University of Oklahoma ousts fraternity over racist chant caught on video

University of Oklahoma ousts fraternity over racist chant caught on video

As moving trucks encircled the disgraced Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house Monday, workers unscrewed the group’s Greek lettering from above the door. It was a remarkably rapid dissolution of the long-standing University of Oklahoma fraternity chapter whose members were caught in a viral video singing a racist chant.

University President David Boren had wasted no time. The former U.S. senator and governor of this state severed all ties after watching the video, which an African American activist group on campus had gotten hold of and posted online. The chant heard in the video refers to lynching and uses a racial slur repeatedly. Boren gave members until midnight Tuesday to move out.

And with that, the venerable fraternity, born at the University of Alabama 159 years ago Monday and better known by its Greek letters, SAE, no longer had a chapter at OU. The proof was on social media, with a picture of the stately mansion that housed the fraternity, the face marred by a giant spray-painted message: “Tear it down.” And by midday, a search of the fraternity’s Norman location on Google maps already carried the notation: “Permanently Closed.”

By evening, the campus near the house was quiet but for the persistent rain pounding on the news trucks that lined the block. The house appeared dark and empty from the street. A red SAE flag still dangled from a second-story window.

At the nearby sorority Chi Omega, chapter president Sarah Tonseth said the school was uniting around SAE’s ouster and that a morning rally held to protest the video “helped bring everyone together.”

Indeed, before dawn Monday, less than 24 hours after the nation marked the 50th anniversary of the fateful civil rights march in Selma, Ala., dozens of students gathered on this campus of 30,000 to protest SAE, a national fraternity that openly celebrates its roots to the segregated antebellum South. Members have included golfer Bobby Jones, authors William Faulkner and Walker Percy, and pollster George Gallup. But SAE also has been hit hard by a series of suspensions for unacceptable behavior.

Boren attended the rally, as did a number of athletes, along with head football coach Bob Stoops and head basketball coach Lon Kruger. The event was organized by OU Unheard, the black student activist group that had posted the video. Chelsea Davis, a 20-year-old junior and co-director of the group, told The Times that a tipster sent the video to the group on Sunday but that it was not the person who shot the video.

In the video, young men wearing formal attire and gathered on a bus with dates can be heard chanting “you can hang ’em from a tree” but “there will never be a ... SAE,” and clapping in unison, to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

“They should expel these students for what they have done,” Davis, who is black, said of the chant.

A second video of the incident emerged Monday, and in it a young man can be seen gesturing as if to block the camera, evidence that further enraged black students. “If they didn’t think it was wrong, why did the guy try to cover the camera?” asked 21-year-old senior Maria Johnson, noting how the Internet outrage seemed to propel events.

Boren, who said he “was sickened” by the video, issued a statement. “To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you: You are disgraceful.”

He later announced a separate investigation was underway into individual fraternity members and vowed the chapter would remain banished as long as he was president. He also said the school would not help fraternity brothers find new housing.

“As they pack their bags, I hope they think long and hard about what they’ve done,” Boren said. “It’s time we send messages that are very strong and clear.”

Brad Cohen, SAE national president, said he was “disgusted and shocked” by the video, saying he played a role in the chapter’s closure. In a statement, SAE apologized to “anyone outside the organization who is offended, but also to our brothers who come from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities.”

Sigma Alpha Epsilon currently boasts 15,000 undergraduates in more than 215 campus chapters nationwide, with a living alumni base of more than 200,000.

In recent years, however, SAE chapters have been suspended or banned for incidents including student deaths during hazing at the University of Arizona and the forcing of pledges at the University of Iowa to visit sororities to sing “inappropriate” songs while wearing T-shirts with sexually offensive messages.

An SAE member quit the chapter at the University of Memphis in 2006 after two frat members harassed him for dating a black woman. In 2009, the fraternity’s national headquarters chastised its chapter at Valdosta State University in Georgia for flying a Confederate flag on its front lawn. At Washington University in St. Louis, SAE brothers in 2013 sang racist slurs to African Americans students. And last year, the fraternity’s chapter at Clemson University hosted a “Cripmas” party — after the California-based Crips street gang.

The University of Oklahoma chapter was suspended in 1989 following allegations of physical and mental harassment, alcohol misconduct and violation of state laws.

In 2013, the Oklahoma Daily student newspaper reported that the fraternity was asking pledges such questions as “Are you gay?” “What is your favorite porn site?” and “What is your favorite condom?”

Civil rights groups on Monday expressed outrage at the fraternity’s conduct, but in particular the two videos.

“It’s extremely distressing,” said Heidi Beirich, who tracks hate groups for the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s one thing to hear about a backwoods Klansman using the N-word, but an entirely different thing to have supposedly well-educated university students stooping to this kind of behavior. They should know better.”

Historian Nicholas Syrett, author of the book “The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities,” said that most fraternities were formed on an exclusive basis, fostering a “We vs. They” mentality. “Most frats were originally all white,” he said. “When students of color came to universities, many groups wrote clauses to bar them from membership. And while the clauses are gone, some remain all white.”

A large percentage of University of Oklahoma students belong to fraternities, and many are aware that “institutional racism is a problem at OU,” said Kate Bergum, an editor at the Oklahoma Daily student paper. But they were also “astounded that someone would be so blatant.”

Christopher Flix agreed. “To see the excitement and enthusiasm in these students’ voices as they chanted this song of hate is horrible,” said the vice president of Alpha Phi Alpha, a black fraternity.

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FOR THE RECORD

March 10, 6:42 a.m.: An earlier version of this article gave the name of the vice president of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity as Charles Flix. His name is Christopher Flix.

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The video had at least one unforeseen victim. Howard Dixon, the chef at the fraternity, may lose his job now that the students are gone.

One Norman resident, Blake Burkhart, started a Web page to collect funds for Dixon. As Burkhart put it, the chef “is going to lose his job because of a bus full of racist kids.”

Times staff writer Duara reported from Norman, Okla.; Glionna from Las Vegas; and Branson-Potts and Pearce from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Matthew Teague in Fairhope, Ala., and Kurtis Lee in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

 

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