CAN BROTHERS BE BROTHERS?

SAE

That would seem to be the attitude of the members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity (SAE) at the University of Oklahoma who recently became infamous for a little song they performed in a video that went viral.

There will never be a nigger at SAE,” the students sang to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” while dressed in formal attire and riding a bus. “You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me. There will never be a nigger at SAE.

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/03/10/several-sigma-alpha-epsilon-chapters-accused-racism-recent-years?utm_source=slate&utm_medium=referral&utm_term=partner

This article from Inside Higher Ed purports to tell the tale of that fraternity as historically racist. Thus the individual incident at Oklahoma should not be viewed as an outlier or as a very rare exceptional occurrence within that Greek organization’s culture.

It recounts other incidents (citing various sources) that can be traced to SAE chapters at the University of Cincinnati, Texas A&M, the University of Memphis, Oglethorpe University, Syracuse University, and Washington University in St. Louis.

These incidents included black face stunts, racial slurs targeting black athletes or other students, and parties perpetuating racial stereotypes such as welfare and absent fathers.

This article drew my attention for more than the obvious reasons and a much more personal one. The grandson of my best friend is a freshman here at WVU, a very nice and bright young man, and circumstances recently put us together for a period of several hours during which we discussed, among other topics, his rushing fraternities this semester.

He indicated that SAE was among the front runners of his possible choices. Since this was before the racial issues surfaced my advice to him was that he should choose the fraternity, if any, which seemed most compatible to his own standards. I added that he should run like hell from that fraternity should its members put him in any danger of physical harm during his pledge period (or whatever term may now be used).

After all, WVU is the school where a Kappa Sigma pledge was forced to—in effect—drink himself to death in the chapter house last fall during a Pledge-Active weekend. Criminal charges have been brought in that case, which has received national publicity.

His grandfather and I were pledge brothers together in 1966 and we never were faced with any such potential abuse or harm.

But now I wonder if, indeed, he did choose SAE and might have to deal with this pattern of racism depicted in the article.

After all, WVU does lie below the Mason-Dixon Line and during the 1960’s was a member of the Southern Conference. When I was in school we had one fraternity, Kappa Alpha Order which held an annual “Old South Weekend“, during which the brothers dressed as Confederate soldiers and their dates as Southern Belles.

Ah, yes, the pre-Civil War South with its slaves and faux aristocracy were so romantic.

At that time no fraternities on our campus were integrated racially. But there came a time when my fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha, almost became the first to lead the way towards having black members.

Almost. Close but no cigar.

In 1968 one of our brothers had a friend who he knew from classes or his dorm…I can’t recall the exact connection…who was a young black man.Save for his skin color he was indistinguishable from our members and had the qualities we looked for in prospective members.

As background our chapter, though part of one of the strongest fraternities nationally, was very small. I doubt we ever had more than 35 active members at one time in our brief history (established 1949) and so we were among the youngest and smallest at WVU. There were several houses with membership exceeding 100. The system favored  the larger houses. In addition, our house’s location was on a street away from campus where four of the behemoth chapters surrounded us.

College students, regardless of IQ or grades or scholarships have a tendency to do stupid, immature things, especially fueled by alcohol. Thus our house, both the physical building and the collection of us brothers occasionally came under assault from our rivals. Broken windows were common and a stone with our Greek letters in our front yard…which we painted with our colors…was burned so often that one time we lit  it up ourselves after our latest decoration just to deprive the surrounding assholes from getting the satisfaction of doing it.

Against this backdrop after “Bruce” the potential black recruit had made his initial visit, we had our usual post-rush session to determine which candidates we wished to ask to return and probably extend a bid for membership to.

When Bruce’s name arose, what ensued was not fiery rhetoric for or against, but instead a truly mature discussion of the positives and negatives of having Bruce as a member.

On the positive were his intelligence and personality and campus involvement and social acumen and on the negative was absolutely nothing within the criteria we usually applied to such dealings.

That he was black was unassailable. Out of the roughly 25 active members participating there were a few who, honestly, wanted no part of a black member, no matter his qualifications. But they were a very distinct and very small minority faction.

The rest of us, to a man, agreed that he had all the qualities we normally looked for.But there was a definite divide as to whether, given our position within the WVU Greek hierarchy, we could take a chance on offering membership.

I believe this was an honest concern but I, among others, thought that we could ,overcome this potential problem (drawing even more enmity from the “good” brothers of other frats) and urged that we get him back and present a bid.

We needed a majority to proceed that way but the vote, though close, was negative.

Though my chapter has long since folded, I note that many Lambda Chi chapters across the country have minority members and several of the fraternities at WVU have at least outwardly ended any discrimination on the basis of race.

