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Oklahoma fraternity's racist chant may cost its black chef his job

The racist chant that got a whole fraternity banned and thrown off the University of Oklahoma’s campus on Monday in less than a day may have also cost a black man his job.

On Monday, an IndieGogo crowdfunding page has already raised more than $10,000 for the Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s chef, Howard Dixon, who “is going to lose his job because of a bus full of racist kids,” according to the page’s creator, Blake Burkhart, referring to a viral video that showed fraternity members on a bus participating in an anti-black chant.

Burkhart told the Los Angeles Times that “the crowdfunding site is an attempt to make the best of a bad situation and give Howard some financial stability while he is forced to look for a job due to circumstances outside of his control."

LATEST: University of Oklahoma ousts fraternity over racist chant caught on video

Punishment has been swift for SAE, which has seen several of its chapters accused of racial insensitivities in the past. Less than 24 hours after a black University of Oklahoma activist group tweeted a video of white SAE members engaged in a racist chant, university officials stripped the letters off the Sigma Alpha Epsilon building in Norman, Okla., on Monday and members were moving out.

A tipster texted the video of SAE members to the OU Unheard group, which got more than 4,000 retweets after sharing the footage on Sunday, tagging the university’s president and adding the message, “Racism is alive at The University of Oklahoma,” a representative for the group told The Times.

The video on Sunday night was also anonymously emailed to the Oklahoma Daily, the independent student newspaper on campus, according to Kate Bergum, a sophomore and assistant news editor, who said the paper has kicked into round-the-clock coverage since then.

On Sunday night, students organized a prayer circle on the campus' North Oval, outside the president's office, according to Andrew Clark, 19-year-old journalism sophomore and writer for the OU Daily. There were dozens of students there, late into the evening. Clark got there about 11 p.m. and said it lasted until after midnight. Students stood in circles, praying, and then got into a big circle.

"They prayed for everything, from the people affected by this situation to the people involved in the incident,” Clark said. “They prayed for their forgiveness and said they just want to move forward and have faith in God and let him take control of the situation."

University and national fraternity officials almost immediately shut down the university’s SAE chapter after the video went viral Sunday night. The university’s president on Monday, while announcing a separate investigation into individual fraternity members, vowed SAE would never return while he remained in charge – and nor would the university help the fraternity brothers find new housing.

Moving trucks circled the disgraced SAE house in Norman on Monday afternoon as maintenance workers stripped the letters off the building, according to local media reports.

Dozens of University of Oklahoma students had gathered on the campus of 30,000 on Monday morning before dawn to protest, with some carrying placards decrying racism. University President David Boren attended the protest, which was organized by OU Unheard, which bills itself as an “alliance of Black students organized for change within campus administration and atmosphere.”

Chelsea Davis, a 20-year-old junior and co-director for OU Unheard, told The Times that the tipster who sent the video to the group Sunday was not the person who shot the video, and the sender wanted to remain anonymous.

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

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."

After the video went viral, protesters began using the offensive lyrics as a hashtag, along with #SAEHatesMe. A separate video showing the chant has since emerged on Instagram, and a young man can be seen gesturing as if to block the camera’s view.

“If they didn’t think it was wrong, why did the guy try to cover the camera?” said Mariah Johnson, 21, a senior at OU and a representative of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, who called the incident “embarrassing.”

Johnson, who is black, added: “I actually am satisfied with the way the university responded to it. I don’t know if it wasn’t for social media making a big deal -- if it was just known to the university -- if the action would have gone to that extent. But I am happy to see a swift change.”

On Monday morning, Boren ordered that SAE members must clear out their belongings from the building by midnight Tuesday.

"Whether it’s casual conversation or other activities, any time there are racist remarks made, we must speak up as regular Americans,” Boren said at a Monday morning news conference, arguing that there must be “zero tolerance” for racism not just at the campus but across the country.

“As they pack their bags, I hope they think long and hard about what they’ve done. … The house will be closed. As far as I’m concerned it won’t be back, at least while I’m president of the university. It’s time we send messages that are very strong and very clear.”

Boren said the displaced fraternity students would have to find their own housing after getting kicked out, adding, “We don’t provide student services for bigots.”

Brad Cohen, president of the national chapter of SAE, said he was “disgusted and shocked” by the video and closed the chapter. In a statement, SAE said it was "embarrassed by this video" and 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."

SAE was founded before the Civil War, in 1856, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and prides itself on being “the only national fraternity founded in the antebellum South.” Nationwide there are more than 200 chapters and 15,000 undergraduate members.

Some student activists and observers have raised questions about whether the SAE chant was common, given that many young men on the bus shown in the video appeared to know it. In February, a Reddit user posted a message that had lyrics for an SAE chant similar to those shown in the Oklahoma video, with the user adding that “a few buddies of mine told me [it was] their favorite song to sing.” Others reported hearing similar versions of the song at fraternities in the South.

Also raising eyebrows Sunday night was a report that a Confederate flag could be seen through a window hanging inside the SAE house at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.

SAE’s history has occasionally been marked by reprimands for racially insensitive activities. An SAE chapter at Washington University in St. Louis was suspended in 2013 over a report that members had used the n-word to get a rise out of black people at a dining facility. In 1982, a University of Cincinnati chapter was suspended for holding a demeaning party to mark Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

The Oklahoma video caused an instant uproar on campus. In some tweets posted late Sunday, the fraternity house was shown with a spray-painted message, "tear it down," on its outside wall.

"People were flabbergasted by it and astounded and upset and hurt and angry," said Bergum, the student assistant news editor. "Really, the atmosphere we see on campus today, some students said they're not surprised by this event because they know institutional racism is a problem at OU. Everyone is saying they're really astounded that someone would be so blatant."

A large percentage of OU’s student body is part of the Greek system, and the organizations’ Greek letters are featured prominently on many cars on the campus. Some Greek houses are mansions, mostly clustered on College Avenue and Elm Avenue.

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

“I really believe my feelings are felt across the Greek community here at OU – black and white,” he said. “This shows that there’s so much work to be done and that racism and hateful sentiments are a well and alive.”

Flix said there has been some tension on campus, “But I think the tension comes as of late from what’s going on nationally with police brutality. This has woken people up and students on campus want to have their voices heard.”

There are “all sorts of micro-aggressions that you see as a black student … whether it’s being picked last for a group project or not receiving the same attention from professors in class. I think that takes place on campuses everywhere and black students feel and see it.”

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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