Honestly, you could replace “racism” in that headline with any number of topics: marriage inequality, suppressed women’s rights, regressive educational system, denial of climate change, reckless fracking. Yet while all these issues continue to plague America as a whole, Oklahoma became the country’s poster child for racism yesterday — 50 years after the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama — after a video surfaced showing Sigma Alpha Epsilon members at the University of Oklahoma reciting a bigoted, hateful, and discriminatory chant. The saddest part? The rest of the country wasn’t at all surprised.
It can be hard to love Oklahoma sometimes. Occasionally I’ll see things that make me optimistic for the future of this state, then something happens — like the racist SAE chant, Inhofe’s snowball, or this asshole — that negates whatever hard-fought progress was made by what sensible people there are in this state, setting us back a good, oh, 100 or so years in the minds of non-Oklahomans. Justified or not, perception is reality, and the reality is that Oklahoma has a racism problem.
Of course, rarely is it as overt as the frat-bro chant. More telling is this response from OU football player Eric Striker, in which he describes how these same SAEs would welcome Striker and his teammates into their house after football games. These guys wouldn’t say such things directly to a person of color; in 2015, racism comes either thinly veiled or veiled in its entirety. And as you can see in this version of the video, a few of these chanting cowards didn’t want to be recorded, giving credence to the notion that some people actually think it’s OK to be a bigot as long as nobody outside your likeminded circle finds out. This kind of casual, insulated racism is more problematic today than the overt kind. It’s definitely more complicated and systemic.
Perhaps even more troubling were some of the responses I saw to the Striker video. “He’s as guilty as the frat morons,” they said, as if to somehow equate Striker’s (warranted) anger to a cheery little ditty about lynching. Others accused Striker of “fighting hate with hate,” because apparently white people are better equipped to tell those on the receiving end of racism how to properly respond. That’s the thing: It’s easy for those who have never been a victim of racism to oversimplify the situation, pretend it’s not really that big of a problem, or that this is really just a small minority reflecting poorly on the state as a whole, which isn’t really that racist. And all of these responses stem from a lack of empathy and understanding — a problematically broad ideal that can be applied to the entire spectrum of equal rights issues.
I hate that when Oklahoma makes national news it’s usually for something reprehensibly stupid — or, in this case, bigoted. OU President David Boren was swift in removing the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter from campus, and his stern words and forceful actions ought to be commended. As should those who voiced their dismay at this morning’s peaceful protest on campus. As should anyone who spoke out through social media or had a conversation with friends or family about the disgraceful degree of hate-fueled racism that was exhibited. Participating in dialogue is the first step toward progress.
But these responses aren’t what make the news. They won’t undo what happened and they won’t repair Oklahoma’s reputation to those who view it as backwoods, ass-backwards flyover country. As a state, we’re great at saying we hate these terrible acts of discrimination, but the discourse usually dissipates over a matter of days and nothing really ever changes. The only path to progress is to create an atmosphere less hospitable to hate and bigotry so that these things don’t happen in the first place. Because, by and large, we don’t have that atmosphere in Oklahoma. Just look at our elected officials, who are setting an example that it’s OK to discriminate, that it’s OK to view people as “others,” as people who are somehow inhuman because they make less money or they have a different sexual preference.
This is a conversation that begins with discourse and ends at the voting booth. People who say or do racist things deserve to be shamed for their words or actions, but shame itself won’t prevent these things from happening. In order to correct centuries-old prejudices, the change needs to be systemic. And unless a broader, more impactful message is communicated to those who run this state, Oklahoma will forever remain a sanctuary for the hateful and narrow-minded.