The University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon racism incident occurred on March 7, 2015, when University of Oklahoma (OU) Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) members were filmed performing a racially insensitive song that used the word "nigger", referenced lynching, and implied that black students would never be admitted to the fraternity.
After a video of the incident was published, the SAE chapter was closed and two of its members expelled.
Incidents recorded on video
On March 7, 2015, videos were recorded while fraternity members and their dates were riding on a chartered bus to an event celebrating the national organization's Founder's Day. In the video the students are heard singing a chant to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It". The chant begins with the refrain, "There will never be a nigger at SAE", which is followed by the lyrics, "You can hang him from a tree, but he'll never sign with me", followed again by the refrain.
The video of the incident was reported on by The Oklahoma Daily on Sunday March 8, and also posted online by student group OU Unheard.
An additional video emerged showing the fraternity's house mother, Beauton Gilbow, using a racial slur while singing along to a rap song at the fraternity in 2013. Gilbow later stated that she was singing along at the time to rapper Trinidad James' song "All Gold Everything", which heavily uses the same racial pejorative, and apologized for any offense.
SAE chapter suspended
On March 8, 2015, the national office of Sigma Alpha Epsilon closed the OU Chapter house, and OU officials gave SAE members until the end of March 10, 2015 to move out.
On March 10, OU Facilities Management removed the fraternity's Greek letters from the house. They later put a padlock on the facility's gate, blocked off the parking lot with barriers and caution tape and changed the locks.
At a March 18 press conference, the national SAE office apologized and vowed to promote diversity. The fraternity strongly denied that members had been taught the song, and stated they were investigating additional racist incidents. Elsewhere, the University of Texas said it was looking into claims the chant was used by SAE members there.
University of Oklahoma president David Boren expelled two students, Levi Pettit and Parker Rice, who he said "played a leadership role" in creating "a hostile learning environment for others." The action taken by the university was based on school's Student Rights & Responsibilities Code. In a letter to the students, Boren stated "As president of the University of Oklahoma acting in my official capacity, I have determined that you should be expelled from this university effective immediately," and "You will be expelled because of your leadership role in leading a racist and exclusionary chant which has created a hostile educational environment for others."
The LA Times reported that Boren appeared to be alluding to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bans racial discrimination at universities receiving federal money. However, the expulsions may have been a violation of the students' first amendment rights. First Amendment law specialist and UCLA Law professor Eugene Volokh asserted that President Boren's actions were unconstitutional. Oklahoma State University media law associate professor Joey Senat stated that the chant was offensive but is still protected free speech.Glenn Reynolds, a Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee, expressed the opinion that as a former U.S. senator, Boren should have known that the university was breaking the law in expelling the two students. A Washington Post article reported that a Sigma Chi Fraternity successfully challenged similar action taken against them by George Mason University in 1992.
On March 13, alumni on the board of OU's SAE chapter hired civil rights attorney Stephen Jones to look into the legal issues involving the chapter’s suspension and eviction of members from its fraternity house at OU campus. The national office of SAE stated that it was not involved in retaining Mr. Jones and was unaware of his intentions, and that board officials with the OU local chapter had stopped communicating with them since the chapter was closed on March 9.
On March 25, one of the students, Parker Rice, expelled for his involvement in the chant, apologized publicly for his actions.
In response to the video the Oklahoma Sooners college football team held arm-in-arm protest vigils instead of attending practice.
Several news media reports highlighted the fact that SAE, which was founded before the American Civil War in the antebellum south, had a history of discriminatory incidents.
Robby Soave of the Reason Foundation wrote that the OU had failed to expel a freshman football player "caught on tape punching a female student in the face" in 2014. He concluded, "if anybody was going to be railroaded off campus without so much as a hearing, you would think it might be perpetrators of actual violence, rather than perpetrators of offensive speech (which is not actually a category of crime)."
Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe television show blamed the fraternity brothers' use of the word on hip hop music.
Actor and Delta Tau Delta alum Will Ferrell said the incident might be an argument to end the entire college fraternity system. "The incident in Oklahoma, that is a real argument for getting rid of the system altogether, in my opinion, even having been through a fraternity," he told the New York Times.
Beginning in 2015, first year students and faculty have been required to take a five-hour course on diversity. Although several news outlets have connected the training to the chanting video, the course was announced in January, prior to the incident, in connection with a rumors of a "Cowboy and Indians" theme party being planned by a different fraternity.
Chapter house repurposed
On March 10, 2015, OU regained priority over the property. The former chapter house was leased to SAE by OU and was not SAE property. Instead, the chapter house had always been under the ownership of the University.
The outer wall of the building was vandalized with black spray paint on the day of the incident, and was promptly removed by the University.
At the beginning of the 2016 academic semester, the former SAE chapter house became the location for OU's University Community Center, which houses the Disability Resource Center (DRC) and the Student Veterans Association. The seizure of the fraternity house became an opportunity for the DRC to expand, since the center was previously a small wing at Goddard Health Center and had been searching for a location to expand to.
