It’s just nine seconds of video. Nine seconds of self-destruction. Nine seconds of hate and remarkable stupidity, dragging us back into some of the darkest days of our country’s history.
The video captures members of a University of Oklahoma fraternity, dressed in formal wear and accompanied by their dates, riding on a bus either to or from an event. They are singing to the tune of “If You’re Happy And You Know It”. They do seem happy; they do seem to know it. But the lyrics have been changed.
Some news accounts have referred vaguely to those revised lyrics as a “racist chant,” but that strips it of its chilling power.
Put bluntly, because it ought to be put bluntly, the chant goes like this:
“There will never be a nigger at SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me. There will never be a nigger at SAE.”
And here’s the video in question:
Nine seconds, but it tells you a lot.
For example, it’s not one person chanting. It’s a collective action, expressing a group sentiment. And clearly, this wasn’t the first time the group had sung this song. It was familiar enough to those in attendance that they didn’t need to be taught the words. You have to wonder how many years, decades, even generations that song had been sung within SAE before it was exposed to the world.
Clearly, those leading and participating in the chant had no fear of social disapproval from their friends on the bus. To the contrary, the power of social conformity was being put to quite another use. The chant was reinforcing a social norm within SAE, putting every member on notice about what was acceptable to its members, and what was not.
The casual, even gleeful reference to lynching is especially startling, given the tragic history of racial violence in Oklahoma. The state was the setting of the Tulsa race riots almost a century ago, and of almost 150 documented lynchings, including that of Laura and Lawrence Nelson depicted below.
We like to tell ourselves that things are changing quickly in this country, that new generations of Americans aren’t trapped in the mindsets of their parents and grandparents. In many cases that is true; in this case, it was not. I doubt that most of those in the video picked up such aggressive racism in college; this was something they were raised with, something that they had been taught at home and brought with them to college, where they found others like themselves.
And assuming that the University of Oklahoma, a school of some 31,000 students, serves the same function in that state as other state universities, the members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity had been destined to be funneled into the business and political leadership of that state, where they would help set the tone and culture of its power structure. For these particular young men, that probably won’t happen now. (The national leadership of SAE has condemned the video and suspended its University of Oklahoma chapter, effective immediately, and university officials have already begun an investigation.)
In his remarks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma over the weekend, President Obama reminded us that we’ve made remarkable progress, and that progress must be acknowledged and honored.
“We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America,” Obama said. “To deny this progress, this hard-won progress -– our progress –- would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”
But as he also pointed out, “a more common mistake is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident; that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the “race card” for their own purposes. We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true. We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”
It took all of nine seconds to drive that point home.