'You Can Hang 'Em From a Tree...'

03/18/2015 11:22 am ET | Updated May 18, 2015


When I first watched the racist videos of young, white fraternity brothers casually singing their song of racism and lynching, I was transported back to my own college days in the mid-80s. I can't be absolutely sure I heard that song but it was painfully familiar in a sickening and repulsive sort of way. I sort of knew what was coming before they sang the next words, which makes me think it was buried in the deep recesses of my conscious.

There was an SAE chapter at my college and I went to some of their parties, so its quite possible I did hear the song there. Then again, the tune is a familiar children's song ("If You're Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands") and the lyrics were fairly predictable, so I can't say for sure. But reports are surfacing across the country that this song has a fairly deep and wide circulation.

There were six fraternities at my college and I don't remember the SAE's as being more racist than some of the other fraternities (faint praise, I know). The point is not so much that the SAE's are racist as it is a reminder of the ways in which white people are socialized into racial prejudice in college, on party buses, and in so many other ways throughout our lives. I knew guys at other colleges and universities who were in fraternities and they were a lot like the fraternity boys at my college. I also have these young men in the college classes that I teach today. Back in the day, we called them "good ol' boys."

Wikipedia notes that while the term "good ol' boy" can be used positively or negatively, it refers to "well socialized men who live in rural and generally Southern areas." Interestingly, this term is considered favorable when it refers to the socialization of groups of young men with upstanding moral character but unfavorable when these same young men misbehave or use their networks to benefit each other professionally and socially (referred to as cronyism). I can only remember this term being used to refer to white men and boys.

The public outing of the SAE party bus at OU offers the larger public a glimpse into the socialization process of one white fraternity. It also offers us the opportunity to think more critically about racism and prejudice in our culture. In the midst of talk about a "post-racial" society and the election of President Obama as evidence that we have moved beyond racism in this country -- here is evidence that not only have we not moved beyond it, but our young, white men (and women) are being socialized into thinking that racism and lynching are light entertainment and that's its socially acceptable to use the "n" word.

Of course these boys have the legal right to be idiots and racists and to say whatever they want in private and in public. What is at stake here is our moral and social world. Who do we want to be as a people, as a country? The President of the University of Oklahoma, David Boren, acted quickly and justly in expelling the fraternity and renouncing the behavior of these "boys" as socially unacceptable.

While the song felt familiar, what was most disturbing about the video, for me, were the smiling, laughing faces of young white men dressed in tuxedoes singing casually about lynching. They reminded me of those laughing, smiling faces of whites who were part of lynch mobs in ages past. While singing songs of racial hatred while dressed to the nines is not the same thing as participating in a lynch mob, it is a different degree of the same attitude.

We are not responsible for the sins of our parents or the lynch mobs of the past. But these boys (and many more across the country) are our present. They are being socialized into hatred, moral indifference, and unspeakable cruelty. We cannot dismiss their behavior as isolated, ignorant, or misguided. As the report this week of the rampant racism within the police department in Ferguson demonstrates, these boys behavior is a reflection of behaviors that are happening around us all the time.

We are responsible for the sins of the present, both the individual sin of prejudice and the social sin of racism. When I saw racism on my campus as a college student, I looked away and stopped attending those parties. This sort of passive resistance is not enough. White people must speak out against these behaviors when we encounter them and we must actively work toward racial justice and racial equality.