What Kind Of Society Shall We Have? – When A National Leadership Conference Teaches Racist Chants, We Get Exactly What One Would Expect


The racist chant was taught at a national "leadership conference"
The racist chant was taught at a national “leadership conference”

The evidence is in. The infamous racist chant on the SAE party bus had been learned four years earlier at a national “Leadership” Conference (set on a Cruise — what could possibly go wrong?) for the fraternity. In other words, at a gathering convened to train and challenge young leaders, apparently in a session that was not “authorized,” a racist chant was taught. From University of Oklahoma President Boren’s statement (read full article here):

The racist chant sung by University of Oklahoma fraternity members on a bus ride earlier this month originated at a Sigma Alpha Epsilon national leadership cruise four years ago and then was brought back to Norman where it was taught to pledges and others, President David Boren said today when releasing what he called a comprehensive investigation into the incident.

And, notice the fuzzy comments from the fraternity’s national web site:

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity (SAE) on Friday confirmed members of its former University of Oklahoma chapter likely learned a racist chant while attending a national Leadership School about four years ago…

“The song is horrific and does not at all reflect our values as an organization,” said Ayers. “If we find any other examples of this kind of behavior currently occurring, we will hold our members accountable, just as we’ve done in Oklahoma.”

Notice the key phrase: “currently occurring.” In other words, it would be believable that this chant has been sung, probably by members of many chapters, for the last four years, but rest assured it isn’t being sung “currently,” and won’t be in the future.

A cynic might say – “we’ve learned our lesson. Because of the presence of responsible people with SmartPhones, we will reign in our racist chanting – but, we sure enjoyed it while the run lasted…”

Buried in this story is the noble and probably courageous action of two young women, riding on the bus, and apparently (appropriately) appalled by what they witnessed. From President Boren’s comments:

Several young women who were on the bus as dates of the members, including several sorority members, will not be disciplined. Boren said none participated. Boren also said after that it was two different sorority girls that released the videos to the public and that the two should be applauded for doing so.

Now, what to make of all this?…

Ellen Pao
Ellen Pao

It’s interesting that this report arrived on the same day that the jury decided against the claims of gender discrimination brought by Ellen Pao. She lost her case, but, maybe, she raised awareness enough to create some new level of conversation, and maybe even bring about some change. Consider this excerpt from Farhad Manjoo’s excellent column in the New York Times, Ellen Pao Disrupts How Silicon Valley Does Business:

As one of the few women admitted into the venture capital industry, she gained entree into an upper echelon where most women stay silent when they experience wrongdoing for fear of being shut out of the industry entirely.

As a consequence, though many women in the tech industry have stories similar to Ms. Pao’s, they are rarely heard from.

“What usually happens when you have something like this happen to you at work is that you negotiate a settlement with a gag order,” said Melinda Byerley, a marketing consultant who has worked in the tech industry for more than a decade. “They pay you to be quiet. This happens all over Silicon Valley — they will write you a severance agreement outlining X number of months’ salary, X number of shares, and along with that is a gag order.”

Take these two incidents together — racism alive and well in one modern day fraternity; sexist practices in Silicon Valley. We could add to the list, describing others treated as less-than-full-partners — peoples viewed as “lesser; other.”

What kind of society do we have when there is so much of this that is still practiced?

And why do our “leaders” stand by to let this happen?

Imagine what would have happened, if, at the national leadership conference of a popular fraternity some four years ago, a young man had taken the microphone and announced he had been taught that racist chant, and he felt that that was a pretty awful idea for any group of young leaders, and he was calling a press conference to condemn and renounce such activity at a “leadership conference.”

Now that would have been a future leader worth applauding!

Maybe we should put those two sorority sisters in charge of the next SAE Leadership Conference.

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