What is an appropriate response to racism?


University of Oklahoma football players and coaches march in silent protest on 9 March 2015.

University of Oklahoma football players and coaches march in silent protest on 9 March 2015.

I can’t believe I’m typing this in 2015, but a video surfaced over the weekend of some fraternity revelers on their way to a party via chartered bus.  The brothers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Oklahoma (just down the road a piece from us) whoop it up in the video singing a lively, happy song extolling the virtues of their tradition to never let an n-word into their frat and celebrating a lynching should one ever try.  Keeping it classy, boys . . .

Reaction from the national SAE chapter was swift (OU chapter shut down) and OU president David Boren gave the brothers ’til midnight tonight to vacate their house and get off his campus.  That’s a good start. (Boren’s emotional press conference here.)

The biggest problem I see with racism in this country is the alarming proportion of people who don’t think it exists.  We are not there.  We have not yet overcome, as a people and as a nation.  When an unarmed black teen is shot dead by police, there are those extenuating circumstances that lead many of us to give the police the benefit of the doubt.  Every so often something like this bubbles up, however, and it illustrates the racist undertones in this country, and there is no benefit from any doubt.

Until we all recognize that race still divides us – and relegates some of us to lives of unequal opportunity through nothing more than the random chance of our birth – we cannot be the nation we aspire to be.

I couldn’t help but think today about the many African-American athletes at OU, and at all of our big sports schools.  These athletes live with racism every day, even as white people laud them for the talents on the hardwood and the gridiron and the track and everywhere else.  How must they feel today to see and hear for themselves the disgusting display of some of their fans on that video?  And as much as I’d like to say that this problem is confined to our rivals down the road in Norman, I know it’s here too in Stillwater.  It’s everywhere white privilege is protected, encouraged, and celebrated.

White Americans will see this story, express shock and dismay, and maybe even celebrate the swift and harsh action meted out to the brothers of SAE.  Then some other shiny object will attract our attention tomorrow, and this event will dissolve into just another racist anecdote to be forgotten or worse, diminished as youthful hooliganism in private moments.

We need something bigger and more dramatic in response, something that could not be ignored or forgotten by those run-of-the mill white people, blissfully going about their lives thinking that racism is a thing of the past or just confined to the South.  The football team at OU took a step in this direction today by skipping practice to march arm-in-arm around their campus in silent protest. That’s nice, but it’s not enough:

I’m calling on African-American athletes to stage walkouts from major sporting events to raise awareness that racism is alive and well in this country, and it’s holding us back.  I know this is an unorthodox idea, that it will punish innocent people, that it could backfire, and that there are real risks to the athletes from taking such a stand.  I also know that if the Big 12 basketball tournament were played with only the white players in that conference, or better – canceled due to forfeiture by the teams – people who deny racism would finally start paying some serious attention to this issue.

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