Why am I Surprised? A perspective on the OU incident from an African-American member of the Dallas Jesuit-Ursuline Community

03/17/2015 12:28 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2015

"Why are you surprised?" is the response I get when I bring up the OU incident in my suburban New York City household or among my Northeastern friends. Followed by questions like "what's wrong with YOUR state?" They're talking about Texas, of course. I share a home state and hometown with the two University of Oklahoma students and members of SAE fraternity who were expelled recently for leading an offensive, racist chant session among their brethren that was caught on video.

I'm not entirely surprised. My family's experience as multigenerational, African-American natives of the Lone Star State has made us accustomed to this sort of thing, unfortunately. But I still experienced some surprise, and a great deal of sadness, because I graduated from the sister school of Dallas' Jesuit High School, the alma mater of expelled student Parker Rice. I was a Jesuit Rangerette. I took physics at Jesuit from the wonderful Fr. Jack Deeves, because physics wasn't offered at my alma mater, Ursuline Academy.

Parker Rice's behavior is antithetical to my experience as a member of the Jesuit/Ursuline community. I entered kindergarten in the late 1960s, when the world was blowing up with racial tension, and graduated in the early 1980s. The OU incident is completely at odds with my experience and the very history of Dallas Jesuit. Ironically, Dallas Jesuit was the first school in Dallas to open its doors to Black students, years before the Dallas public schools. They did so in the 1950s when segregation of public facilities was the law of the land, and the battle for civil rights was raging across the South. At a time in which my parents were not allowed to attend the University of Texas, though their tax dollars supported it.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Dallas civil rights leaders along with leaders in the Jewish and Catholic communities -- in particular Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus -- strategized on how to advance the civil rights agenda. According to Dallas Jesuit's records, it was suggested that integration might be tested on a small scale at a private high school in Dallas. So in 1955 Jesuit became the first white Dallas school its doors to two Negro students, Arthur Allen and Charles Edmond.

By the 1970s black and Hispanic students were common at Jesuit and Ursuline. Though few in number, we were everywhere -- in student government, in clubs and sports, and on the honor roll. Black Ursuline girls high-kicked on Jesuit's drill team and rooted for the Jesuit Rangers on the cheerleading squad. The valedictorian of the class ahead of mine at Ursuline was a vibrant Black student who went on to graduate from Princeton and receive a phd from Stanford. And in the 70s our Jesuit brethren -- in a year in which there were no black students in their senior class -- elected an African-American head cheerleader and homecoming queen from Ursuline. And she was not a "token" pick, to use a loaded term.

The only time I overheard the "n" word being used at school was in the cafeteria by a rather brusque classmate from Spain. A guy told her she looked like a n*#! because she was so tan. The white students she was talking to chastised her for using a word she didn't need to say to tell her story. Another time I recall a closeted Mormon classmate argue that interracial relationships were "wrong." But that is the extent of my negative memories of the community, other than normal teenage angst. Luckily "senior slave day" was recognized as a pretty bad idea by the time I made it to high school.

This is not to say that Dallas or the Jesuit/Ursuline communities and families were perfect or particularly progressive. But we debated politics and social issues respectfully. Then we would hang out and talk about television, movies, music, boys -- normal teen stuff. To be honest, despite our collegiality, we often segregated ourselves in terms of parties and dating -- which would not be a unique experience to Dallas Jesuit/Ursuline. But my memories, from the late 60s to the early 80s, are still of a warm, welcoming community, from the administration to the faculty to the students and their families. My Jesuit/Ursuline family remains close to this day.

So as I watched Parker Rice jump up and down, pumping his fist and spitting invectives; chanting that people like me should be strung up before being included in the likes of his social order, I couldn't help but shake my head and wonder "what happened?" to this "Jebbie." Why in 2015 is our community regressing when we seemed to be on the right track when I left in the early 80s?

I belong to a sorority -- the oldest African-American sorority (which by the way does not discriminate in membership). So I have experienced firsthand the positive aspects of Greek life. But when 85 percent of corporate executives and many political leaders come out of the Greek tradition (including former Goldman Sachs CEO/Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson), it begs the question of to what extent the OU behavior seeps into our corporate cultures and conference rooms, not to mention the U.S. Congress. We all have heard folks make "boys will be boys, especially when they are liquored up" excuses for abhorrent behavior. Some of these "boys" never grow up -- anyone who has attended a trade conference in Vegas knows what I'm talking about. And the blind eye extends to hiring and promotion -- I listened to a former Fortune 100 CEO brag at a cocktail party about granting job offers to every member of an all white male group from his alma mater that had received negative press for less than honorable behavior. They were good kids, of course, who were just enjoying themselves and shouldn't be penalized for youthful indiscretions. Talk about affirmative action! Where does that leave the rest of us?

Luckily, the OU President's response was swift and unequivocal. SAE's national president and Dallas Jesuit have strongly condemned the behavior as well. Both boys' parents (and the boys themselves) have issued seemingly sincere apologies that don't make excuses for the behavior. But, as Charles Blow analyzed in the New York Times, there are deep layers that must be excavated, distances far beyond open doors that must be traveled for any earnest progress to be achieved. Hopefully the apologies are the beginning, and not the end of efforts to address the ugly underbelly of our elites. Hopefully the once-inclusive tradition of the Jesuit/Ursuline community was not a superficial trend that was left behind in the 80s, along with our big hair and turned-up collars.