If this Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon scandal has taught us anything, it’s that the truth can be even more shocking than satire.
Witness the gleeful, celebratory, “all-together-now” singing of formal-clad youths chanting loathsome words, led with finger-wagging, classical elan by a joyful conductor.
Set that next to the South Carolina frat boys scene from Borat. Sacha Baron Cohen plied three bros with unlimited booze and pseudo-drunkenly fed them a barrage of leading questions and still was only able to elicit responses not a tenth as bad as this footage. If someone set out to make an hour-long propaganda film aiming for the destruction of the entire American Greek system, they could scarcely have improved on this ten seconds of real-life action.
There’s the whole sense that the chant is well-practiced, a vibe that these students—male and female—are reveling in a comfortable tradition. There’s the clear affluence on display, as indicated by their formal attire and the fact that the bus was en route to an exclusive country club.
A propagandist—or parodist—could do little to improve on that, nor the name of the video’s “star”: Dallas Jesuit grad Parker Rice, who has the perfect frat villain name and a prep school background, to boot. Levi Pettit, one of Rice’s SAE brothers also caught on camera, is a grad of Dallas’s elite public high school Highland Park, where he starred on the golf course, and his involvement did little to dispel stereotypes of those raised in “The Bubble” of affluence and privilege.
This is not to single out OU, SAE, or South Carolina. Well, maybe SAE a little bit. More than two weeks before this video broke, a poster on Austin Reddit’s page wrote that he had heard a very similar, albeit slightly less horrifying song from ex-friends of his who were SAEs at “a Texas university.” This version drops n-bombs just as freely, but uses “Abe set ’em free” instead of “you can hang ’em from a tree” to set up just who “will never be an SAE.” UT’s dean of students, Soncia Reagins-Lilly, is looking into claims that it was chanted at UT’s chapter, and the chapter president has issued a statement denying that the song was sung by or even known to its members. Barring video evidence, it’s doubtful that the matter will be proved one way or the other.
The Austin Reddit commenter was responding to another UT frat race scandal: the sharing of a photo (posted to Flickr in 2007) of what was purported to be rules for the conduct of pledges to UT’s chapter of Phi Gamma Delta, or “Fiji.” (The chapter disavows the document’s authenticity.) While many of those rules were innocuous or even quasi-parental (no drunk driving or smoking), others were blatantly racist and/or homophobic: “No Interracial Dating,” “No MEXICANS,” “NO FAGETRY.” [SIC] And the image of those rules was posted in response to yet another racist UT frat controversy, one that came only last month and also involved Fiji—perhaps the school’s wealthiest and most prestigious fraternity. That was when the [alleged] “NO MEXICANS” frat hosted faux-Mexicans in a “border-patrol themed” party featuring guests in ponchos, sombreros, and serapes or dressed as construction workers.
Such events have a long history at UT (and across America) and seem somehow impervious to changing racial attitudes beyond Greek Row.
SAE has been implicated often. Outside of the Kappa Alpha Order, no fraternity makes more of its Southern heritage than SAE. It was founded at the University of Alabama before the Civil War, making it the oldest fraternity with Southern origins. Of its first 400 members, 369 fought for the Confederacy. At the big state schools in the South and Southwest, it has long had a reputation for traditionalism, the affluence of its members, boozing excessively (even by frat standards), and hazing. Those last two earned it the sobriquet America’s deadliest frat in 2013. (To be fair, it’s also one of the largest frats, so sheer number of members played into that dubious “honor.”)
Hazing also brought about the shutdown of Oklahoma’s SAE chapter in 1989, and it didn’t see new life until 1995, when Houstonian Jay Vinekar, a transfer to OU from the Boston University chapter, reinvinted the chapter as more of a reflection of inclusive, modern-day Houston than a genuflection to the Southern past.
Vinekar’s SAE was not the sort of fraternity where racist chants were tolerated:
“I am an Indian-American. We had other South Asians. We had Asians. We had Hispanics. We had African-Americans, Native Americans. We accepted everyone into the house who believed in what we were trying to build,” he said.
