The Boys on the Bus

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the University of Oklahoma.

Directly, this has nothing to do with parenting or My Knucklehead. But it’s on my mind, and if you’re talking about race and racism with your kids, or anyone else you love, the SAE video that burned through the American internet this past week gave you lots to talk about. But the way this story unfolded was different than what I’ve seen before in this country, and worth some extra discussion.

Here’s a recap: last Saturday night a busload of University Oklahoma fraternity boys were traveling with their dates to a function off-campus. In the bus, video footage was taken of one or more Sigma Alpha Epsilon members leading the bus in a song that boasted, in the most vulgar terminology, that there would never be a black SAE member. Just to be sure no one missed the point, the song also made reference to lynching. No one on the bus appeared to object, and most everyone seemed to know all the words.

By Sunday the video had been posted online, and members of O.U. Unheard found it and publicized it. By the end of the day it was all over Facebook, Yahoo, and other sites, and I thought, “here we go again.” I was bracing for another round of prolonged arguments about whether or not the song and its singing were racist, and whether or not any real harm was done. The racism and ugliness was crystal clear to me, but it seems like traction is always there for people who’d rather excuse or downplay what we all saw. I could already sort of tell how the whole thing would play out.

So I was surprised on Monday to learn that the fraternity’s national chapter had already revoked its charter, and that the university had given the frat 24 hours to vacate their house. By Tuesday, the University of Oklahoma had identified and expelled two students who lead the song.

If that seemed lightning-fast to you, it did to me, too. I was fully prepared for a week or more of the university stalling for time while it gauged which way the wind was blowing. Maybe trying to decide if the whole thing was going to blow over on its own before they’d be forced to do anything. Nothing against the University of Oklahoma, but we’ve become more or less accustomed to large institutions moving painfully slowly in these matters. We’re used to them following public opinion instead of leading it.

The boys’ expulsion felt good. It felt like justice had been done. It seemed like a major institution had recognized a great wrong for what it was, and acted swiftly and decisively to say “this is not who we are.” Sunday night I’d envisioned the campus (a place I’ve never been) as a safe haven for racists. Monday, I had a far better opinion.

No one, no institution, after all is perfect. But how we deal with, or whether we tolerate our flaws often says more about us than how we handle success.

And then on Wednesday, when I was feeling good, feeling like something had happened that maybe, just maybe indicated we were approaching the turning of the corner on racism in this country, I saw the following headline on an article in The New York Times: “Expulsion of Two Oklahoma Students Over Video Leads to Free Speech Debate.”

Oh, boy. Here we go. This is going to be dragged out after all.

Now, I have a rule. Every day, I make sure I read at least one article or op-ed piece that looks like bad news. Like it’s something I will disagree with, or something I just don’t want to hear. I think more people should do this. I think this help keeps me honest, and open to other points of view. And if I learn nothing else, at least I learn what the opposition is paying attention to. That way, I can be a better-informed citizen. That way, I can avoid being surprised when reality surfaces. I can avoid becoming enslaved to a single ideology. I can avoid what happens to a lot of FOX News’ audience.

So I read the piece, and it made some interesting points. The gist of it is that quite a few legal scholars (both liberal and conservative) have argued that since SAE’s behavior was contained to the bus, and did not specifically threaten anyone within earshot, the song cannot be classified as “hate speech.” It must be regarded as “free speech.” Free speech of the most odious sort to be sure, but free speech nonetheless. As such, the university, a public institution, did not have the right to infringe on the students’ First Amendment rights. Expelling the students may have been the feel-good thing to do. But it may also have been illegal.

It’s times like these when I hate being an adult. I love the feeling of retribution on the guilty. I love it so much that I want to stick my fingers in my ears and go, “LALALA!” when reality steps in. Because legal scholars here have a legitimate point. I have to face that reality. If we’re going to punish, we have to do it with our heads, and not just our hearts, We have to do this by the rules.

* * *

But I got some help from an unexpected source. I happen to be reading Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuffbox to Citizens United by Zephyr Teachout (yes, the dude’s name is Zephyr Teachout, and yes, that’s the coolest name you will hear this month). Early on in the book, Teachout writes how the Supreme Court was able to tell the rest of us that unlimited political contributions from corporations is “free speech” and not “bribery” and keep a straight face while doing so. Basically, they used an extremely narrow definition of “bribery” in which it is required to demonstrate that a certain specific outcome was expected from a sum of cash given. In other words, if a corporation doesn’t put into writing, “This amount of $8.2 bazillion is to purchase the passage of H.R. 123-B,” it’s not bribery. It’s free speech.

