The Making of SAE: Southern Universities at the Heart of the Problem

As nearly the whole country knows by now, the University of Oklahoma has closed their chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon after a racist video went viral. The video showed SAE members singing a racist chant with references to keeping black members out as well as lynching. The university responded quickly expelling the leaders of the chant and shutting down the fraternity. Indeed, the university and President David Boren won praise for their speed and decisiveness in responding to the video. Media accounts portrayed the incident as well as others with SAE chapters at other institutions as reprehensible, but also exhibited some surprise at the open racism evident. Without a doubt, individual prejudice and racism contributed to the actions by OU’s SAE chapter. Yet, this explanation is incomplete and too conveniently excuses Southern universities from responsibility. To put it plainly, the actions and policies of Southern universities have fostered and helped create racially segregated campuses.

For much of the 20th century, predominantly white universities in the South explicitly engaged in deliberate practices that systematically limited the access of African-Americans to high quality higher education. Even though many (though certainly not all) of these practices ended by the turn of the century, the legacy of the policies influences the state of racial segregation on campuses today.

University actions that supported the structures and mechanisms of exclusion, including Greek organizations, contribute to broader societal factors resulting in segregation such as poverty, K-12 education, criminal justice, and urban policy.

While broader societal trends and personal prejudice are partially responsible for the challenges related to African-American success in higher education, they are not the sole cause. Higher education institutions themselves bear responsibility for actions that supported segregation or failed to break down segregation that existed on campuses.

Given their histories, Southern universities have a particular moral imperative to deal with deliberate racial discrimination.

When we solely blame the SAE members, their organization, or individual racism, we fail to acknowledge the potential of policies that could improve the experience of all students on campus. Despite expelling the students and closing the organization, I have seen little in the way of considering the broader implications of what occurred on that bus.  Little discussion of policy changes have taken place.

Without a broader conceptualization of the state of segregation on campus, we are unable to fully address the core problems and decades of actions that limited the access of African Americans to higher education.

For starters, we need to begin to appreciate the disparate impacts of institutional decisions for African American students. For example, emphasizing merit based financial aid based on SAT scores impacts the ability of African American students to access financial aid. Although these policies are not designed for the purposes of excluding African American students, the impact in light of history and other forces results in exclusion nevertheless.

All of this brings us to the issue of how Southern universities have dealt with the issue of race and Greek organizations. While they may provide some benefits and may have held other historical purposes, white fraternities and sororities too frequently serve as a vehicle of white flight within the university today.

Whether in the form of excluding otherwise qualified minority members or in hosting racist themed parties or singing on a bus, Greek organizations have engaged in racially insensitive and prejudicial conduct. As bastions of white privilege, Greek organizations have fostered and encouraged a power structure on campus. This structure that often excludes nonmembers in general and minorities in particular.

Southern universities and their leadership have shown an unwillingness to confront in either word or in deed the reality that Greek organizations have continued a racial division descended from the Jim Crow days.

As fundamentally exclusionary organizations, fraternities and sororities are more prone to behavior that divides campus. And an organization that so embraces a particular view of the Civil War is even more susceptible.

Knowing this, Southern universities should be more engaged in not only preventing racist behavior, but in supporting education and fostering dialogue about these issues on campus. Instead, the powerful interests of alumni and others encourages and supports silence and a largely laissez-faire attitude among administrators.

Thus, the system self-perpetuates.

The system builds privileged groups of students that in turn become privileged alumni that reach back to maintain the system that gave them their power.

This is why simply chalking the video up to a few racist students does a disservice to the significance of the factors at play here. How can the public, elected leaders, and universities lead change if we’re unable to fully identify and address the core problems. We can’t consider complete solutions with only a partial understanding of the problem.

Without addressing how Southern universities’ policies and practices perpetuate segregation, by omission or commission, and are at the heart of the problem, we will be unable to make significant progress on the state of African Americans in higher education.

I have specifically called out Southern universities in this post, yet many universities across the country face these issues and have been equally complicit in their unwillingness or inability to confront these issues.

I have spent most of my adult life in Southern universities. I believe in the power of these institutions to lead progressive change in the South. It is because of this faith that I believe Southern universities can and must do more.

In closing, it has been 50 years since Selma’s Bloody Sunday and it seems fitting to end this post with a quote from President Obama’s speech commemorating the event:

And that’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day. You are America. Unconstrained by habit and convention. Unencumbered by what is, because you’re ready to seize what ought to be. For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, there’s new ground to cover, there are more bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow . . . We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children can soar. And we will not grow weary. For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise.