Former Oklahoma University fraternity member Levi Pettit recently stood before a bank of cameras and microphones, flanked by a bevy of black elected officials, ministers and civil rights leaders at a black church in Oklahoma City. He apologized for his racially insensitive acts and ignorance. This was the act of a sincere, young man who has been battered from pillar to post after the video surfaced of him and his frat pals, carousing on a bus and shouting racist epithets. For speaking out, he has been the butt of snickers, derision and flat-out condemnation. The African-American leaders who stood with and behind him haven't been spared the vitriol either. They've been the object of vicious name calling and attacks for having the temerity to back him in his mea culpa.
Pettit, though, doesn't deserve condemnation, he deserves praise. He and his fraternity were booted from the university. His name and that of his family has been dragged deep through the mud. He'll remain, for some time, the poster boy for offensive and disgusting racist antics whenever some wayward fraternity inevitably engages in them. He could have stood on the prior statement of apology and regret that he issued after the tape went viral, and set off a national howl. He could have easily melted into the student woodwork somewhere, completed his studies and gone on about his business. But, he didn't. Instead, he went very public with his apology and pledge to action.
Despite the criticism of him and the racial put-downs and myopia of the detractors, this is an important step forward. The public outing of the fraternity came the same week that a study was released on racial attitudes of the millennials. The study found that young whites under thirty are no more enlightened in their racial views especially of blacks than their parents. For example, when respondents were asked, "How much needs to be done in order to achieve Martin Luther King's dream of racial equality?" There was a huge gap in how they answered the question as opposed to young respondents of color. Forty-two percent of whites answered that "a lot" must be done to achieve racial equality, which was almost identical to the percent that answered the same of white Gen-Xers, and 44 percent of white baby boomers.
The survey finding conformed pretty much to an AP survey on racial attitudes toward minorities that was conducted in October 2012.
That survey found that in the four-year period from a prior AP survey on racial attitudes in 2008 a clear majority of whites (56 percent) expressed animus toward blacks. The jump in anti-black racial sentiment came despite nearly four years in office of an African-American president.
It's been the rare day that's passed in the now more than six years that Obama has been in the White House that there hasn't been a racially inflammatory video, photo, a sign or some public figure popping off on race that has made a headline somewhere. When it does, the predictable happens. The battle lines get quickly drawn, countless individuals jam websites and chat room and boards to downplay, or worse condemn the critics of the actions as being too sensitive, thin skinned, or slamming them for playing the race card with their denunciation of a racial dig or taunt. The Oklahoma University frat debacle was a near textbook example of that.
Levitt and his pals were properly condemned for their antics, and given the boot from the campus. Yet, they had legions of defenders, too, that accused the university of not giving them due process, violating their free speech and for a rush to judgment in summarily expelling them. Many more even expressed sympathy with them for being harshly treated. And some even commiserated with their parents for their alleged suffering and ordeal.
The fact that you have one student offender who did not play to that gate, and claim victimization, and instead accepted, fully, responsibility for his racist, offensive action, is cause for much hope; hope that someone actually got it, and is willing to lend a public face, their face, to those who express their disgust at racial bigotry.
It's even better that this comes from a young person that legions of young people can more readily identify with than all the sermons on racial tolerance from those of the older generation, and especially civil rights leaders. Their sermons are like water off a duck's back to many of them. We don't need more surveys on race relations to know that they haven't had much meaning to too many young people, such as Pettit.
Pettit did the right thing when he spoke out, and so did the black leaders who stood behind him, encouraged and ultimately embraced him. For that, I applaud and will continue to applaud Pettit.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. His new book is: From King to Obama: Witness to a Turbulent History (Middle Passage Press).
He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network, broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.