I started Monday morning the same way I start every weekday: I reached for my phone, turned off my alarm, and opened my Twitter feed to shake off the sleepies. At the top of my feed was a video of members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Oklahoma enthusiastically shouting a racist chant involving the n-word and lynching. Within hours, OU kicked the fraternity off campus and SAE’s national headquarters shut the chapter down. The next day, two students were expelled. The incident was widely and quickly denounced by everyone from university president David Boren to football coach Bob Stoops to the hundreds of students who protested the incident on campus.
Last week, I started several mornings by reading the details of the Department of Justice’s damning report about Ferguson, which outlined the city’s systematic oppression of its black residents. Among the offenses listed were a number of racist emails that had been widely forwarded by city employees. One person responsible for the emails was fired, and two more resigned.
In my mind, these firings and expulsions are appropriate responses – but they are not enough. They communicate that the organizations take these issues seriously and these behaviors are unacceptable, both of which are good things. For better and for worse, they also satisfy the public’s primal sense of justice, our desire to see some kind of swift and immediate action in response to an offense. But when it comes to addressing the systemic issues involved in both incidents, these actions fall woefully short.
When we try to explain acts of cruelty, we usually point to the flaws of the perpetrators. “He was crazy,” we might say. “She was a bad seed.” However, these incidents don’t happen in vacuums. Rarely can a person’s bad behavior be attributed solely to their personal characteristics.
We like to think that the students assigned to be guards in Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment were power-hungry monsters – but all of their pre-experiment testing, as Zimbardo reported in The Lucifer Effect, indicated that they were completely normal college students.
We like to think that the soldiers who humiliated and violated Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were sick, twisted wackjobs – but by all accounts, they were normal soldiers whose behavior before the scandal gave no indication that they were capable of such atrocities.
In both of these cases, the individuals weren’t solely to blame. The system was also responsible. These individuals were placed in positions of power that elicited certain behaviors, and that fact cannot be overlooked.
We like to blame atrocities on individual bad apples because that line of reasoning is comforting; it lulls us into thinking that the problem is contained, and that we and the people we know and love could never be capable of such things. It gives us the illusion that the world around us is safer than it actually is. The reality – that we never know when these things might happen, and given the right circumstances and the right group of people, most people will do just about anything – is much scarier. (Zimbardo does an excellent job illustrating this phenomenon in The Lucifer Effect.)
Thus, it would be easy for OU to say that this problem is isolated to SAE and for SAE’s national organization to say that this issue is specific to this chapter. But the data indicates otherwise: A version of the chant caught on film is reported to be required for membership at the University of Texas chapter. A few months ago, the Clemson chapter held a “Cripmas” party, “satirizing” the notorious Los Angeles gang. The New York Times recounted a litany of racist incidents at chapters around the country dating back to 1982. Clearly, this isn’t just an OU problem.
We could write all of this off as an SAE problem – “Same Assholes Everywhere,” the saying went at my alma mater – but again, the data tells a different story. The “Asia Prime” party (later renamed “International Relations” but otherwise unchanged), Kappa Sigma, Duke University, February 2013. The noose hung on the statue of James Meredith (the university’s first black student), Sigma Phi Epsilon, University of Mississippi, February 2014. The “MLK Black Party,” Tau Kappa Epsilon, Arizona State University, January 2014. The “Colonial Bros and Nava-hos” party, Phi Kappa Sigma, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, November 2013 – which had the dubious honor of being every bit as sexist as it was racist. Shouts of “Come up here, Trayvon,” Sigma Pi, Cornell University, May 2014. Pledge rules that include “no Mexicans,” “no interracial dating,” and “no f–etry,” Phi Gamma Delta, University of Texas. The fact that until this academic year, only one black student had ever successfully pledged a Panhellenic (read: historically white) sorority at the University of Alabama. Obviously, not all fraternities and sororities are guilty of such blatant racism – but these examples illustrate that the problem is too pervasive to be simply a matter of a few bad apples. More likely than not, these chapters were the unlucky few that got caught.
The same could be said for Ferguson. The DOJ report sheds light on the many ways in which the city exploits and harasses black people, which is incredibly important for the city and the nation to see. But by many accounts, the police forces and court systems of neighboring cities are equally bad, if not worse. Ferguson just happened to be the city that got caught up in a firestorm, the one in the national spotlight.
Don’t get me wrong: I think that dismissing these students and chapters and employees is an appropriate response. The university, the fraternity’s national leadership, and the city need to communicate that this kind of behavior won’t be tolerated, and I can see why they chose this route. But they can’t simply cut off these individuals and assume that the problem has been solved – no more than a dermatologist can slice off a malignant mole and assume that all of the cancer has been removed.
In Ferguson, three of the people responsible for the racist emails no longer work for the city. But what about all of the people who forwarded the emails? Or those who read it and said nothing? They may be less culpable, but their silence contributed to the problem.
When Jeremy Lin had an off night during his meteoric rise in 2012, the headline on ESPN’s website read “Chink in the Armor.” The writer of the headline was fired. But what about the people who approved it? If the writer, the editor, and the webmaster all read the headline and none of them found it offensive, what does that say about the culture of the organization?
In September, Alessandra Stanley was blasted for a New York Times article in which she called TV showrunner Shonda Rhimes and her protagonists angry black women. But what about the three editors who signed off on it? If multiple people reviewed the article and deemed it worthy of the nation’s most prominent newspaper, what does that say about the Times?
As these examples illustrate, the problem cannot be traced simply to individuals – there are also larger, systemic issues that need to be addressed, issues that persist even after someone is scapegoated and fired. So without some kind of systemic solution – an organization-wide training, a large-scale discussion about race and power and privilege – the problem will not go away; it will simply pop up elsewhere.
This is what I fear will happen at OU, in SAE, in Ferguson. I fear that university administrators will assume that they solved the problem by expelling the fraternity and the student ringleaders and they won’t take any additional steps to educate the broader community about the painful history the chant evokes. I fear that SAE will assume that they took care of the problem by shutting down the chapter and won’t make an effort to address the broader problem of racism in the organization, which has manifested in a cringeworthy string of incidents in the last few months alone. Though the city of Ferguson is required to make certain changes in response to the DOJ report, I fear that these problems won’t be addressed on a national level and will persist in the surrounding cities, in Cleveland and New York and every other city in America where the same things happen without the benefit of extensive DOJ investigations.
I also fear that the perpetrators won’t learn anything from these incidents or change their views – or worse, that the swift retaliation against them, coupled with the human instinct to defend ourselves, will make their beliefs even more entrenched. I see why OU did what it did, but I wonder if there could have been a more effective way of rehabilitating these students – if instead of cutting them off, the university took the time and energy to reeducate them, to put them in conversation with people who experience the chant very differently than they do, to teach them about the history of the n-word and lynching. There are few better places for these things to happen than at a university. So I wonder.
My hope is that other universities and Greek organizations and cities will look at these examples and seize the opportunity to learn from them — to be proactive about examining themselves for similar issues and having these conversations now, instead of being reactive when a crisis arises. I suspect, however, that most will look at these examples, shake their heads, and be glad not to be bad apples. I get why they might think that. But if they do, they fail to realize that none of us operates in isolation, we’re all part of larger systems, and we’re all susceptible to systemic pressures outside of ourselves. We’re all capable of being bad apples.