Recently, a group of men at the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity were caught on video singing a racist chant about keeping black men out of their fraternity, complete with allusions to lynching and murder.
In an unexpectedly swift response, OU immediately cut ties with the SAE fraternity and expelled the two students who were the ringleaders of the chant. “Real Sooners are not racist,” OU President David Boren said in his fiery reaction. “Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity (and) treat all people with respect.”
Notably missing from the news coverage surrounding the SAE controversy is the coded language of criminality we see when perpetrators are people of color. The fraternity members weren’t called “thugs” or “gangsters” or “terrorists.” Nobody went into their background to find evidence of a broken home, drug use, prior criminal records. People didn’t delve deep into their social media history to find incriminating photos of them smoking, drinking or holding up a middle finger to the camera. No one is trying to find links between these young men and the KKK or other white Christian exclusionary hate groups.
When people of color commit crime, it is presented as evidence of pathology among colored communities. Black men killed during conflicts with police quickly earn the label of “thug.” Any Muslim who commits a crime anywhere in the world is a terrorist.
But Craig Hicks, the man who walked into a Chapel Hill, North Carolina, apartment to shoot three young Muslims, is described as a nature-loving dog rescuer and a “troubled soul” angry about a parking dispute. Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old man who shot and killed six people in Santa Barbara, California, and wounded a dozen more, was apparently an “extremely polite gentleman” and a victim of untreated mental illness.
Despite the fact that the majority of mass murders in the history of this country have been carried out by white men, there is no hand-wringing about the moral deficiency of white parenthood and community.
Coded language about misbehavior alters the way we think about crime and punishment. If we can write off a dead 18-year-old as a thug, we don’t have to confront a nasty history of racism and racial profiling in the criminal justice system. If all Muslims are subversive terrorists, we don’t have to worry about anti-Muslim crime or Islamophobia — it’s simply a natural reaction to a threat.
But young men singing a racial slur on a bus on the way to a party is neither an indicator of systemic racism, of the apathy and insensitivity of the white community, nor a throwback to SAE’s lauded antebellum past: It’s just some kids having fun.
If we are ever to confront the racial issues that permeate our society, we have to do so using more accurate language. We have to acknowledge that racism is both more and less than men in white robes and hoods. It starts with young children growing up to fear and distrust communities of color. It continues when young men on the cusp of adulthood think nothing of using a racial slur with centuries of bloodshed and oppression behind it.
And it is deeply imprinted throughout our institutions as people grow up without confronting the many ways racism is manifested through their actions. We have to take responsibility for the ways that we propagate racism instead of apologizing for it and waving it aside.
Real people are racist and are bigots — that’s not up for debate. When are we going to decide to do something about it?