As a racist video from the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter went viral Sunday night, one comment echoed again and again: They knew all the words.
The video apparently shows a bus full of SAE brothers wearing tuxedos in a celebratory mood chanting what sounds like: “There will never be a n—— SAE/There will never be a n—– SAE/You can hang ‘em from a tree, but it will never start with me/There will never be a n—– SAE.”
As people struggled to understand, many asked whether this was an isolated incident or a symbol of a much larger, systemic, culture of racism. Many found a pattern at SAE, one of the country’s largest and most influential fraternities, pointing to everything from the fraternity’s Web site to a Confederate flag at one of its houses to a series of racial incidents over the years at chapters around the country. Others said the 15,000 current members of SAE are in no way represented by the events at OU.
But there was a unified chorus: There is a problem at this chapter now.
The fraternity’s national headquarters quickly apologized, condemned the video, closed its University of Oklahoma chapter and suspended all of the members from the fraternity. The university’s president responded swiftly as well, speaking against racism, joining a rally on campus Monday, and then expelling two students who led the chant Tuesday. (Some criticized that expulsion as a violation of free speech at a public university.)
The video also had an immediate effect on Oklahoma’s image. Oklahoma Sooners football recruit Jean Delance, a four-star offensive lineman who committed to play football at the Big 12 school in November, visited the campus in Norman, Okla., with his mother this past weekend.
“Very uneducated people,” Delance told CBS 11 in Dallas-Fort Worth on Monday. “It was just very disturbing to me. I didn’t like it.”
Some students who know one of the two SAE members who were expelled identified him as a 19-year-old freshman from Dallas who attended the Jesuit College Preparatory School, a prestigious, private, all-boys school located in north Dallas that is 69 percent white. Officials with that school said Tuesday that it appears a former student there was in the racist video. The school did not publicly identify the student.
“In the recent video regarding OU and the SAE fraternity it appears that a graduate from Jesuit Dallas is leading the racist chant,” the Jesuit school’s president, Mike Earsing, said in a statement. “I am appalled by the actions in the video and extremely hurt by the pain this has caused our community. It is unconscionable and very sad that in 2015 we still live in a society where this type of bigotry and racism takes place.”
Efforts to reach the student Tuesday through an Oklahoma University e-mail account were unsuccessful, and no one answered a telephone number for his family residence in Dallas. The second student expelled also has not been publicly identified.
The same night the racist video surfaced, a Confederate flag was displayed in the SAE house at Oklahoma State University — about an hour and a half north, in Stillwater, Okla. — clearly visible from outside, the student newspaper The O’Colly reported.
They quoted an e-mail from Chris Bringaze, the chapter president: “‘A brother who lives in our house displayed the Confederate flag in his personal room,’ Bringaze said. ‘Sigma Alpha Epsilon does not endorse the Confederate flag nationally nor do we endorse it as a chapter. In addition, the flag has never been a symbol of our fraternity. My fellow chapter leaders and I have asked the brother to remove the flag from his room.’”
He also said, according to the paper: “‘Sigma Alpha Epsilon is aware of the video and is both shocked and appalled at what we have seen. Those types of behaviors are not consistent with our values whatsoever.’”
SAE was founded 159 years ago in Alabama, and in a detailed SAE page describing its long history, certain phrases stood out to some in light of the accusations in Oklahoma. Among them is a description of SAE as “the only national fraternity founded in the antebellum South,” and boasts of how of its 400 or so members during the Civil War “369 went to war for the Confederate States and seven for the Union Army.”
A natural statistic for a group based in Alabama, or a sign that the fraternity was holding its history as an important principle for its future?
SAE’s national organization said it almost immediately validated that members of its Oklahoma chapter participated in the video and acted within hours to shut the chapter down.
“This type of racist behavior will not be tolerated and is not consistent with the values and moral of our fraternity,” SAE leaders said in a statement. “The is absolutely not who we are. Sigma Alpha Epsilon is not a racist, sexist or bigoted fraternity.”
