Today few things move as fast as a viral video and the public reaction it provokes. Such was the case with the justifiable revulsion to a clip of University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers chanting racist slurs.
Several SAE members — dressed, but certainly not acting, formally — were captured chanting a virulently racist vow to never accept a black member into the fraternity. The chant included an ugly allusion to lynching.
The public condemnation was swift, both in social media and in more official forums. Belying the deliberate pace of most public officials, Oklahoma University President David Boren acted with admirable alacrity. Boren, a former Democratic governor and U.S. senator from Oklahoma, quickly ordered that the fraternity be shut down. Boren expelled two students identified in the video, citing the “leadership role in leading racist and exclusionary chant, which has created a hostile educational environment for others.” Previously, Boren had unequivocally condemned the behavior. “To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you: You are disgraceful,” he said.
Those free-speech rights, even for such vulgar racism, may end up legally protecting the students from expulsion, some scholars argue. If the students sue for reinstatement, they deserve their day in court. But Boren’s fast action was warranted to quell campus anger over the incident and to send a clear message about OU’s values. Universities need such leaders.
America has come a long way in overcoming its tortured history of toxic racism. It has elected a black president — twice. And just last weekend the moral and physical courage of those who marched in Selma 50 years ago was rightly commemorated. But Americans must not be complacent. Racism lives on, even among the young, as evidenced by this ugly episode.