The gentlemen who wrote our Constitution thought differently.

They were concerned far more with the corrupting effect gifts of monetary value had on elected officials. So much so that the Constitution banned the acceptance of gifts to diplomats by foreign governments, unless turned over to Congress to decide whether or not a gift could be kept. This flew in the face of accepted European diplomacy at the time, and it caused no little fuss in the early days of the republic. In short, this nation’s founders believed that any gift could lead to the corruption of the recipient, as it implied indebtedness. It didn’t matter if a specific request was made in return. A presumption of indebtedness was all it took for corruption to gain a toehold.

In a similar way, I believe those who would classify the SAE song on the bus as “free speech” are employing a narrow definition of hate speech, in the same way that our Supreme Court narrowed the definition of “bribery.” The argument goes that since the song stayed on the bus, it wasn’t used to intimidate, because there were no black people on the bus. If no one is directly threatened, then it can’t be hate speech.

I think there are two problems with this interpretation.

First, the song didn’t stay on the bus. It was broadcast over the internet to a much, much wider audience, black men and women among them. It doesn’t matter that the singers didn’t intend the song to go further than it did. It happened. And in doing so, the audience that heard the song had every reason to suspect that the members of SAE supported the lynching of blacks. Men and women of color listening could legitimately worry about their safety in the presence of the fraternity. If SAE could endure this kind of exposure without consequence, surely they – and other racists on the Oklahoma campus – would have felt emboldened to act, and not just sing. And indeed, Jean Delance, a football recruit who had committed to the University of Oklahoma, withdrew his commitment after viewing the video. There’s no other way to say it: he felt threatened. The very definition of hate speech.

Secondly, even though there were no blacks on that bus, I doubt very much that no one listening to that song felt intimidated. To be clear: the menace a black man may have felt on that bus would have been far more serious and immediate than the discomfort of any white man. But are we so sure that everyone on that bus was content to be where they were?

When I was a kid, Polish jokes were big for a while. You could always tell when a new one was coming, because first you’d hear, “Nobody here is Polish, right? OK, so this Polack walks into a bar….” And even as a kid, I knew how stupid that was. It didn’t matter who the audience was. The joke was still offensive. Asking if anybody was Polish just meant you didn’t want to be held accountable for your joke.

Racism in and of itself, is offensive. It’s ugly and intimidating and dangerous. It doesn’t matter if the momentary object of the intolerance is present or not. The ignorance is still there. How comfortable do you think any gay or transgender students felt on that bus that day, as these white frat boys sang about lynching niggers? How about the Catholics or atheists? How about the women? Did anyone on that bus really feel that their bigotry was going to be wholly contained to one particular group? Was anyone really thinking, “it’s OK, these boys just discriminate against blacks, everyone else they’re totally cool with”? No, probably half the people on that bus were wondering whether the next verse would be about them.

I think there are legal grounds for expelling both the two students and the fraternity (a University of Southern California law professor in the article I cited, Daria Roithmayr, seems to suggest as much, if I’m reading her right). If we understand hate speech doesn’t need to specify a particular action to a specific individual, there is room here for the discipline to stand. I think we can make the case that doing what felt right in this case, was legally the right thing to do.

* * *

But if expelling the students was the lawful thing to do, was it also the right thing to do? As an institution of education, would the University of Oklahoma have better served its ideals by keeping the boys around to deal with the aftermath of their actions? Will any learning be done by sending them back to the place where this bigotry was born? Would it not be better to let them face the consequences of their deeds, to atone, to make amends, to learn from their terrible experience? Is the proper way to deal with bigotry to try to banish it, where it will feed on more hatred, or to coax and educate the individual out of its grasp?

Yes, there will come a time for that, but that time is not now. Perhaps in a year the university may extend an invitation to these boys to return to their studies, an invitation that includes a course of action for them to heal the wounds they opened. That is how we build men and women, not just destroy the individuals who have caused us harm. But the university’s first responsibility is to the students, faculty, alumni, and employees to assure them that their safety is assured. Justice, here in the form of punishment, must be swift and decisive if the groundwork is to be laid for healing and closure.

* * *

I’ve written more than I set out to write, and in maybe a more of a self-righteous and lofty  tone than I wanted to get trapped in. For that I apologize. But as I wrote at the beginning of this essay, this has been on my mind. Use this, if you like, as a starting point for your own discussion with your knucklehead on racism, free speech, crime and punishment. Or a discussion with your spouse, parents, friends or teammates. Because this story isn’t just about fraternities, or black people, or Sooners. It’s about us, and how we handle ugliness in our lives.

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