Vinekar said this chapter tried to break the mold of the stereotypes associated with Greek organizations, part of that was diversity.
“And never when I was at the house was racism or bigotry accepted or even present in the house because we were such a diverse group of individuals from all walks of life, all eternities, all religions, all socioeconomic backgrounds,” Vinekar said.
Vinekar worked with this fraternity up until 2002. He says there was a culture of diversity up until that time.
Yet by 2015, it had reverted to a grotesque caricature of every nightmarish fraternity stereotype. All-white. All-privileged. Not just casually racist but joyfully so. (Vinekar’s eloquent statement is well-worth reading in full.)
In the aftermath of its “border-patrol party,” Fiji skated away from any meaningful official repercussions. There were student protests, but the UT administration cited freedom of speech and the fact that the party was not held on campus in arguing that it had no jurisdiction over the matter. However, OU president David Boren was not constrained by the fact that the incident there occurred under the same circumstances. Yes, he conceded, the SAEs had freedom of speech, but that freedom comes with consequences, whether it was chanted on campus or off, and those consequences were severe indeed: the immediate shutdown of the chapter and eviction of the frat house’s residents and expulsion of two of the chant’s leaders, a number that could grow even as I type. (And while you hate to grade racism by degrees, Fiji’s party did not rise to the horrific levels of the SAE video.)
Vinekar has since more fully expressed his heartbreak over what his creation had become. Where twenty years ago it had been a place “accepting of all men, of all colors, races, ethnicities. We welcomed the jocks, the geeks, the hippies, and the preppies,” today, “bigotry steeped into our halls, and no one did anything to eradicate it.”
That was not the case when—confession time—I was a Kappa Sigma at UT in the late eighties. I kind of fell into it. I didn’t “rush”—party all summer with a variety of frats and pick and choose among a few offers. I just went to one Kappa Sig party shortly before the beginning of the semester with a couple of guys from my high school who had already been asked to join, had more than a few too many cups of Everclear-spiked punch, got taken to a room by my buddies and some of the members, and was asked if I would like to sign up. Hell, why not, I thought. After all, my grandfather (who helped raise me) had been a member of that very same chapter back in the forties, and it would make him very happy if I followed in his footsteps. (It did, but it dismayed my father, who had been a Sigma Phi Epsilon, while his father and grandfather had been Phi Delts.)
Like SAE and Kappa Alpha, Kappa Sigma is proud of its Southern heritage, albeit less so than the other two. In my single year as a member, there were no Asian- or African-American members, but there were at least three Tejanos and/or Mexican-Americans among us, and while that seems today like laughable tokenism, that was three more than at least a few of the other traditional UT frats of that era.
Still, and this is painful to admit, and writing this will win me no favor either from my former frat brothers or society at large, but it’s true that an atmosphere of casual racism pervaded the house. N-bombs and racist jokes were common. Just as is likely the case with OU SAE, I am sure that few, if any, of the guys were committed racists, and I know we didn’t sing or chant anything like that SAE abomination. (I asked one of my former frat brothers, and he couldn’t recall anything like that either.)
One of my friends from high school was an SAE at LSU for one semester, during which he was privy to all that chapter’s lore. When told of the OU chant, my normally unflappable friend exclaimed, “Oh my God! That’s horrible.” While it was new to him, he said that without a doubt, some of his fellow SAEs had racist views, but they were never expressed so readily, in unision, or publicly. Pete Mitchell, another friend, was a Sigma Chi at the University of Houston in the early eighties. That chapter now admits black members and, though all-white in Mitchell’s day, did not foster a racist environment. A fourth friend, Joe de la Fuente, recalled that his grandfather—a Longhorn baseball star in the thirties—was asked to join one of the elite fraternities at UT, on one condition: that he Anglicize his last name to “Fountain.” He declined.
