When I was in college a white fraternity had a black dog that students, both black and white, told me was called the n-word. I can attest to the dog's existence – it was a Labrador retriever, as I recall; but I never heard anyone call it by any name in my presence. That in itself was unusual enough to make me wonder. But there were other things about the fraternity that also seemed to make the allegation believable. For one thing, all of the other frats among the handful we had on our small Midwestern campus had at least one black member, but not this one.
Then there was the brawl. Well, not really a brawl; maybe fracas is a better term for the pushing and shoving that broke out during an intramural softball game between this fraternity and our black student union. I was playing catcher, a position I typically disdain, when a guy on third came barreling down trying to score. My recollection is this was after a groundout at first and I didn't notice until he was about to run into me, which he did. We both got up tussling. The benches cleared. But no actual punches occurred before the umpires settled us down.
Back then, the incident cemented in my mind that the fraternity was racist. Years later, I'm not so sure of my assessment of the whole fraternity, but I do believe some of its members were prejudiced. Were there enough racists among them to make a video like the one of Sigma Alpha Epsilon members seen chanting on a bus: "There will never be a n— SAE"? Maybe. But that softball game was 40 years ago, which means any chanting by that frat would have been more understandable than what happened last week at the University of Oklahoma. For me, the SAE video further confirmed that racism will be with us for several more generations.
Having grown up in the Deep South in the 1950s and '60s, I know without a doubt that this country has made tremendous strides in eradicating racism. But I don't include the election of the nation's first black president as being part of the evidence. Barack Obama has been more of a lightning rod for racism than a unifying force. That's not his fault. It's a result of a calculated political strategy that requires a segment of the electorate to see Obama as being the antithesis to their ideal president. For too many people, the most visible sign of Obama's being wrong for the part is his race, though they would never admit that.
Obama aside, however, Americans of all races and ethnicities are doing more things together than they ever have before — including going to church and marrying. In fact, it is this intermingling of cultures among young people that has made some of them comfortable with using a word that they hear their black friends using among themselves. They should know that you shouldn't say certain words in public that in the privacy of your home or your friend's home would be understood as being friendly banter. But too many don't care. Then there are others, like the Oklahoma frat boys, whose apparent intent is to say things in public that hurt other people.
The frat boys' chant was meant to be hurtful. Like a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning, it was a celebration of racist pride, which no amount of rationalizing will ever make correct. The fraternity was kicked off the Oklahoma campus, but its banishment may not last. There is a question of whether free-speech rights were violated. After all, even the Klan and Nazis have a constitutional right to spew their venom. When they do, the rest of us need to do more than hope for the day when they stop. We need to let them know we're tired of hearing their inflammatory comments. We need to let frat boys inebriated with beer and politicians drunk on power know we're tired of them pushing people's buttons when it comes to race.
Harold Jackson is editorial page editor for The Inquirer