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Frat Boys on the Bus

03/12/2015 03:13 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

"You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me...."

Yeah, something had to happen. The cellphone video went public, and the frat boys on the bus, who were just having a little politically incorrect fun, y'know, singing about Jim Crow exclusionary practices and, well, lynching, suddenly found themselves thrust into a national context, embarrassing the hell out of their fraternity and their school.

Something had to happen, but I don't think it was "zero tolerance" -- that is to say, the immediate shutting of the door on a shocking, humiliating revelation that some students have bad attitudes and haven't learned the national lesson that overt, casual racism against African Americans is wrong.

"I have emphasized that there is zero tolerance for this kind of threatening racist behavior at the University of Oklahoma," school President David Boren said in the immediate wake of the video's release. Within a day he had expelled two students who had led the jaunty singing of the racist ditty, which included the incessant repetition of the "N" word.

"I hope that the entire nation will join us in having zero tolerance of such racism when it raises its ugly head in other situations across our country," Boren added.

The national leaders of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the fraternity to which the singers belonged, also reacted with zero tolerance, immediately shutting down the local frat chapter. Such intense official reactions certainly indicate a shift in national attitude in the last, oh, 50 years -- since the "Bloody Sunday" march across Edmund Pettus Bridge, the half-century anniversary of which was recently celebrated. Racism used to be our default setting; now its overt expression summons a national gasp of disbelief -- an instant aversion with the force of a fire hose.

All I'm saying is that that's not enough. The punitive reactions against a few individuals or an isolated fraternity chapter are no more effective than any other punitive measures taken against scapegoats. They shut the door on something unpleasant, in the process heaping blame on isolated individuals that ought to be borne, or at least processed, collectively.

As one Oklahoma University student put it, as quoted in USA Today: "Many people don't realize the underlying prejudices that do exist in our campus and this issue has opened the eyes of many students."

Expand this realization exponentially and suddenly you have the Equal Justice Initiative report on lynching, which I wrote about last week. The Montgomery, Alabama-based organization researched this particular mob action in a dozen states of the Old South from 1877 to 1950, reporting that nearly 4,000 of these grisly murders were committed against African Americans during the heart of the Jim Crow era. Photographs and postcards from those lynchings reveal that they often had a family picnic atmosphere, with children playing in the background as a man was being tortured and killed.

The frat boys who were videotaped singing "hang him from a tree" to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It" summoned the same idiotic glee one can see, for instance, in the volume of lynching photographs called Without Sanctuary. The participants caught in these photos clearly had no more idea what they were doing than the boys on the bus did.

Following its report, the Equal Justice Initiative said it hoped to create markers and memorials throughout the South denoting the sites of notorious lynchings as well as slave markets and other dark, unacknowledged aspects of American history, in order "to force people to reckon with the narrative through-line of the country's vicious racial history," according to The New York Times.

Such historical markers will face intense local opposition, of course, making their appearance in the near future unlikely. We obviously have not let go of this past, reacting to it not with deep, profound wonder and a sense of atonement but with shame and defensiveness. Reminders and "memorials" come in the form of YouTube posts of frat boys singing racist songs on the bus, spilling the dark side of American history all over campus.

I think we should make the most of them.

A punitive, zero-tolerance reaction to this sort of emotional blindside is understandable but only drives the deep issue out of sight temporarily. What we really need to do is look inside ourselves. How else does racism -- that is to say, dehumanization -- manifest in our society? How close to the surface is our need to hate someone? What keeps it alive? In what ways is it exploited, economically and politically? What "enemies" do we currently dehumanize? Who bears the brunt of our violence?

We can look at our prison system and the police shootings of people of color. We can look at the ongoing, ever-failing, ever-rejuvenating war on terror. We can look at militarism and Islamophobia and torture and Gitmo. We can look at Ferguson. We can look at the defense budget, the NSA and surveillance mania. We can look at poverty. We can look at drones.

And while we're at it, we can look at tomorrow.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com, or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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