Within the Student Veterans Association's lounge, there is a small exhibit apart of the Henderson Scholars Program in the lower lobby of the former chapter house, to notable university alumni such as Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher who performed a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement in Oklahoma.
- ^"University of Oklahoma president evicts Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers from campus frat house after racist video". New York Daily News.
- ^"Fraternity Caught on Video Singing Racist Song". InsideHigherEd.com. Retrieved March 12, 2015.
- ^"Oklahoma fraternity's 'racists and bigots' condemned as protests grow". The Guardian. 9 March 2015.
- ^"As Two Oklahoma Students Are Expelled for Racist Chant, Sigma Alpha Epsilon Vows Wider Inquiry". The New York Times. 2015-03-11. Retrieved 2015-03-11.
- ^"Fraternity 'Mom' Is 'Heartbroken' Over Video That Shows Her Singing N-Word". Talking Points Memo. 2015-03-11. Retrieved 2015-03-11.
- ^McLaughlin, Eliott C. (March 10, 2015). "'Disgraceful' University of Oklahoma fraternity shuttered after racist chant". CNN. Retrieved March 13, 2015.
- ^ ab"Parker Rice identified as student expelled from OU after racist chant". OU Daily. 2015-03-10. Retrieved 2015-03-10.
- ^"Sigma Alpha Epsilon members remove last of their belongings from frat house". OU Daily. 2015-03-11. Retrieved 2015-03-11.
- ^"Sigma Alpha Epsilon Apology Announcement: SAE Fraternity Vows To Promote Diversity After Racist Chant Video". IBT. 18 March 2015.
- ^"Sigma Alpha Epsilon says it's investigating additional racist 'incidents'". The Washington Post. 11 March 2015.
- ^"Racist fraternity chant may not be limited to University of Oklahoma". LA Times. 11 March 2015.
- ^"University Of Oklahoma Racist Fraternity Video: 2 SAE Students Expelled For 'Leadership Role'". International Business Times. 10 March 2015.
- ^"Levi Pettit, Ex-OU Student in SAE Racist Chant Video, 'Deeply Sorry'". NBC News. March 25, 2015. Retrieved March 25, 2015.
- ^"Student Rights and Responsibilities Code 2014-2015"(PDF). University of Oklahoma. September 19, 2011. Retrieved March 11, 2015.
- ^Feldman, Noah (2015-03-11). "Balancing the First Amendment vs. racist chants at the University of Oklahoma". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 14 March 2015.
- ^ abc"Is University of Oklahoma frat's racist chant protected by 1st Amendment?". LA Times. 10 March 2015.
- ^Volokh, Eugene (10 March 2015). "No, a public university may not expel students for racist speech". The Volokh Conspiracy. The Washington Post. Retrieved 10 March 2015.
- ^"Expelled University of Oklahoma student in racist chant video 'deeply sorry'". Los Angeles Times. 10 March 2015. Retrieved 10 March 2015.
- ^Glenn Harlan Reynolds (2015-03-17). "OU broke the law to avoid bad press". USA Today. Retrieved 2015-03-20.
- ^Terrence McCoy (2015-03-11). "Why expelled Oklahoma frat boys would have an 'excellent chance' in court". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-03-17.
- ^Ohlheiser, Abby (13 March 2015). "Sigma Alpha Epsilon 'not ruling out a lawsuit' against Oklahoma University, says lawyer". Washington Post. Retrieved 13 March 2015.
- ^"Statement in Response to March 13 Stephen Jones Press Conference". SAE Media Statement. 2015-03-13. Retrieved 2015-03-13.
- ^"Oklahoma fraternity chapter hires high-profile attorney". The Detroit News. 2015-03-13. Retrieved 2015-03-13.
- ^Eversley, Melanie (25 March 2015). "Expelled University of Oklahoma student offers apology". USA Today. Retrieved 25 March 2015.
- ^"SAE video scandal could galvanize Sooners". ESPN. 16 March 2015.
- ^"The Ugly, Racist, Deadly History of Sigma Alpha Epsilon". Slate. March 2015.
- ^"University of Oklahoma fraternity has history of racist incidents elsewhere". Christian Science Monitor. 14 March 2015.
- ^"Fraternity in Racist Video Has Roots in Antebellum South". The New York Times. 11 March 2015.
- ^Robby Soave, Oklahoma U. Expels Racist Students, But Not Violent Football Players, Reason Foundation, March 12, 2015
- ^Meg Wagner, ‘Morning Joe’ hosts blame racist Sigma Alpha Epsilon video on rap music, The New York Daily News, March 11, 2015
- ^Janet Allon (2015-03-12). "Jon Stewart Destroys 'Morning Joe' and Fox for Blaming Racism on Rap". AlterNet. Retrieved 2015-03-23.
- ^Murphy, Mekado (March 17, 2015). "SXSW 2015: Will Ferrell Discusses Fraternities, 'Get Hard' and More". New York Times. Retrieved April 4, 2015.
- ^Bennett, Brittney (January 28, 2015). "Alleged "Cowboys and Indians" party prompts mandatory diversity trainings". OU Daily. Retrieved 16 June 2015.
- ^Crabtree, Trent (June 11, 2015). "U. of Oklahoma to instate mandatory diversity course". USA Today. Retrieved June 16, 2015.
- ^"Univ. of Oklahoma to require incoming students to take diversity class". WBAY.com. Associated Press. June 8, 2015. Retrieved June 16, 2015.
- ^ abreporter, Mary Smith, news. "OU's former SAE house will hold a new center that promotes inclusion". OU Daily. Retrieved 2017-09-25.
- ^"Oklahoma Daily: Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house vandalized after chapter closure". NewsOK.com. 2015-03-09. Retrieved 2017-09-25.
- ^"Disability Resource Center". www.ou.edu. Retrieved 2017-09-25.
- ^reporter, Madison Albertson, news. "OU Student Veterans Association opens lounge in former SAE house". OU Daily. Retrieved 2017-09-25.
Coordinates: 35°12′25″N97°26′43″W / 35.20694°N 97.44528°W / 35.20694; -97.44528
There are problems within Greek letter organizations, and as a chapter president for one of those organizations, I do not deny this. Incidents that have occurred at UCLA as well as all over the nation indicate the Greek community must accept that changes must be made.
To help our Greek community address these issues, we must first recognize the actions that have been taken, and be mindful to not associate the problems in a few chapters with the entire Greek system.
Actions that have been taken by the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life to address racism and ignorance in our community include presentations by the Anti-Defamation League and Alliance through Intergroup Dialogue, which our chapter presidents and council presidents attended.
The workshop by the ADL tackled the topics of language, anti-bias, cultural sensitivity, cultural appropriation, how organizations can be more mindful in their interactions with their members and the structuring of their events. The workshop by the Alliance through Intergroup Dialogue challenged our Greek leaders to explore their relationships with identity, race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and disability status.
A specific task force called B.R.I.D.G.E., or Building Respectable Inclusive Diverse Greeks Equitably, is also beginning to help with addressing these matters within our community.
The Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life continues to equip students, through active participation, with knowledge and skills in helping to create and contribute to a diverse society. The structure of monthly, two-hour chapter president meetings has been completely altered to become a forum for Greek leaders to explore how the leadership can acknowledge inequalities within the community, and work to upend the traditional power structure between many of our councils.
I am not a student of color on this campus, therefore I do not feel I can evaluate whether the actions that have been taken are sufficient or in the right direction. However, while the steps taken by the Greek community may be small, I do believe they need to be acknowledged and encouraged by the UCLA community in order for change to continue.
I also feel we must change the way we talk about Greek life.
“The use of stereotypes to fuel social rituals is by no means exclusive to Greek life, but is worryingly endemic in the sprawling social organizations affiliated with and sponsored by the university,” said a recent Daily Bruin editorial.
Yes, there were incidents in our Greek community that showed unsettling ignorance of Greek life members. But these incidents occurred in three of our Greek organizations: Alpha Phi, Sigma Phi Epsilon, and Pi Kappa Phi. These are three of the 65 current Greek letter organizations on campus, or only 4 percent. Yet, the authors of the article feel that racism is worryingly endemic among all organizations.
When members of the UCLA community lump all members Greek life together, it perpetuates the idea that Greek life must lack the diversity needed to facilitate cultural awareness of its members. This could not be further from the truth. Many students may not realize that UCLA has a long-standing history of culturally-based Greek letter organizations. The first Greek organization at UCLA was Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., a historically African-American sorority and member of the National Pan-Hellenic Council. The National Pan-Hellenic Council, Multi-Interest Greek Council, Latino Greek Council and Asian Greek Council comprise half of our Greek organizations on campus, yet they are routinely forgotten and the diversity they bring to our community is ignored.
It is obvious that increasing diversity in Greek life will help the community grow stronger and more aware of our unique cultural histories, and therefore help to prevent issues such as the “Kanye Western” raid and ignorant statements in the Pi Kappa Phi minutes.
However, when prospective Bruins – especially minority students – see articles that present UCLA Greek life in such a negative light, why would they want to join a Greek organization? When all six Greek councils are treated as one mass of racism and intolerance, why would students take the time to explore our 33 culturally-based Greek letter organizations?
I agree that choosing to be in Greek life puts you in a spotlight that necessitates showing your values outwardly and constantly. I agree that the actions of three of our chapters in the last year have caused members of our community to doubt the integrity of Greek life on our campus. I agree we should be encouraging our Greek leaders to push for change in our community, but I also believe that to accomplish this we must encourage the small steps that have been made, and not continue a rhetoric of demonizing all of our 65 Greek organizations for the actions of a few.
Ansazi Levy is a third-year communications student and president of Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi.