What does a white person have to say or do to be considered racist? If you think a little ditty about lynching makes the cut—you’re wrong. On March 8, video surfaced online of the Greek organization Sigma Alpha Epsilon at University of Oklahoma singing a rousing rendition of a song about lynching. Yes, in 2015—not 1815.
“You can hang him from a tree, but he will never sign with me! There will never be a n****r in SAE,” sang the fraternity brothers while they rode a charter bus either to or from an event, wearing tuxedos. Captured on video, Parker Rice and Levi Pettit—the students leading the chant—sang as if they were at a pep rally and their school was headed to a big championship game. They were joined by an ad hoc group of background singers that formed among the party-goers.
When news of the video broke, students protested and University of Oklahoma president David Boren responded swiftly and rapidly, as did the national president of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. The chapter was shut down and Boren expelled Rice and Pettit.
Pettit’s family released a statement that would have been funny if the song wasn’t so hateful. Their boy isn’t a racist, you see. He just made a bad decision. And who among us hasn’t made a bad decision?
Not soon after the expulsions were announced several legal experts opined that while the chant was disgusting, the students were most likely protected by the First Amendment. That is to say that the Constitution protects students from expulsion for school for being virulent racists. Fair enough—I get it. It’s like the right of the Nazis to march through Skokie.
But is that really the hill you want to die on? Defending the rights of racists?
Instead of being ashamed and perhaps re-evaluating their lives, leaders of the SAE chapter of University of Oklahoma hired a lawyer to challenge the shuttering of the chapter: Stephen Jones. The same guy who defended Timothy McVeigh (yes, the terrorist who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma) is here to set the record straight.
According to the KFOR.com, Jones claimed that the students had already apologized and “they lacked judgment in a social setting, but they should not be tarred and feathered as racists.” (Jones’s usage of tarring and feathering is especially infuriating—this method of punishment was typically doled out to abolitionists and slaves.) If a song about lynching—which has heavy racial implications considering the history of the Jim Crow South where blacks were routinely lynched—isn’t racist, what is?
A lot of focus has been on the usage of the word n****r. Arriving right on schedule, Bill Kristol turned up on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to blame rap music for the frat brothers’ bad judgment, as if all rap and hip hop albums advocated for the lynching of black people. I might be able to muster up bit of sympathy if they were on the bus singing along to the latest Drake album and got caught on tape using n****r in that context. But that wasn’t the context. They were singing about the hanging of black bodies from trees. And if white people can do that and still have defenders claiming they’re totally not racist—then nothing, anywhere, is racist.