From awful can come good, sometimes. It is happening in Norman, Okla.
How we react to something is often more interesting, more revealing, than the action itself, and that has been the case in the matter of that racist fraternity video that has embroiled the University of Oklahoma.
So a bunch of white frat boys on a bus are singing a chant about how no blacks will ever be admitted to their Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter. They use the N-word. The video goes viral. Two quick thoughts: 1) Ubiquitous smartphone cameras mean almost anything done in a group now likely will be recorded and disseminated, rendering those frat boys not only racist, but also oblivious or, well, stupid. 2) Alcohol = truth serum. It will unhide your secrets and let your demons run free.
The Oklahoma Sooners football team took it from there.
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Sports have the power to be a galvanizing force when athletes are of a mind to reveal a social conscience. It might be Miami Heat players showing solidarity with the parents of slain Trayvon Martin. It might be St. Louis Rams players raising arms in a “hands up, don’t shot” gesture after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. It might be LeBron James or Kobe Bryant taking pregame warm-ups wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts — the last words of Eric Garner in New York City.
This time, it was the Sooners embracing their pulpit as campus leader, and rallying an entire college to stand up and express how that racist video is not what OU is about. The football team helped to shed light on the continuing problem of racism — not only there, but in America — but also to remind that racists are the tiny minority whose actions are repugnant to most of us.
The other reminder: that most of us need to say so whenever we can, not let it be assumed.
Coach Bob Stoops allowed his players to miss a few spring practices after the racist video became public. When they took the field again, the entire team, black players and white, locked arms in a show of solidarity. They had T-shirts made that declare ‘OUNITED’ on the front and ‘TOGETHER WE STAND’ on the back.
Stoops said of his team’s mindset, “Let’s try to do something with it and try to effect change. And I’m proud of the way they’ve done it.”
University president David L. Boren also acted swiftly, saying of those in the offensive video, “They’re misusing our name. This is not who we are, and we will not tolerate it.” The fraternity was booted off campus, its chapter disbanded by Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Two fraternity members in the video were expelled from OU.
Allow me a quick detour.
Why, in 2015, are there still fraternities and sororities in the first place associated with higher education? At worst, they are antiquated private clubs that can be a Petri dish for hazing and alcohol abuse (and, apparently, racism). At best, they are tantamount to exclusionary secret societies that foment cliques and an us-against-them mentality.
OK back to the column.
President Barack Obama called Oklahoma’s response to the racist video “heartening.”
The unspoken hero in all of this was the one person on that bus who was offended enough to record that video and make it public, snapping on the light switch that made the cockroaches scurry.
Exposing racism — and letting the racists see the broad, angry reaction to it — is essential to its systematic degradation. Racism awareness still is required; a half-century since the Selma-to-Montgomery march, we have not yet outgrown the need.
Stoops noted, “There’s no coaching manual for this. It’s a life issue, bigger than sports, bigger than football.”
It is a legal issue, too. Maybe even a Constitutional issue. Some have contended OU was wrong to expel those two students because free speech — even that which offends — is protected.
The legal scholars may be right. Hate crimes are against the law, but hate is not. Discriminating based on color is against the law, but wishing you could is not.
Laws might help, but society changes, and improves, based on the groundswell of consensus that divides right from wrong.
We can have laws against bullying, for example, but bullying is fought more effectively at a grassroots level. Bullying begins to be poisoned at its roots when the majority loudly rises up in that school hallway and intercedes. When it is the bully who is isolated, belittled, shouted down, outnumbered.
Likewise, in what happened at the University of Oklahoma, you are free to sing your racist chant on a bus in oblivious denial, as if you imagine the whole world is on your side, singing along.
Just be aware the vast majority of the world is not.
The country is not.
The campus is not.
Heck, not even everybody on that bus was.