After apologies from two University of Oklahoma students for a racist chant that went viral online, Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s national chapter objected to their statements that they had been “taught” the song and said they are investigating reports from other campuses that the chant has been heard elsewhere.
Because the fraternity is one of the country’s largest, with 15,000 members and 200,000 alumni, some have expressed concerns that it might have been spreading a racist message through old traditions, while others were adamant that the video reflected only on those students involved, not the fraternity at large.
The song, which included a lynching reference and the fraternity’s nickname and was exuberantly chanted on a bus by SAE brothers wearing tuxedos, was caught on video and ignited outrage and a national debate about race relations and Greek life.
The incident was was swiftly condemned by the national head of SAE, which immediately shuttered the OU chapter and suspended all of the chapter’s members. The president of the University of Oklahoma also had a strong reaction to the video, expelling two students who appeared in it, Parker Rice and Levi Pettit.
Bob Rice, Parker Rice’s father, sent the Dallas Morning News a statement from his son that included this: “I know everyone wants to know why or how this happened. I admit it likely was fueled by alcohol consumed at the house before the bus trip, but that’s not an excuse. Yes, the song was taught to us, but that too doesn’t work as an explanation.”
Brody and Susan Pettit, parents of the other student, wrote on a Web site late Tuesday that what their son did was “disgusting” but that it shouldn’t define him.
But SAE’s leadership disputed some of their words:
“In separate statements, the two men who have been expelled from the university have mentioned that the song was ‘taught to us.’ However, as has been maintained in previous statements, the national fraternity does not teach such a racist, hateful chant, and this chant is not part of any education or training.
“Our investigation has found very likely that the men learned the song from fellow chapter members, which reiterates why Sigma Alpha Epsilon did not hesitate to close the chapter completely because of the culture that may have been fostered in the group.”
On social media, some people posted messages that they had heard the same chant elsewhere.
— Neetzan Zimmerman (@neetzan) March 9, 2015
Dylan Merriman told Buzzfeed he had heard it at an SAE rush event at Louisiana Tech in 2010.
“Louisiana Tech University is unaware of this incident nor does it have any report of it having taken place in 2010,” according to a statement provided by Dave Guerin, a spokesman for the school. “This type of reprehensible and destructive behavior is not tolerated from anyone attending or associated with our institution. Louisiana Tech works diligently and with all members of our campus community to create an engaging culture and a safe environment, and we will fight to preserve that opportunity for all students, faculty, and staff.”
At the University of Texas, Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly said in a statement that her office was contacted about allegations of similar behavior on the campus in Austin. “We connected with local chapter leadership yesterday, who confirmed they do not perform the chant or anything similar. They also confirmed never having heard the chant before and stated such behavior had no place in their organization.
“Our office is also reaching out to former and current students involved with SAE for a more complete review. Answering questions about past behavior may take time, but we wanted to let the community know right now that our local chapter of SAE reports no awareness of the chant and expresses strong disapproval of it.”
SAE’s national leaders said they were investigating reports of past incidents and would take action if needed. The leadership “has engaged with members of the African-American community and others who have reached out to the organization to build a partnership that will address the need for additional training, awareness and resources on cultural and diversity issues. The fraternity is dedicated to making sure that its members are model citizens and leaders as part of their membership experience but also to understanding how SAE can improve its relationship with men and women of all ethnicities, heritages and nationalities.
“With regard to alumni who serve on the chapter’s house corporation board and who served as advisers, these gentlemen are appalled by the video and the song that was sung in it. They do not condone offensive and hateful behavior and will hold accountable the men who participated in the incident.”
The local OU chapter’s alumni board also helped the house’s longtime chef, Howard Dixon, a black man who lost his job when the house was shut down, find a new job. An SAE alumnus launched a fundraising campaign for him, which has brought in more than $60,000 as of Wednesday.