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Here's What's Wrong With the OU Frat Boys' Apologies

03/13/2015 01:11 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015
Brett Deering via Getty Images

"While it may be difficult for those who only know Levi from the video to understand, we know his heart, and he is not a racist." This is how Brody and Susan Pettit, parents of one of the expelled Oklahoma University SAE fraternity brothers, chose to introduce their apology on behalf of their son.

According to Levi Pettit's parents, shouting gleefully about upholding racial segregation and lynching n*****s is completely compatible with not being a racist, because when it comes to racism what really matters is your heart.

Meanwhile, Parker Rice, the other expelled student, quickly followed his brief initial statement that he is "deeply sorry for what I did" by talking about how sad it is that his family has been the victim of threats and "frightening talk on social media." He subsequently proceeded to express his concern for his "fraternity friends," who "feel unsafe" and have been subject to harassment. "Hopefully, the university will protect them," he concluded.

Rice seems shockingly oblivious of the fact that the primary victims of threats and "frightening talk on social media" in this story are not his family, but the students whom he and his brothers cheerfully sang about killing. Nor does he seem to realize that his "fraternity friends" might have made African American students on campus feel unsafe and in need of university protection.

A situation like this calls for a real apology, but these young men have failed to deliver it. Instead of acknowledging their own racism, they denied it or sidestepped it. Instead of reckoning honestly with the harm they have done to others, they framed their family and friends as the real victims. Both of these troubling and inadequate "apologies" were written to emphasize the essential goodness and/or victimhood of the white people involved.

Of course, non-apologies are nothing new. We read them every day -- every time there is a PR disaster to handle or a lawsuit to avert. They are a quintessential American genre, from Richard Nixon to The Good Wife. So why do these particular non-apologies matter?

I think they matter for two reasons. First, these statements demonstrate the deep problems with the common American definition of racism. Apparently there is absolutely nothing white Americans can do or say these days that will cause them or their families to admit they are racist. Not using the N word. Not talking about killing black people. Not actually killing black people (to my knowledge, not a single one of the many white men who have shot unarmed black people in the past year have admitted that race was a factor). Nothing.

You might well ask: with non-racists like these, who needs racists? Racism seems to get along just fine without them.

Because the truth is that racism is not a feeling in your heart. It is a system of injustice that can be seen in statistics and buried in bullet wounds and chanted on buses. And it is often perpetrated and perpetuated by people who are "loving and inclusive" and who are "surrounded by a diverse, close-knit group of friends," as Levi Pettit's parents say he is. Sometimes racism goes viral, but most racism can't be caught on camera: it exists in laws, customs, friendship dynamics, and neural pathways, and in places where the N word is never heard.

Second, these statements show how incredibly quick white Americans are to portray themselves as the victims of their own racism against black people. Throughout American history, every instance of the oppression of African Americans has been spun into a myth about the oppression of white people, from poor masters being pressured to free their slaves without adequate compensation, to poor white children being forced to go to school with supposedly backward black children, to poor frat boys being harassed and threatened and made to feel unsafe just because they made a "mistake."

These racial reversals drag white people ever deeper into delusions and resentment, preventing them from seeing the injustice that is right before their eyes. This pernicious tendency to flip the script is one of the biggest obstacles to racial justice in our time. Parker Rice is definitely not the only person to respond to this incident by feeling sorry for the white fraternity boys and minimizing the deep damage they have done to their campus community. And that's a problem.

Let me be clear. I don't believe that the bad things you do when you are 18 or 20 (or 40 or 60) should define you for your entire life. Whether you are a frat boy or a felon, you deserve another chance. You should be given the opportunity to prove that you can recognize the wrong you have done and try to change and make amends. But in order for that to happen, you need to make a real apology.

For Levi Pettit and Parker Rice, just like for me and the rest of white America, the journey to justice begins with acknowledging our own complicity in racism, and being honest about the fact that we are not the victim: we may even be the oppressor. Only then can we help to build the kind of community that Oklahoma University president David Boren so eloquently describes: a place of equal opportunity where people treat each other with respect, love each other like family, and have absolutely zero tolerance for racism.