In the Greek-letter world, SAE is a powerhouse, with nearly 250 chapters and colonies across the country and roughly 200,000 living alumni, according to the fraternity. That national reach is what concerns many who have argued in recent days that the video could be a sign of something more pervasive. But experts said that what happens at one school might not be representative of the fraternity as a whole.
“They are traditionally very strong at most of the campuses they’re on,” said Alan D. DeSantis, a communication professor at the University of Kentucky and author of a book about Greek campus life. “Strong in numbers and prestige.”
DeSantis, who was a member of the Sigma Pi fraternity at James Madison University, said in recent years he has served as a faculty adviser to the SAE chapter at Kentucky. He said that it is difficult to generalize about behavior of any fraternity’s members nationally because the culture of their local chapters can vary significantly from one school to another. He also said the organizations can run into trouble when they don’t have enough adult supervision.
“The way we manage Greek life is very dangerous,” he said. “The system isn’t set up in a way where there is any oversight.”
DeSantis said that the incident in Oklahoma “so easily could have happened anywhere in America, and not just in the Greek system. It easily could have happened with a group of buddies sitting on the back of a pickup truck that never went to college.”
SAE is not the only well-known national fraternity with Confederate roots: The Kappa Alpha Order honors Robert E. Lee as its spirtual founder.
On Reddit, someone posted a month ago about a similar chant allegedly heard from SAE brothers at the University of Texas.
And over the years, there have been more than a handful of racist incidents reported at campuses across the country involving SAE brothers and chapters, including parties with themes that played off of ugly stereotypes of black people. In 2002, Syracuse suspended the chapter after an SAE brother went to a bar with his face painted black.
Many of those resurfaced on social media this week.
SAE, in its statement, said that it is investigating other reports of inappropriate acts, but the fraternity also said that there is nothing in its history or tradition that would support racism or bigotry.
“Several other incidents with chapters or members have been brought to the attention of the headquarters staff and leaders, and each of those instances will be investigated for further action,” according to the fraternity. “Some reports have alleged that the racist chant in the video is part of a Sigma Alpha Epsilon tradition, which is completely false. The fraternity has a number of songs that have been in existence for more than a century, but the chant is in no way endorsed by the organization nor part of any education whatsoever.”
But some fraternity brothers, and former brothers, are wondering if there is a pervasive racism there.
William Bruce James, II wrote about his experiences as a black man at SAE at the University of Oklahoma; he said after he pledged there 14 years ago, no other black students joined. He had always wanted to join Omega Psi Phi, a predominantly African American fraternity, and only walked into the SAE chapter because an old friend wanted to check it out.
But he liked it, and he liked the people. He felt comfortable. And some part of him thought it might be good for the other members, too.
“I knew when I joined that house, that I’d be looked at differently. Why would he want to be in that house? And I knew it would come from both sides.
“I remember hearing people saying things about S-A-E for having a black member. I remember being shoved into a wall at the school gym by some fellow BLACK MEN who swiped the letters on the front of my shirt and said, ‘Whose house is THAT, brother?!’
“But it’s been 14 years since I walked in, and there still hasn’t been a third BLACK MAN. I thought we were different. Maybe we weren’t. Maybe I was just being hopeful. But I believed. I believed in S-A-E. I believed in the True Gentlemen. I believed my brothers were my brothers….
“But then I saw that video. I saw that video speaking of lynching me instead of ever letting me sign….
“You Failed ME! Member 261-057. Your boys sang in unison. They may not know where the song came from or who made it up or even what all the words really mean, but they sing it so often they know all the words whether they want to or not.
“I wanted to be an Omega. My heroes from television were all Omegas. My cousins are Kappas and Alphas….I went..S-A-E? Shame on me. But hopefully, there will never be another BLACKS-A-E. “
Justin Moyer contributed to this report.