Whether the SAE as a whole has a history of racism, or whether that has been confined to a few errant chapters, or where the WVU chapter stands in such matters is not really relevant to my tale. I’m just trying to present an honest take about how one pretty small group of young men dealt with a difficult issue during the still turbulent but somewhat post Civil Rights Era sixties.

Our own regional diversity within our chapter showed our makeup was of a fair number of brothers from the Pittsburgh region, another segment from the Charleston area and more rural sections of West Virginia, and a smattering from Maryland, New York, Ohio, and Missouri, and Florida.

Although we did not pioneer, I am proud that the brothers who spoke that evening did so without using slurs and spoke their hearts, but not in a hateful way. That some were disappointingly wrong in their views I freely admit and make no excuses for them. If the majority had been for Bruce, I’d like to think he would have been accepted by all.

But who knows?

I do know the hateful singing of SAE at Oklahoma was wrong as wrong can be.

I can adapt their lyrics as follows

“There will never be an UMOC at SAE.”

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Comments

  • Anonymous  On March 17, 2015 at 2:33 PM

    Very well put, Dave.

  • Tourist  On March 20, 2015 at 7:42 PM

    Once upon a time, at a working lunch in the conference room with a contingent from our parent company, I said that in the afternoon we would tour the factory. To the visiting general counsel I said, “It may not be that interesting for you.” I meant it in terms of the counsel’s responsibilities within the purpose of the group’s trip. The counsel took it as my assuming a woman would not be interested in a factory.

    Anyone want to read something – two things – quite long by sound-bite standards? Because of this blog’s one-link limit, this link is to the SECOND one. Within the first paragraph is a link to the first one. Please read that one first.

    Believe it or not, everything is on topic.

    http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2015/03/18/our-lives/minstrel-show-black-beauty-queen-week/#.VQyfu8ZhJUQ

    • Little_Minx  On March 20, 2015 at 11:56 PM

      Along similar lines, Hines Ward has talked about the racism he experienced in his youth — and now he’s been an NFL all-pro and Super Bowl winner, a “Dancing with the Stars” winner, and a popular TV personality.

      • Little_Minx  On March 20, 2015 at 11:58 PM

        My comment refers to the column to which Tourist linked.

  • Tourist  On March 21, 2015 at 12:30 AM

    Hi, Minx! Yes, I’ve seen some of what Hines Ward has said. More than stories of individuals overcoming, however, is the complexity of what’s going on in other people’s minds. This from the first of the two articles:

    (Quote)

    The other day, I [the black writer] showed a video of these Rats & Star guys [Japanese performers in blackface] to a Japanese co-worker of mine and, without giving him any clue why I had made him watch it, asked what he thought of it.

    “They want to be like black people,” he said, grinning. “They love black people.”

    “What’s with the black make-up, though?” I asked. “I love Japanese people but you don’t see me putting cake batter on my face.”

    He laughed and shrugged. Then he got curious. Maybe my facial expression betrayed me.

    “Why do you ask? Is it bad?”

    (Unquote)

    • Little_Minx  On March 21, 2015 at 3:29 PM

      Yes, I’d read that, Tourist. It raises the issue of whether people ought to know the difference whether they’re paying homage to something in another culture, or if it’s a faux pas. It can be reasonably argued that American culture is so ubiquitous, especially in the First World (including Japan), that those societies ought to be aware of major issues like race in America (including the racist connotations of black-face).

  • Tourist  On March 21, 2015 at 6:43 PM

    I’m going to sidestep the “they should know what it means in our culture and act accordingly” argument, Minx. When I read the letter from the 47 Republicans to Iran, beginning with “you may not fully understand our constitutional system,” what flashed in my head were the Iranian students in seemingly all of my political science and government classes, and I thought: “some of them probably better than you.” *Then* (because I am not claiming to have caught it myself), it was revealed that the Iranians *did* know our system better than our senators.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackface

    That wiki page is long – very long. I would point people to the introductory section (four paragraphs), the section headed “Japan,” and the section headed “Legacy.” There’s certainly more to it than I knew.

    I think blackface is well passed its sell-by date, including in Japan. A small number of singers have been using it here for decades at least and I thought it was misguided the very first time I saw it. But intentions do count. If *our* argument is that race is skin-deep, blackface is face color. What’s the act? Stepin Fetchit or Motown? And why *not* Katy Perry as a geisha?

    In the words of Bruce Springsteen, “There’s a lot of walls need tearin’ down.” What I was getting at in the first place was the brick wall that goes up every time we declare: “That’s offensive.”

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