A group of fraternity students at the University of Oklahoma found themselves in the national spotlight today when some of their ugliest expressions of anti-Black hostility were shared with the world.
The university president, David Boren, admirably expressed his unequivocal disgust, affirming the unacceptability of such repugnant bigotry in our society and universities.
But President Boren also suggested that he would attempt to expel the students. I think that would be a mistake, if based on these chants alone.
I don’t mean to suggest the chants should be viewed in isolation; it would be premature to conclude, without investigation, that no illegal conduct occurred. The chants could be evidence of a discriminatory membership policy; if so, the fraternity may have broken the law. Racist expression, after all, can be a way of demarcating who is welcome in a given space. It’s worth determining, too, whether other students have been harassed or bullied by these fraternity students. And with news reports that one of the fraternity’s employees is African-American, it’s worth looking into whether he faced discrimination in the workplace—also against the law.
But if an investigation does not identify any illegal conduct, then President Boren should not attempt to expel the students in response to these vile, bigoted chants. Because what’s clear is that these students need to be educated—they need an education that their families, communities, schools, and college have so far failed to give them.
The rest of us need them to receive that education, too. These young students have many decades ahead of them. They might, at some point, be in positions of authority. They might vote. They might have to interact with people of different backgrounds. They might have children.
We would all be better off if they pursued these activities not in the same ignorant state in which they rode that bus, but rather, with an education about the horrific history of anti-Black racism and oppression in this country, and an acute awareness about how racial inequality persists to this day (including through their own actions). There’s no guarantee they will learn or that their minds will be changed, but if anyone has a duty to try, it is their university.
While expelling the students might seem gratifying at first glance, it does little to address systemic racism or to teach a lesson, and may very well backfire.
If the students are expelled, the issue will automatically be re-framed as a debate about free speech and hate speech. If the university faces a lawsuit, there is a good chance it will lose because courts have consistently held that expressions of bigotry, in and of themselves and with very limited exception, are entitled to constitutional protection.
I can think of no worse outcome from this ordeal than the university being forced by a court to cut a check to these fraternity students. The substantial sums of money the university would put into paying lawyers to fight a lawsuit, or paying the fraternity students in the form of a settlement or damages, would undoubtedly be put to better use confronting systemic racism directly, by, for example, ensuring that the school’s curriculum includes required courses about contemporary and historical forms of racism against Black communities and others in the country.
Note: I am commenting strictly about whether the individual students should be expelled for these chants. I am not criticizing the national fraternity’s decision to terminate the chapter. And I am not defending fraternities more generally, given their historical association with various forms of racism, sexism, and elitism.