Sorry, America: Condemning a Few Frat Boys Won’t Fix Our Issue With Race
We live in the age of collective condemnation, where one misstep, one clumsy comment, or one racially offensive remark can get anyone 15 minutes of shame. This week, it was members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma who found themselves under the hot glare of the spotlight. After video surfaced of several fraternity members happily singing “You can hang ’em from a tree...there will never be a [n-word] in SAE,” the university severed all ties with the local chapter, and two students were expelled.
Last week, officials in Ferguson, Missouri, were thrust center stage when the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report detailing widespread racially discriminatory practices by the city’s police department and court officials. Despite uncovering data that revealed that African Americans accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 93 percent of all arrests, and 95 percent of jaywalking stops—while making up 67 percent of the population—some in the media chose to focus on a batch of racist emails sent by city officials instead of highlighting the methodical oppression Ferguson’s residents of color have experienced.
Nowadays, we’re quick to decry blatantly racist episodes. Calling them out allows us to congratulate ourselves for overcoming the bad old days. At the same time, however, we often turn a blind eye to stealthy—and far more damaging—systemic racism. Branding people of color as suspicious, lazy, and unwilling to strive to achieve the American dream can serve to reinforce regressive and oppressive policies.
In order to move forward as a nation and heal the wounds of our racist past and present, we’ve got to go beyond merely playing racism Whac-a-Mole whenever an incident such as the SAE video comes up.
“We think about the issues the wrong way when they arrive. If we keep thinking about them the wrong way, we’re not going to get to the real solutions because we’re not going after the real problem,” says Jody David Armour, a legal scholar and professor at the University of Southern California, who regularly lectures about the way the law intersects with race and class in America.
“If all we see when we look at the Oklahoma frat case is an isolated incident, and we see another isolated incident in Ferguson, and another isolated incident in Staten Island, and another isolated incident in Cleveland—as long as we see them as isolated incidents, or as incidents caused by a few bad apples, we aren’t getting to the real root causes,” Armour explains.
“We are a part of a culture and belief system that depreciates the value of black life. Black lives don’t matter in the general attitudes, beliefs, and values of many Americans,” he says.
That isn’t apparent only in instances such as the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police. Consider Hurricane Katrina. Armour notes that the slow response to damage and flooding in New Orleans’ largely black and poor communities led to many deaths: “There wasn’t the same panic of empathy for the Katrina victims” as there was in other disasters that have impacted more white or diverse communities. Armour cites research finding that whites tend to empathize more with those who look like them. While the same is true of African Americans, the unconscious bias of whites is far more damaging because they hold more power and wealth in America (and are still the majority).
“Few black people have power over white people’s lives,” Armour says, pointing to SAE as an example of how power is passed from generation to generation. “Those fraternities feed directly into the Senate and Fortune 500 companies, and those decision makers are white.”
Indeed, SAE counts several members of Congress, business people, and politicians among its ranks, including Senators Max Baucus, Jim DeMint, Mark Pryor, and Johnny Isakson, as well as Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.
“The people who are wielding control over the American economy, policy, and how it’s going to affect black folks are not black people,” Armour says. “We have Obama in office now, but just having a few token figureheads isn’t the same as having a large number of policy decision makers who empathize with black people.”
In his speech in Selma, Alabama, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a turning point in the civil rights movement, President Obama told the nation we would “do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable.... If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the ’50s.”
In some aspects, Obama is right; America has changed. Racial segregation and discrimination are outlawed, and incidents of overt racism are quickly condemned as uncivilized. But how much progress have we made as a culture?
In 1963, Malcolm X told reporters, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made.”
As the examples of SAE and Ferguson show, America has yet to heal the wound.