​Combating racism on campus

Racist activities at the University of Oklahoma and University of Maryland demonstrate the systemic nature of racism

The University of Oklahoma made headlines last week with the discovery of a video of fraternity brothers in Sigma Alpha Epsilon participating in a racist chant — which included lyrics such as “there will never be a n— in SAE” and even lyrics supporting lynching. Shortly after this discovery, officials at the University of Maryland began investigating an email sent by a Kappa Sigma fraternity brother in Jan. 2014, which included racial slurs and other racially charged language.

The universities and national organizations in question have taken swift action. The national SAE organization suspended its Oklahoma chapter and the university itself expelled two students (though the constitutionality of this action has been questioned). At Maryland, national leaders of Kappa Sigma immediately suspended the student in question and are now working to formally expel him from their organization, while the university is investigating the incident through its Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct.

But these investigations and the ensuing dialogue lack the holistic approach necessary to combat the apparent racism persistent on college campuses. The expulsion of the students at Oklahoma and the investigation of the Maryland student are significant in demonstrating those schools’ zero tolerance for racism, but these actions should not replace university-driven discussion of the systemic nature of racism on campus. Developing a constructive approach to dealing with obvious racists is essential for all schools, but so is investigating the environment that can allow such racists to get away with racism.

Since our University is no stranger to this type of racial scandal, these issues are just as relevant for us. At a party jointly thrown by the University chapters of Kappa Alpha and Zeta Psi in 2002, some guests came wearing blackface. In that case, the University, like OU and Maryland, took relatively swift action. Both fraternities were initially suspended pending investigation. However, once it became clear that none of the individuals wearing blackface were themselves affiliated with either fraternity, both fraternities were reinstated by the school and cleared by the Inter-Fraternity Council of any wrongdoing.

In that specific case, while members of KA and Zeta Psi did not themselves participate in racist activities, they were — at the very least — inactive bystanders. We can readily point to the party-goers wearing blackface as racist in their actions — but why not also consider the fact that these two fraternities, by ostensibly failing to criticize these guests and failing to kick them out, contributed to an environment in which racist behavior was acceptable? There are likely many more cases of racism at our University — both within Greek communities and outside them. It is the implicit acceptance of such racist activities that allows the perpetuation of explicit racism — and this makes bystanders culpable.

Of course, it is immensely difficult logistically to punish a group for contributing to a culture in which racism is tolerated. But there are tangible ways to combat this culture. Perhaps the first tangible way is to acknowledge its existence — something all universities have failed to do thus far. But after acknowledgment comes action. At Georgetown University, students are currently petitioning for the creation of “Diversity, Power and Privilege” two-course requirement for all undergraduate students which would educate them on “issues concerning race, class, ethnicity, sexual identity, immigration status, gender and gender identity, religious identity and disability/ability.” According to the petition, Cornell University, Brown University, Dartmouth College and Yale University all have similar required courses.

The implementation of this type of required course — at all schools — would ensure students learn the impacts of their statements and actions. There are inevitably individuals who will remain apathetic to the unethical nature of racism, but there are also individuals who may simply be uninformed or scared to be active bystanders, or who may not understand the full consequences of racist activity. Implementing required courses on diversity and privilege would educate such students and possibly ensure the diminishment of environments in which racist behavior is tolerated.

Our University should strongly consider implementing such a requirement as well. It is important to be proactive in the face of racism, and not reactive. Statements from the presidents of the University of Oklahoma and the University of Maryland pointed to the strength of those schools’ respective communities and their intolerance for racism — but clearly pockets of those communities exist where racism is tolerated. Those same pockets exist in our community, too, and if a single student is caught saying or doing something racist, calling that student an anomaly only covers up the true problem. Racism is not confined to certain outspoken individuals; it is systemic. The only way to cure a systemic problem is to take a systemic approach.

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