Would the Real 'Sooner' Please Stand?

03/12/2015 05:31 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

It's right to have shuttered the Sigma Alpha Epsilon House and expelled two students involved in last week's raucous -- joyous, even -- celebration of white supremacy on a fraternity bus.

But it's right for one reason, and not for another.

The reason it's right has to do with environment, which is different than the logic of punishment (that's the logic we're more likely to be tempted by).

It's not always easy to figure out the best response when racism shows up. Variables like context, the relationships of those involved, hoped for outcomes and many other factors can make it difficult to know "the best response."

A framework that emphasizes environment, however, can bring needed clarity.

We need to know that every time racism shows up our response -- or lack of response -- accomplishes one of two things. We either make the environment we're in safer for people of color, or we make the environment safer for racism. You can't do both at the same time. You have to choose. (I'm drawing on what I've learned from Paul Kivel here.)

When I'm stuck, unsure of how to best respond, this is the question I ask myself:

What action here is more likely to make this environment less safe for racism?

This question doesn't offer easy answers in every "what to do" moment. But it can clarify a lot even in the most complicated of moments.

A focus on environment is one reason a clear and unequivocal denouncement of the violence (yes, violence) on that bus, made real with concrete consequences, was so necessary.

Let me be clear. Shuttering the SAE house does not a safe, anti-racist environment make. But at the level of symbols (which aren't everything, but are important) it's a public stance that says, "We want an environment less safe for unfettered racism." And that's good.

So, goodbye SAE. And, if the action is a concern for environment, good for you OU President David Boren.

But, there's a risk here too that Boren's "zero tolerance" response could succumb to the oh-so-tempting logic of punishment. This is a logic many of us find seductive when racism and white supremacy rear their nasty heads.

In one of his denouncements Boren said this:

It's here that a pitfall of epic proportions opens up. Do you see it?

When I teach my college students about the clear, relentless and specific involvement of Christianity in enslavement and genocide on this land base, at some point -- every time -- a horrified, white student will gasp:

"Well, those weren't real Christians."

"They weren't?" I ask. "But wait, if they weren't real Christians, then what were they?"

This is not a game of semantics. The stakes in this exchange are high.

We stand and point at the immoral behavior of others for many reasons. One is to delegitimize it. I think that's important. Another is to make publicly clear we recognize something as wrong. That's important, too.

But we also do it to distance ourselves. And if that's what's going on in Boren's "real Sooner" language, OU has a much bigger crisis on its hands.

For my students this response -- this standing and pointing -- is, in part, an attempt to deal with pain.

When someone invokes and identifies with a tradition or symbol that you also love and identify with, and uses that tradition or symbol for violence, you can experience a kind of world-rocking devastation. The experience is analogous to finding out a beloved family member you believed to be good, someone you looked up to, has done something unimaginably horrific.

I completely understand the desire to distance oneself from such pain ("Those weren't real Christians"). Well, let me be more clear: I understand it when it's the response of the 19-year-olds in my class. They're on their heels trying to recover from an overwhelming thought -- one that is new to far more of them than should be the case if the adults in their lives were doing their jobs. They can't reckon with discovering their beloved religious tradition as enmeshed in horrific evil. Such reckoning takes time and a certain kind of fortitude to willingly contend with.

I understand this.

But I expect more from faculty, staff and administrators in higher education. Only active and willful denial could possibly find us shocked by the behavior on that bus. And this is precisely where the stakes in the exchange over who is and is not a real Sooner, or a real Bulldog (the mascot at Drake University where I teach), or a real anything get really high.

We must refuse a logic of punishment whereby we stand and point at the immoral behavior of others, as if they are unique and different from us and the environments that produced them. We must refuse to distance ourselves -- or the environments we have helped to shape -- from their racist behavior.

If I am a Sooner and that Sooner over there has been exposed embracing, with great relish, white supremacist rhetoric and behavior, and my response is to say, "Well that Sooner isn't real," I exonerate myself and the community that produced that oh-so-real Sooner from responsibility. I foreclose already and ahead of time the myriad of levels of inquiry, response and intervention urgently needed into the environment(s); an environment that these young people's behavior offers powerful evidence of as being itself deeply toxic and racist.

If those young men (and women) aren't real Sooners, then what on Earth are they?

I know the answer.

They are our real children. They are our real neighbors and our real neighbors' real children. They are the kids we've had over to our houses for slumber parties. They are the progeny we've failed or refused to teach the truth to about their own racial legacies (the legacies we have bequeathed to them in our own refusal to upend them).

They are our future CEO executives and political leaders.

They are we.

I'm just not buying it that these students aren't "real Sooners" any more than I would buy it that "real Bulldogs" don't showcase the worst of whiteness and white culture on a regular basis. They do. And that's where our work as an institution, and my work as part of that institution, must begin.

Punishing "them," as if they were distinct from "us" does not accomplish that.

Don't mishear me. My concern here is not that these young men are being inappropriately scapegoated. Frankly, I'm not worried about that at all. Were this Drake, I would want them gone. But, I would want them gone as a matter of taking a stand for a commitment to a certain kind of environment, not as a matter of punishment because they are somehow distinct from the larger Drake community

I might like to distance myself from the Drake Bulldog who exhibits noxious and violent behavior by describing her as unique. But I can't. Instead I have to ask: What about Drake culture is actually maintaining an environment that enables racism? (I have many answers to this.)

As much as my students who are white and Christian want to distance themselves from Christianity's historic and contemporary responsibility for all kinds of racist logic and racial injustice, they don't get to. They can only undertake the more difficult quest to see ways the religious tradition they claim is completely consistent with racist U.S.-American culture and practice; that is, if there is to be any hope they can, as white Christians, be part of building a different future.

Real Sooners are racist. So are real Bulldogs. So are real Christians, real children, real parents, real U.S.-Americans, and real [fill in the blank] .

And, like all of these other real people, OU's biggest moral challenge is to demonstrate the willingness to ask why, where and how they come to be so. And then, what are they going to relentlessly work to do about it.