What if the SAE Frat Boys Are, In Fact, “Real Sooners”?

Students protesting SAE at the University of Oklahoma campus


Last week, a video of who appeared to be fraternity brothers from the Oklahoma Kappa chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chanting that “there will never be a nigger SAE” was leaked online and went viral. The students, in what looks like a Coach bus, continue the chorus in their singsong bro registers, adding, “you can hang ’em from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me. There will never be a nigger SAE.” Well, that appears to be true, as the OK chapter of SAE was served an eviction notice demanding they leave the premises by this Tuesday at midnight. As long as he holds his office, there will never be an SAE period, according to University of Oklahoma President David Boren.

Unsurprisingly in America’s current racial climate, public outcry was immediate after seeing the video, recorded by an individual on the bus. Locals and students mobilisation against SAE’s racist violence were immediate; large graffiti letters spelling “TEAR IT DOWN” now wrap around the side of the fraternity house’s walls. National rage spread across the internet and protests rose up like wildfire to denounce the injustice and demand action. From pundits to locals to hip hop artists, the message was broadcast that “enough was enough.”

All eyes have been on the University of Oklahoma’s handling of the case. President Boren has been routinely praised for the administration’s quick investigative response and immediate disciplinary actions. It has been deemed a victory by many in the business of mainstream civil rights and union organising. He has been personally applauded for appearing to take this case so personally as he has said repeatedly that he wants it to be an example for how to deal with racism in the university in the twenty-first century. “You are disgraceful,” Boren said in a message to the students that has also circulated wildly. “Real Sooners are not bigots, real Sooners are not racist.”

Personally, that last line drew my attention and gave me pause. In general, I’m a little ambivalent about “a zero tolerance” policy that can be sensationalised in an age where structural hurt and inequality readily bubble to the surface. “Enough is enough!” announce liberals until they’re red in the face. I’m here to say both that I agree, and that I don’t believe you. Enough is enough every time an unarmed black or brown body is gunned down at the hand of a police officer or vigilante.

I appreciate how Boren seems well-intentioned and genuinely disgusted by the SAE frat boys. He wrote several missives denouncing their actions and acted almost unilaterally to swiftly sever ties from the SAE. Two students in “leadership positions” at the fraternity have recently been expelled. While it’s clear from interviews that these boys are privileged enough to supported by their parents who have said things like, “of course they have a place to go,” the quick sanctions rendered the students homeless and without university-sponsored healthcare. But that’s almost tangential to my point. “Real Sooners are not bigots,” says Boren, but why not? Because he says so, that’s why. And that’s my problem. Don’t get me wrong, racist violence always has real, material consequences for the victims of it. It should have consequences for the perpetrators, too. The former frat boys should be, in some sense, sanctioned, excoriated, and stripped of any and power or privileges that they have. But they should not cease to exist in our consciousness. They should not be held up as paradigmatic of a few bad seeds successfully plucked from the crop when what’s at stake is the continued felling of black lives, brown lives, queer and trans* lives with increasing regularity in the United States.

Hear me out: while I understand the identity politics of “not in my name,” what if the students recently expelled from the University of Oaklahoma are “Real Sooners,” even as University President Boren keeps insisting they aren’t? At the very least, it would mean that they are part of a community and their individual choices are rooted in a more pernicious and structural racism. And it would be a radical challenge to neoliberal paradigms that focus on individual actions and covers up systemic problems. If the SAE frat boys are “Real Sooners,” then racism is a problem for White people, not just a handful of privileged teenaged idiots. Racism is more than a stranger in their backyards and is someone gonna come get these boys? I believe they now know for sure that their lives have been altered by racist thoughts and actions, which both have consequences, but where are they going now that they’re not Sooners? They are on our streets, breeding racial biases and anger because they were caught spewing the racism they probably learned from a very young age was best kept out of earshot of coloureds, because no one has sat them down and said “I love you, you’re in my community, this is unacceptable behaviour and has to change.” They are no longer a part of a communal university space where they might have had to encounter students who are not like them and learn about histories in which they are not the protagonist. They don’t have to learn that, as “Sooners,” they bear the name of illegal colonisers who took the land of American Indians under the guise of the “sooner clause” of the Indian Reappropriation Act of 1889, and so maybe they don’t want to be Sooners anyway.

