Are white students learning how to hate on university campuses—or are students who already have a predilection to hate attracted to these fraternities that have been unearthed as bastions of racism?
Two recent developments raise the question of where the hate originates. The national office of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity has announced that the University of Oklahoma students who were caught on tape engaging in a racist chant actually learned it four years ago while attending an annual national leadership conference held by the fraternity. The SAE national office had originally tried to distance itself from the chant, alleging that it must have been just a University of Oklahoma chant. But in a statement released on Friday, the SAE national office said otherwise.
The OU chapter, SAE said, “likely learned a racist chant while attending a national leadership school about four years ago.”
In addition, on Friday the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division announced that a federal grand jury had indicted Graeme Phillip Harris of Alpharetta, Georgia, with threatening the Black students and employees of the University of Mississippi by hanging a noose around the neck of the James Meredith statue on campus in February 2014, along with an old Georgia state flag that includes the Confederate flag.
The incident had roiled the campus and led to three students being expelled, in addition to the school’s Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter being suspended. The national fraternity later closed the Ole Miss chapter after it learned of serious hazing.
“This shameful and ignorant act is an insult to all Americans and a violation of our most strongly-held values,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “No one should ever be made to feel threatened or intimidated because of what they look like or who they are. By taking appropriate action to hold wrongdoers accountable, the Department of Justice is sending a clear message that flagrant infringements of our historic civil rights will not go unnoticed or unpunished.”
Harris was indicted by a federal grand jury on one count of conspiracy to violate civil rights and one count of using a threat of force to intimidate African-American students because of their race or color. He was the only student charged thus far. According to the charging documents, Harris conspired with others to use the cover of darkness to hang the rope and the old Georgia state flag around the neck of the statue of James Meredith, who endured incredible hatred and hostility when he integrated the campus in 1962.
Harris, 20, was a freshman at Ole Miss after graduating in 2013 from Alpharetta High School, where he was the quarterback on the high school football team. Considering that he had only been on campus for about six months when he hung the noose, that’s strong evidence to suggest Harris must have arrived on campus—with his Confederate-emblazoned Georgia flag in tow—already with a mindset that would lead to him committing such a hate crime.
At the University of Oklahoma, president David Boren suggested that the members of the SAE fraternity are not “racists in their hearts.”
Boren read a statement indicating that the racist chant had become inculcated into the culture of the fraternity over the last several years. He said about a dozen high school students were exposed to the chant at the event that was caught on tape.
“Do I think these young men are racist in their hearts?” Boren said, recounting that members of the frat had met with African-American campus leaders to whom they apologized—and their apologies were accepted. “Do I think they’re proud of what they did? No. Do I think they’ll learn from what they did? I saw the results of what they learned and I heard their voices and I heard their words and I know they’ve learned lessons. I heard it this morning. Our purpose here is not to brand people with certain words for life. Our purpose is not to forget. Our purpose is to learn lessons and be held accountable and then move forward with their lives.”
Levi Pettit, the SAE frat member who met with members of the Black community and then held an actual press conference to offer his apology, had his contrition actually orchestrated by an Olivia Pope-style corporate crisis specialist, according to media reports. Levi’s parents, Brody and Susan Pettit, issued a statement in which they clearly want us to believe that he didn’t learn to hate at home.
“As parents of Levi, we love him and care for him deeply. He made a horrible mistake, and will live with the consequences forever. However, we also know the depth of our son’s character. He is a good boy, but what we saw in those videos is disgusting. While it may be difficult for those who only know Levi from the video to understand, we know his heart, and he is not a racist. We raised him to be loving and inclusive and we all remain surrounded by a diverse, close-knit group of friends.”
The statement said they apologize “to the community he has hurt. We would also like to apologize to the – entire African American community, University of Oklahoma student body and administration. Our family has the responsibility to apologize, and also to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Our words will only go so far – as a family, we commit to following our words with deeds.”
President Boren indicated that alcohol was flowing freely at the even when the students were recorded chanting about never having ni**ers in SAE, but that’s hardly an excuse for racism.
And while expelled Oklahoma student Parker Rice said the song was “taught to us,” fraternity Executive Director Blaine Ayers said the chant doesn’t reflect his frat at all.
“The song is horrific and does not at all reflect our values as an organization,” Ayers said. “If we find any other examples of this kind of behavior currently occurring, we will hold our members accountable, just as we’ve done in Oklahoma.”