Fast-forward to the late eighties, when Joe was in college. “I was an officer in my fraternity and active in the Interfraternity Council, as well as other campus organizations,” de la Fuente says. “I won’t say that elements of Texas, and some fraternities in some places, don’t still have bassackwards aspects to them. But for what it’s worth, nobody seemed to give a damn about my last name anymore.”
Which was getting to be more and more the case at the Texas Tau Chapter of Kappa Sigma, when I was there, even if it was nothing like Vinekar’s once-inclusive SAE.
Not that some didn’t want to change that: in his final words to us, our pledge leader, the active member who had overseen our probationary period, closed his remarks by telling us that it was his fondest wish that we would be the ones to finally recruit and induct black Kappa Sigs. That was what he wanted as his legacy: the integration of a century-old Texas fraternity with a culture mired in the pre–Voting Rights Act era.
I wasn’t around to see much of what happened next. Sorry grades punched my ticket out of UT by the end of my freshman year, but as one of fewer than ten liberals in a rah-rah Reagan atmosphere, I was already drifting away, dating girls from other schools and/or outside of the Greek system (or dissidents within it), hanging out with more and more of my “GDI” friends (“Goddam Independents,” as Greeks call the non-affiliated), smoking more pot than the “no drugs” rank and file condoned, jamming a weird mix of Bob Wills, Hendrix, LL Cool J, and the Allman Brothers At Fillmore East from my grimy room. Also: Townes Van Zandt’s “Talking Fraternity Blues,” a humorous protest song that some of us enjoyed, especially those of us who were on our way out, for whatever reason.
So, I was not exactly thriving in that environment.
I wish I could honestly say I dug in against the racism, but it was deeply entrenched and far more powerful than I was. As a pledge and a first-semester active, you don’t feel it’s your place to call out the older guys, just as Army privates don’t feel empowered to tell their sergeants to shut the hell up. No, frats are not the military, exactly, and I wish I could go back in time and tell some of those guys off, but I didn’t.
As far as I know Kappa Sig at UT remains lily-white, 27 years later, in spite of our pledge director’s dream.
True integration is the only way to change frat culture. Because we liked and respected our tiny cohort of Hispanic brothers, we never used epithets denigrating them, told “wetback” jokes, or paraded around in serapes and ponchos or dressed as yardmen. Had there been African-American, or Asian-American, members among us, the same would have held true toward them.
But there weren’t. And there aren’t today in a great many UT frats, including most if not all of those recognized as “the best,” Fiji and SAE among them.
In addition to what should be obvious to all—that these racist chants and parties are abusive to large segments of the student body—here is why this matters. Here is why the part-enraged, part-sorrowful reaction of African-American OU student-athlete Eric Striker was not “just as racist” as Parker Rice’s sing-along on that country-club-bound bus full of debutantes and their dates.
These are the frats that produce tomorrow’s bankers, lawyers and judges, politicos, and businessmen, and these “leaders of tomorrow” are spending the last four years of their educations not learning empathy for those who grew up differently from them or in less privileged circumstances. Their still-unformed brains are steeping these in a stew of alcohol, outdated attitudes, and pervasive snobbery.
Still, you wonder. Most frats have at least some adult supervision. Maybe it’s just that old (read: 25-year-old) member who just can’t cut the cord, or maybe it’s an alumni advisor. It seems every chapter of every frat could have somebody who could tell these kids that maybe it’s not such a great idea to host a “Cripmas” party or chant n-bombs.
Maybe the OU SAEs could have received such wise counsel from their venerable house mother, Beauton Gilbow. Or not.
All of which is to explain, if not excuse, how some “well-bred” teens from good homes and great schools apparently thought it was okay, in 2015, to chant with glee about hanging African-Americans from trees.
*Correction: A previous version of this article stated that this chant was heard at UT’s SAE chapter. No one is clear what Texas university was implicated, and this was born of a misunderstanding of parsing the Reddit thread. We regret the error.
(AP Image | Nick Oxford)