Maybe I am naïve, but this seems a lot to me to be a problem also reflected in our prison industrial complex. Instead of protecting our communities we turn to the police who are gunning us down with alacrity. We feel threatened and we want to be a bigger threat. We are hurt and we demand a justice that looks an awful lot like retribution. We want an exorcism, as long as it promises to mask itself as spiritual healing. When first reading Boren’s response, I myself gave a nod of approval and even felt a sense of vindication. Any abolitionist would admit that envisioning a future of restorative justice seems fanciful, practically like science fiction, but I think we would do well to consider a bit of that magical thinking. While prisons are not directly involved here, the carceral nature of isolating teenage boys and breathing a collective sigh of relief, like “Not it,” seems a lot to me like reiterating the paradigms that make it difficult–damn near impossible for us to fully imagine a future free from violence and structural inequalities. I’m convinced that if those boys were claimed by their university and other community member in their lives, it would merit a lot more praise, be worthy of a little more hope. Instead of saying “not in my backyard,” claim your people and recognise that it is in your backyard, always has been. The violence is in your house, in your Prius, in you latte, its got your children and is setting your barn on fire. Enough is really enough. Let’s not wait to join together after the next murder or racist remark. Let’s not wait until the “fire next time.”

Sound off in the comments below!

5 Responses to “What if the SAE Frat Boys Are, In Fact, “Real Sooners”?”

  1. Emma

    Thanks for this great piece, SA. As an Okie ex-pat, I have been horrified by the latest in what seems to be a never ending stories of vitriolic hatred in Oklahoma. This is certainly not an incident contained to one chapter of a Greek organization, rather, as you suggest, this event is connected to deeper problems of rampant racism in the Sooner State. (More on this soon in a response blog.)

    • SA Smythe

      Thanks, Emma! I didn’t realise you were an Okie. Also, I like that we’re responding to each other–I was moved to respond to your Ana Tijoux piece a while back. Looking forward to hearing your perspective on the SAE aftermath.

  2. kevin j

    I’m very sympathetic to the underlying sentiment about restorative justice, etc. At the same time, as someone who grew up in Oklahoma the first 24 years of his life witnessing some pretty awful, intergenerational, and systemic white supremacy, I have to tip my hat to Boren here. This might also be the Foucault in me speaking, but it sure seems to me that making this punishment a public spectacle of shame and exclusion is in reality the only way that the public at large will ever feel that any sense of justice has been meted out at all, if only at a symbolic level (not to mention the benefits a punitive approach has in stimulating public discussion about larger systemic issues). Also, I’m not entirely sure what a “restorative” approach here would actually look like, since there are not really any existing institutions in place here that could claim to perform such a function that would *also* be accountable to the public. With that said, we should be building such institutions modeled on restorative justice and public accountability; so there, I’m def with you. At the same time, when faced with instances of toxic, systemic and intergenerational white supremacy, there’s little doubt that restorative models, while perhaps necessary, are far from sufficient. In any case, these are crucial questions to be asking – great post!

    • SA Smythe

      Thanks for your response, Kevin, it was really thoughtful. You write, “Also, I’m not entirely sure what a “restorative” approach here would actually look like, since there are not really any existing institutions in place here that could claim to perform such a function that would *also* be accountable to the public.”

      I totally understand the difficulties of imagination, especially for something for which we have no models. The politics of abolition is based on such futurity. I also have a more, say, Warnerian/Berlantian/Habermasian idea of a “public” and I definitely think the university is one, especially if, with a vision of restorative justice and abolition praxis the university is decolonised. It’s a tall, tall order and like I said in my post, I applauded Boren too for his outrage and trying to respond/be responsible. Moreover though I am grateful for how I was moved by this whole deal to think outside of retribution and try to think about what another kind of world could be, even if I don’t know how to concretely adhere to that kind of worldview yet.

      • kevin j

        SA: I’ve been reading a lot of stuff recently on counterpublic theory, but I need to read more. I’m curious how useful this might be for thinking about how more restorative models of communication and expression have developed historically through alternative institutions in domains like community mental health, which in turn might serve as future models. Is there any good stuff you know of on digital/internet counterpublics? Just something I’ve been thinking about!


Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS