Two Students Expelled After Racist Video at University of Oklahoma

March 9th 2015

It's been awhile since a positive story about fraternities hit the news cycle, but the response to fraternity racism at the University of Oklahoma could be a step in the right direction. After a video showing members of the college's Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity singing racial slurs hit the Internet on Sunday, SAE's national headquarters shut down Oklahoma's chapter, and the university president called members of the fraternity "disgraceful" and ordered them to leave the house by midnight on Monday.

University of Oklahoma President David Boren tweeted Tuesday morning that he'd expelled two fraternity brothers involved in the chant:

The clip, which entails students belting out the words, "There will never be a ni**** in SAE, you can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me," was posted on YouTube by black student community Unheard to expose racism on the University of Oklahoma campus.

A second video was also released and shows a student trying to stop the person behind the camera from recording:

While much of the Internet expressed happiness over the two guys getting kicked out of school, Legal Scholar Eugene Volokh wrote in a column for the Washington Post that public universities cannot, in fact, expel people for racist speech, which remains protected under the constitution. Even though the language was in poor taste, no one was outright threatened, so their speech shouldn't technically get them ousted from the institution. 

After the OU controversy spread like wildfire on Monday, William Bruce James II, who was a black member of SAE during his time at the university, spoke to a local news channel about his thoughts on the matter, "I never heard anything like that while I was there. My brothers wouldn’t have allowed it ... That song wouldn’t have been sung."

But the fact that everyone knew the words made him think that racism at the fraternity has been a problem for a while. He went on to say the experience has destroyed his sense of brotherhood in the fraternity, “I feel like I’ve lost a family member. That pure bond of brotherhood, I don’t know if I’ll ever get that back.”

In a Sunday tweet with a link to the clip, Unheard first brought the behavior to Boren's attention, and he immediately responded with disapproval of the fraternity's actions:

Boren expressed disappointment and disgust with the fraternity in a tweet published Monday morning:

"To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you. You are disgraceful. You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves 'Sooners.' Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect. Real Sooners love each other and take care of each other like family members. Effective immediately, all ties and affiliations between the university and the local SAE chapter are hereby severed. I direct that the house be closed and that members will remove their personal belongings from the house by midnight tomorrow. Those needing to make special arrangements for positions shall contact the Dean of Students. All of us will redouble our efforts to create the strongest sense of family and community. We vow that we will be an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue. There must be a zero tolerance for racism everywhere in our nation."

SAE's national HQ shut down Oklahoma's chapter before Boren could even finish the investigation, writing in a statement on SAE Oklahoma's chapter website:

"We apologize for the unacceptable and racist behavior of the individuals in the video, and we are disgusted that any member would act in such a way. Furthermore, we are embarrassed by this video and offer our empathy not only to anyone outside the organization who is offended but also to our brothers who come from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities. This type of racist behavior will not be tolerated and is not consistent with the values and morals of our fraternity. We have more than 15,000 collegiate members across the nation, and this incident should not reflect on other brothers because this type of hateful action is not what Sigma Alpha Epsilon stands for. This is absolutely not who we are."

The statement ended with regret over having to close up shop at Oklahoma, but added that the fraternity could very well "re-establish the Oklahoma Kappa chapter at some point in the future with a group of men who exemplify our beliefs and who serve as leaders on campus and in the community."

Early Monday morning, swarms of students and faculty members gathered in protest of SAE, carrying signs, chanting, and sharing their thoughts about the video on Post-It notes:

SAE has been labeled the "deadliest fraternity" as more members have passed away in SAE-related events than in any other existing fraternity. SAE has also been condemned nationwide for questionable, dangerous, and degrading hazing practices. Just last month, Yale banned SAE for violating sexual misconduct rules.

Following the OU controversy, SAE started a diversity initiative to improve its nationwide image. “Today I want to apologize on behalf of our Fraternity for the pain this situation has caused,” SAE Executive Director Blaine Ayers said in a statement. “The words were offensive and harmful, and we now must begin the task of seeking forgiveness and taking steps to ensure this never happens again.” SAE plans to hire a director of diversity and inclusion, make diversity education a requirement for all members and associates, launch an anonymous tip line to report inappropriate behavior of fraternity members, and launch an advisory committee focused on inclusion and diversity.

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