoma campus sits in Norman, Oklahoma, a small prairie town about 20 miles south of Oklahoma City. With a population just over 100,000 people, the city is your typical college town, about 85 percent white, with only 4 percent of the city identifying as African-American. Norman matches, almost to a tee, the student demographics of the university. In the heart of Tornado Alley, that swath of Midwestern volatility where twisters seemingly come out of nowhere to devastate prairie towns, a storm hit the University of Oklahoma on March 7, 2015, rivaling some of the biggest dust devils ever to hit the plains.
And that storm’s name was Parker Rice.
By all measures, the Saturday night had been a success. The Oklahoma Kappa chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity had rented a party bus, everyone was wearing tuxedos, and the alcohol flowed like water in the Nile. It didn’t matter that some of the fraternity members, like 19-year-old Rice, were underage. There was a wink-wink policy, just like on most Greek Rows in America, of ignoring that. What happens in the fraternity stays in the fraternity.
As for the fraternity itself, Sigma Alpha Epsilon was founded in the antebellum South—at the University of Alabama in 1856—and is proud of it. Every fraternity and sorority has heroic lore to exalt early members, and Sigma Alpha Epsilon was no different.
Part of the historical pride within SAE, as it’s known colloquially, is that early fraternity members enthusiastically joined the Confederate Army, with many dying for the lost cause of protecting slavery in the South. After most of its chapters were devastated by the Civil War, SAE would eventually regroup to become one of the largest fraternities in the country.
So how did SAE’s members see themselves in today’s society? As “true gentlemen,” that’s how. The fraternity had always harkened back to that antebellum myth of Southern male chivalry among the white slaveholding planter class, with Confederate legends Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as the ideal role models. But that was then, and this is now, and now the fraternity that proudly proclaimed its Confederate ancestry also stressed that it was open to all, including the great-great-great grandsons of the people its Confederate heroes unsuccessfully attempted to keep enslaved. “True gentlemen” saw no color in today’s SAE. Or so some thought.
For Rice, being in SAE was the perfect fit. The camaraderie among the brothers reminded him of the feeling he got while attending a prestigious all-boys Catholic high school, Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas. Later, once he’d become a national figure of derision, Rice would describe the Jesuit motto, “Men for Others,” the selfless ethos of Jesuit-educated men worldwide, as being his guiding principle in life, while apologizing for what happened on that party bus.
In essence, the party bus was there mainly to keep SAE brothers from drinking and driving, and if that kept the party going, all the better. On the bus were not only the aforementioned tuxedoed SAE brothers, but at least two or three members of Delta Delta Delta sorority, or Tri-Delt. Everyone was in a fine mood, laughing and singing. And everyone on that bus was white.
Rice, now inebriated and fully in life-of-the-party mode, stood in the aisle and led the fraternal singing. With a smile on his face and the confidence of a conductor at the Boston Philharmonic, he began to chant: “There will never be a n***r SAE! There will never be a n****r SAE! You can hang ’em from a tree, but it will never sign with me! There will never be a n****r SAE!”
Those on the bus sang the chant at the top of their lungs, and no one appeared to object to the offensive words. In fact, when someone pointed a smartphone at Rice and recorded, Rice didn’t seem bothered in the least. Most sang lustfully, and without hesitation, as though they’d sung the lynching song hundreds of times. The atmosphere had a comfort level that said, “We’re among like-minded friends.”
While Rice and his fraternity brothers joked about lynching blacks, for African-Americans, lynching represents a very real and painful segment of white supremacist history. Black family histories are peppered with stories of real fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers who were taken from their beds at night and strung up from telephone and telegraph poles. Some were falsely accused of crimes, others just the unfortunate targets of white rage. White mobs strung them up from trees, mutilating them by cutting off their toes, fingers, and genitals as souvenirs. Many of the victims would be photographed, their images sent around the country as popular postcards, examples of how white supremacy was being enforced not just in the South, but everywhere in the country.
Alice Walker once talked about growing up under the threat of being lynched: “I grew up in the South under segregation. So, I know what terrorism feels like—when your father could be taken out in the middle of the night and lynched just because he didn’t look like he was in an obeying frame of mind when a white person said something he must do. I mean, that’s terrorism, too.”
My grandmother, Willie Lee Johnson, grew up in Texas, with the family migrating between Waco, Temple, and Dallas, as the cotton-pulling season demanded. In her final days, her brain racked by the ravages of Alzheimer’s, it was as though her consciousness had been opened to allow suppressed memories to flow back to the fore. And one of the memories that would panic her was some midnight lynching she’d seen as a child.
“Don’t let them get me, baby,” she’d say to me, her eyes ablaze. “They hung them men in that field, and they buried them underneath that tree.”
Lynching wasn’t, and isn’t, a subject for a drinking song to black people.
But there weren’t any black students on the bus, just as there aren’t any black members in the current Oklahoma Kappa chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. And more than likely, given the student population on campus, Rice and his friends didn’t have many black friends whose memories might have made the frat members think twice about singing this song. So if they sang a song about “hanging n****rs from a tree,” who would know? More importantly, who would really care?
Little did they know that there was at least one person who would object, and it was that person pointing a camera at Rice. That anonymous partygoer would send the video of Rice and his fraternity brothers singing about hanging “n****rs from a tree” to OU Unheard, an African-American student group on the University of Oklahoma campus. And by the next morning, OU Unheard would make sure that the world heard what was going on inside that SAE party bus.
But SAE wasn’t the only issue for black students on the University of Oklahoma campus, nor the first. In January 2015 OU Unheard sent University of Oklahoma president David Boren a list of grievances, alleging that the university marginalized black students. Those students felt they were ignored, invisible, and subject to the same racist indignities that plague campuses around the country, yet their pleas for a non-hostile atmosphere at OU were not being listened to—hence the name OU Unheard.
But after Rice got through singing, OU Unheard was in possession of a video that would make them heard not only on the University of Oklahoma campus but around the world. And, as happens with all episodes of racism, some would try to characterize the significance of the incident as being limited (in this case, to the University of Oklahoma campus, which was not the case). It was important for people to know that all of those isolated incidents were part of a trend that stretched back for decades, a trend that even those without a recorded memory of racism had to acknowledge.
The campus racism situation at the University of Oklahoma is neither new nor surprising. What is surprising is that most Americans think it is new, and as I said on MSNBC after the SAE incident blew up, “I’m surprised that people are surprised.” But that illusion of surprise also gave rise to the usual excuses for Rice and his SAE fraternity brothers and their behavior.
Every time a racist campus event occurs, white privilege explains it as just the act of some immature young white students, who made a mistake of youthful exuberance. In their hearts, apologists say, these white students are not racists. There’s always an external reason for their racist behavior, such as being drunk and so not thinking clearly. Or, they didn’t mean what they said in a racist way, and so they apologize to anyone who may have been offended.
For many white Americans, the bar for branding students as racist is so high that we’d first have to confirm that they were all dues-paying members of the Ku Klux Klan, wearing white hoods while writing editorials for the John Birch Society and using the Nazi Party salute . . . in a Hitler mustache. Only then would we get a “maybe” they’re racist. Others would inevitably say that they’d like to get “more information.”
And if there hadn’t been a video of the SAE party bus full of singing white fraternity and sorority members, you can be sure that the full impact would have been diluted for one of the reasons above.
And this is a problem.
But because there was a video for everyone to see in the SAE case, it was increasingly hard for even racism deniers to dispute that what they were seeing was racism. And the SAE case was only a small part of the picture. The real fact is that campus racism is as common as underage drinking at colleges, and just as traditional. For over a century, whether it’s overt hostility in the form of racial epithets scrawled on campus walls, or nooses being hung on dorm room doors to intimidate black students, or white fraternities and sororities painting their faces with black paint for Halloween parties, there’s been a clear pattern of intimidation, racial hate, and violence that’s targeted African-Americans on college campuses throughout the country.
There are close to 3,000 four-year universities in the United States, and most have generally stuck their heads in the sand, hoping that the latest controversy would pass them by or be forgotten by a public ever tiring of the issue of race. And when confronted, these universities have been reactive instead of proactive.
And that’s not good enough.
Excerpted from "Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America's Campuses" by Lawrence Ross. Published by St. Martin's Press. Copyright © 2015 by Lawrence Ross. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.