Monday, March 9, 2015

A First Take on the OU Fraternity's Racist Video

It just happened yesterday that a video showing the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity doing an overtly racist chant went viral.  The reaction by the University of Oklahoma (OU) and the national administration of SAE has been to suspend the organization.  That's great and sends the right message that such behavior is unacceptable.  But that's not the end of the story, here.  Racism has not been eradicated at OU as a result and I don't expect that to happen any time soon, actually.  The roots of racism go much deeper than that, so eradicating it will take more time:  likely many generations.  Although racism tends to be more overt in 'southern' states, it is comparably pervasive in the north.  No region has a stranglehold on bigotry, unfortunately.

My personal story is relevant here, in explaining my reaction to all of this.  I was raised in a family that was not overtly racist, but in looking back, I see some tell-tale signs of a racist undercurrent.  We lived in the lily-white western suburbs of Chicago, where I was 'protected' from other races by hidden, but very effective barriers to integration.  We were segregated in a state where segregation as codified in law did not exist, but was just as entrenched as in Dixie.  To know a Catholic or a Jew was about as diverse as it got.  Hence, I grew up knowing little or nothing about races other than mine.

When I was drafted into the military during the Vietnam era, I was immersed suddenly in a racially and culturally diverse group with no prior experience in dealing with that.  For me, it turned out we all had a common enemy (the military - most of us didn't want to be there) so we had grounds on which we could build a personal relationship.  And we did.  It was easy to get along with people unlike myself  simply because we shared one very important characteristic:  we were human.  I didn't like everyone I was in contact with, but there was no clear reason to dislike any particular racial/cultural group just because of that factor.  All races and cultures produce both people I like, and those I dislike.  After the military, my scientific career put me in contact with some very smart and talented people who put the stereotypes to the test.  This revealed that those stereotypes are bankrupt notions.  I know of no racial or cultural reason that prevents individuals from becoming whatever they want to be - some of my friends/colleagues were not of my race or cultural background.  Imagine that!!  The ratio of nonwhite to white meteorologists was small and remains so, begging the question:  is that because of some racial/cultural disposition to not do well in my profession, or is that because of racial and cultural barriers (of various sorts) keeping many individuals out for reasons other than their abilities?  My conclusion was that the stereotypes are horseshit, and there's no reason to conclude that, on the basis of race alone, an individual of a nonwhite race or a different culture automatically is incapable of being successful in my profession.  Logically, then, this likely extends to any other profession.  Race alone provides nothing useful in the way of information to conclude anything concerning the value and potential of an individual.  Race represents real differences among people, but those differences aren't universal and, therefore, aren't significant.  Cultural differences are even more obviously irrelevant.

Martin Luther King's dream is a living reality to me:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

What I've learned is that humans evolved in a hostile world by banding together in tribes for the mutual benefit of tribe members.  This gave us humans an evolutionary survival advantage, so tribalism is deeply embedded in our very core.  But tribalism has a dark side:  distrust of and contempt for other tribes.  Tribalism is the source of racism (and cultural conflict) - it's a meaningless distinction that some people cling to in hopes of having an important place in the world, I suppose.  Science tells us that all humans are the same in the vast majority of their characteristics, but they have some superficial differences that evolved because they were isolated from each other in different parts of the world, where things like skin coloration gave certain individuals an evolutionary advantage.  The acid test is that we different 'races' can still interbreed.  We can have sex with a monkey (a distasteful thought) but we can't interbreed with them, any more than we could interbreed with a rabbit, or a tree.  There are enough differences in our DNA compared to that of a monkey that offspring of such a physical union aren't possible.  Tribalism makes us resist interbreeding with other races, even though virtually all of us have at least some DNA from other races (that resistance has not always been effective!).  Many African Americans have white bloodlines, and vice-versa.  I know of many black Americans with the Doswell surname (many of whom I'd be proud to know personally), and I'm pretty sure that name didn't come to America from Africa.

If we accept that racism is simply an atavistic holdover from tribalism and represents a concept that has absolutely no meaningful (scientific) basis, then perhaps eventually we can overcome the detestable scourge on humanity of racism.  But racism dies hard:  too many people find too much comfort for their insecurities in thinking themselves superior to those of a different race.  Whether hidden or overt, racism is simply inconsistent with reality.  There is no important distinction among the different races, although there are likely slight differences (on average) among the races with regard to characteristics like athletic or intellectual prowess.  Any such differences say nothing about individuals!  Racial and cultural bigotry are manifestations of ignorance, and it's ignorant people who inculcate their children with such bigotry.  Deep-seated racist attitudes are prevalent today, despite the species having made progress.  Most humans now recognize that overt expression of racist and cultural bias is unacceptable - even if they still believe in such things.  To believe that racism is dead is to perpetuate it.  We much acknowledge the widespread persistence of bigotry if we are to be successful some day in making Martin Luther King's dream a reality.

If you find yourself uncomfortable with those of other races, my advice is to work at developing more diverse interactions.  When you know people as individuals, not stereotypes, their racial characteristics fade away, and you know them as a person - not as a member of a particular race.  You may or may not like them at a personal level, but you may now have good reasons for that like/dislike.


Anonymous said...

As usual, a very interesting post. Racism is not backed up by science as far as I can tell. Therefore, it makes about as much sense as religion. That's not saying much.

What concerns me is freedom of speech. It sounds like the people were off campus when this happened?

If that is the case then what makes this incident have anything to do with UO?

There may be a darn good reason, I just don't know what it is?

If you're on school property you have to go by their rules.

If you're off of school property that doesn't seem to me to be the case.

Not looking to argue, just asking for information.

Lisa MacArthur
Riverside RI

Chuck Doswell said...

Freedom of speech is not at issue. No one has prevented these people from expressing themselves, nor have they been arrested. However, free speech doesn't mean total freedom from consequences. The University is involved if it's an organization sanctioned by the school. It's not just on school property where the regulations apply.

Anonymous said...

I see your point Chuck. Thank you for your input. As always, very informative.

Lisa MacArthur
Riverside RI

Anonymous said...

I just saw the videos of the chanting. Sad, disappointing, unjustified, disgusting, a throw back to the dark ages.

I'll give the college credit for moving quickly on this issue.

These are not the type of people you want in your school.

They're getting what they deserve.

Get the hell out and don't come back.

I don't even know why they have fraternities anyway. They seem to be a source of problems. Stupid hazing rituals.

Why not get rid of the fraternity system?

Would have done these clowns some good to be associated with people of other races and cultures. They might have learned something.

Pleasure to get rid of these racist clowns.

Lisa MacArthur
Riverside RI