“There will never be a n—— SAE,” the chant rang, as The Washington Post reported. “There will never be a n—– SAE/You can hang ’em from a tree, but it will never start with me/There will never be a n—– SAE.”
The chant was shocking — but also unsurprising. There’s nothing new about this sort of behavior in some predominantly white fraternities. Further, some on social media on Sunday night and Monday morning alleged there also wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about the chant itself. One Twitter user, who didn’t return requests for comment, wrote: “I was an SAE at a university in Texas from 2000-2004. The exact same chant was often used then. This is not isolated.”
Another person, writing in a Reddit thread nearly one month ago, referenced a chant similar to the one on the Sigma Alpha Epsilon bus while discussing initiation at the University of Texas. “For SAE context,” the person wrote, “a few buddies of mine told me [this was] their favorite song.”
Regardless of how widespread the chant is across the fraternity’s chapters, the reaction was swift. “Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s national headquarters has closed its Oklahoma chapter at the University of Oklahoma following the discovery of an inappropriate video,” the fraternity said in a statement. “In addition, all of the members have been suspended, and those members who are responsible for the incident may have their membership privileges revoked permanently.”
This isn’t the first time this fraternity has been subjected to such scrutiny over overtly racist acts. In 1992, Texas A&M University fined its chapter $1,000 after it threw a “jungle party” attended by frat brothers in blackface. Then in 2002, Syracuse University suspended its chapter after one of its members went to a bar in blackface. As recently as 2013, the fraternity got suspended following allegations it had photographed African American students while pledges recited rap lyrics laced with racial slurs.
Scholars who study the racial makeup of campus fraternities say such organizations are particularly prone for racial profiling and segregation because their founding ethos is often grounded in homogeneity. “Although law prohibits race-based exclusion in college sororities and fraternities in the United States,” wrote Matthew Hughey of Mississippi State University, “racial segregation prevails. As a result, nonwhite membership in white Greek-letter organizations is often hailed as a transformative step toward equality and unity.”
But such steps are more difficult for some frats than others. Sigma Alpha Epsilon is more than 100 years old and rooted in the Confederate South. The history and lineage of SAE is enmeshed with the tumultuous beginning of the Civil War, which erupted less than a decade after its founding. The frat’s Web site shows the organization, which got its start at the University of Alabama, had only 400 members at that point. And 369 of those students went to fight for the Confederate States.
The faces of these fraternities were deeply homogeneous in those years, wrote Hughey. “Until after World War II, U.S. Greek-letter societies reflected the dominant portion of the college population: white, male, Christian students of ‘proper breeding.’ ” According to the book “Price of Defiance,” about the integration of the University of Mississippi, the frats of the “Old South” during that period strictly subscribed to the norms of segregated life in the years following World War II. Some parties “emphasized the antebellum South, plantation life, and the Confederacy.” Other gatherings were called “jungle parties” or “voodoo parties,” and “students endorsed the prevailing racial stereotypes of African Americans.”
This reinforcement of an “us vs. them” paradigm can forge habits that are difficult to break. “The social structure of Greek segregation in this setting is self-perpetuating,” a study in the Journal of College Student Development said in 1994. “Although racial prejudice is a factor in the systemic exclusion of minorities, the root causes of racial separatism are systemic and endemic.”
A lot has clearly changed in the intervening decades, both in integration and the cultural abhorrence of racism. Even a brief survey of Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s history reveals an escalating severity of punishment meted out when allegations of racist behavior emerge. In 1992, a “jungle party” resulted in only a $1,000 fine. But on Sunday, within hours of a video hitting social media, a whole chapter was suspended.
But in some Southern universities, the practice of active segregation praised in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon video persisted as recently as 2013. That was when a University of Alabama student newspaper unveiled the shocking — and almost complete — segregation among the school’s sororities. “People are too scared of what the repercussions are of maybe taking a black girl,” sorority member Melanie Gotz told the newspaper. “That’s stupid, but who’s going to be the one to make that jump? How much longer is it going to take till we have a black girl in a sorority? It’s been years, and it hasn’t happened.”
The article spawned a national backlash, with the university moving to integrate the sororities within weeks of its publication. Many in the community expressed surprise at what seemed to be a university stuck inside a time warp, but Hughey said he wasn’t.
“It’s de jure illegal, but de facto in practice,” he told Inside Higher Ed. “The bigger point here is that the Greek letter system — all over the United States, not just in the deep South — has traditionally been based on exclusion. … We shouldn’t think organizations based on exclusions will all of a sudden become inclusive.”
The University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon sure hasn’t.
More from Morning Mix today: