Five years before the racist video by the disgraced Oklahoma University fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon ignited a firestorm of student and public rage, hundreds of students and faculty members were up in arms over the “Compton Cook Out” at the University of California, San Diego and several other UC campuses. The protests didn’t stop racist, bad behaving fraternities from being just that, racist, bad behaving fraternities. In quick succession, there was the “Halloween in the Hood” party, the lynching parties, and the Klan frolic at other universities. Then there’s the standard variety of hanging nooses, white hoods, racist graffiti, racial slurs and taunts that have been aimed at minority students. The colleges that have been called on the carpet for the racist acts read like a who’s who of American higher education. Clemson University, Auburn, Lehigh, Tarleton State, Texas A&M, University of Texas, Austin, University of Connecticut, Johns Hopkins, Whitman College, Arizona State University, Columbia University, the University of Chicago, Duke University, Dartmouth, and Randolph-Macon, to name a handful.
The pattern is always the same after a racist outburst. Teary-eyed, enraged students confront campus officials. The officials, in turn, issue the obligatory indignant denunciation of the racial offense. A legislator or two may chime in with equal indignation. A fingered lily white fraternity will issue a quick statement disavowing any knowledge or responsibility for the racist act of a few of their members. If students squawk loud and long enough, campus officials will convene campus wide sensitivity sessions where students vent and rage at the administrators and at each other.
If the students continue to squawk, campus officials will pledge to institute new diversity training, recruit more minority students, and hire more minority teachers and administrators, and maybe even an ombudsman. University of Oklahoma President David Boren to his credit went one better, and gave SAE the quick boot and implicitly challenged other college presidents to have a tough, zero-tolerance policy toward any racist displays by frats on their campuses.
Boren’s action, though, may not be much more than a right acting action by one college president. The brutal reality for many college presidents is that time, promises, and token efforts to change won’t magically make the hate and ignorance that spawned the racial offenses at their schools disappear. The propensity of some students to slander, slur, mock and insult black and Latino students mirrors the hate acts that occur virtually daily in society.
Meanwhile campus officials wring their hands about the paucity of black and Latino students at many of the nation’s top colleges. In the last decade, admissions officers at a large number of major universities report significant drops in the number of incoming freshmen at universities in nearly every area of the country. The gut and elimination of affirmative action programs, shrinking financial aid, soaring tuition, and half-hearted to non-existent recruitment and outreach efforts at local minority high schools have been the big factors in the plunge in black and Latino students at many campuses.
However, even when black student enrollment at a state university is on par with the percentage of blacks in the state’s general population, there’s no assurance that fraternities will be any more diverse in their membership, let alone show any enlightened racial sensitivity. Oklahoma University is a textbook example of that. The percentage of black students there are exactly in line with the state’s overall black population.
College presidents are undoubtedly well-intentioned, genuinely offended by the despicable acts of some frats, and really want to see more student diversity at their schools. But good intentions, ritual denunciations and diversity workshops are not enough. Many campus officials have been loath to take the one step, that Boren did, that will send a real message that hate on campus won’t be tolerated. That step is to name the offending students, and then take immediate and firm disciplinary action against them as well as race-baiting fraternities and other organizations. This could be suspension, expulsion, sanctions, and even prosecutions.
The failure of campus officials to take tough disciplinary action against hate acts sends the subtle message that these acts rank only slightly more grievous than student panty raids, water balloon fights, and stuffing telephone booths. It’s just a case of boys will be boys, and girls girls, little harm, and maybe no foul, at least not enough a of a foul to get a student or an organization booted from campus.
Protesting Oklahoma students and a no-nonsense university president took swift and forceful action against the hate on their campus. But what happens when there is no over the top, outrageous racist video that goes viral to stir student and public wrath? Will college presidents and officials take the same decisive and forceful action as Boren did to end racist frat antics? We’ll see.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson