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Reaction to the Oklahoma frat scandal shows just how poorly Americans understand racism

Video surfaced this week of frat boys singing a chant so off-the-charts offensive and brimming with textbook-style racism that it immediately went viral. It became a rare example of a story about bigotry that scarcely anyone even tried to excuse.

The white University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon members who were caught passionately belting out, "There will never be a ni**er at SAE ... you can hang him from a tree, but he'll never sign with me; there will never be a ni**er at SAE" were widely condemned by commentators, and slammed by horrified observers on social media. Two men identified in the clip have been expelled, and university President David Boren issued an epic, no-holds-barred response to their conduct, calling it "disgraceful" in a statement that oozed disgust.

Boren's actions were swift and decisive, and he did what he was supposed to do. But the most fascinating and instructive part of this story isn't about how to react when fraternity racism (or any other brand of racism) is caught on tape. Rather, this incident most saliently highlights how subpar our understanding of hate, discrimination, and white supremacy can be when these things don't come in made-for-YouTube, racial-slur-laden packages — which is most of the time —and how crippled Americans so often are when they try to understand individual racism, especially when it comes from young people.

The category of conduct that we can all agree is racist is ridiculously small

As Vox's Libby Nelson noted, the reaction to the SAE video was swift, and Boren's "We don't provide student services for bigots" statement stood out as unusually forceful, especially noteworthy in comparison to past, passive reactions to racism at other universities.

And there's been palpable silence when it comes to opposition to this decision. Nobody is protesting the students' expulsion. It's hard to find examples of anyone alleging that the students were misunderstood, or that they're targets of an unfair social media "witch hunt." Commentators haven't published op-eds lamenting that political correctness has run amok, or alleged that this is an example of white people being victimized in a changing America that fails to recognize their struggles.

This is unusual. It's easy to feel encouraged by the fact that most decent people are on the same page here.

But as Above the Law's Elie Mystal pointed out, this reaction was likely thanks to the fact that the fraternity members' conduct happened to fall into the insanely narrow category of behavior that Americans label flat-out racist and unacceptable.

Thank God Sigma Alpha Epsilon's University of Oklahoma chapter dared to go above and beyond to prove their racism. Thank God they actually sang a song. Because they pretty much could have done anything else without anybody suspending them or even complaining about racist behavior

He's right. Anything short of using a racial slur combined with an explicit celebration of exclusion and a joke/threat about lynching would have likely been dismissed as "racially loaded" or "controversial." Sure, it's nice when everyone agrees racism is bad and perpetrators deserve to be punished. But it's unfortunate that explicit, undeniable, beyond-the-pale behavior like the SAE members' is what it takes for us to get there.

The average kindergartener could understand that name-calling, excluding, and talking about committing violence against people because of their race would deserve a time-out. This isn't complicated. Most Americans, aside from actual robe-wearing Ku Klux Klan members, could probably be trusted see the chant was problematic.

Even the cast of MSNBC's Morning Joe, who inexplicably came to the consensus that the root problem here was not a belief that white people were better than black people but, rather, rap music (more on that later), at least understood that the students' conduct was out of bounds.

But that type of consensus — so limited to outrageous, unusual situations like this one — is useless if we can't count on it when racism shows up in our lives in other, more subtle ways.

Many people believe racism has to be spelled out or said out loud to be taken seriously or punished

Racist songs about lynching are shameful, and it's disheartening that people alive in 2015 think they're fun and appear to be thrilled with their underlying sentiments.

But it's important to remember that things like this don't represent the kinds of racism that make life hard for African-Americans on a daily basis. The much more common issues faced by colleges students and people of color all throughout America have to do with structural inequality — which is maintained through deeply held prejudices against black people. Hateful tunes sung on buses by probably drunken frat boys reflect this prejudice, but they certainly don't cause it. And although the SAE members deserved the discipline they got, individual punishments certainly don't fix America's racism problem.

The recent PBS film American Denial made the case that everything from the racialized, police-involved violence that has captured the country's attention in recent months to educational inequalities, economic disparities, and the incarceration crisis all have a common root: unconscious racism, also known as implicit bias. The film's creators pinned the blame on a belief — so deeply entrenched that many of us aren't even aware we hold it — that white people are better and more valuable than black people.

(Further reading: What is implicit bias?)

But footage of sociologists explaining their research on the roots of ongoing racial inequality doesn't tend to go viral in the same way videos of college kids screaming the n-word do. That's unfortunate, because the former reveals a lot more about what's wrong with America.

In a great demonstration of this dynamic, MSNBC's Chris Hayes used a segment of his Tuesday program to connect the reaction to the SAE video to the way the two Ferguson, Missouri, police officers who sent racist emails were fired in the wake of a Justice Department report about egregious racial bias in their ranks, while others who engaged in "systemic violations of civil rights" weren't.

The problem, Hayes explained, is that a hyperfocus on things like emailed jokes and chants distracts from the type of racism that isn't spelled out in bold letters or screamed aloud while someone records it with an iPhone. "There's something going on when we have these moments of universal condemnation and point and shame and name and say, 'That's racist, that N-word, that thing happening on the bus,'" he said. "Let's get rid of that, because it lets everybody off the hook about what's happening off the bus."

Blaming black people for white people's racism is still a thing

Sure, the negative reaction is swift and nearly universal when a white person is caught saying the n-word. But people often tie themselves into knots to place the blame for racist language on, well, anything but the actual racism that still exists in the country. For instance, there's an ongoing, tired debate about whether the use of the word "ni**er" in rap music, by black people, means it's been officially stripped of its racist connotations when said in everyday life by white people.

Many have argued that the so-called double standard here is unacceptable — and plenty have replied that that's an insane oversimplification of what's meant, and felt, when different people use the slur or one of its variations.

Perhaps this debate would have been appropriate to reference in response to the revelation that, in addition to the video of the fraternity members on the bus, their house mother was caught on tape signing along to a string of N-words in a song by rapper Trinidad James.

But instead, the cast of MSNBC's Morning Joe did something completely perplexing, appearing to blame rap music for the song the fraternity members were caught singing on the bus.

Discussing the SAE controversy, cohost Mika Brzezinski mused, "If you look at every single song, I guess you call these, that [rapper Waka Flocka Flame, who canceled an University of Oklahoma appearance after the SAE tape leaked, has] written, it's a bunch of garbage .... It's full of n-words, it's full of f-words. It's wrong. And he shouldn't be disgusted with them, he should be disgusted with himself." (Brzezinski has since clarified, saying she wasn't drawing a "moral equivalency.")

Bill Kristol agreed, saying, "Popular culture becomes a cesspool, a lot [of] corporations profit off of it, and then people are surprised that some drunk 19-year-old kids repeat what they've been hearing. "

Host Joe Scarborough got in on it, too, reasoning, "The kids that are buying hip-hop or gangster rap, it's a white audience, and they hear this over and over again. So do they hear this at home? Well, chances are good, no, they heard a lot of this from guys like this who are now acting shocked."

The three missed the fact that what was caught on video was a chant written by white people directly and explicitly about not letting black people into the group (and lynching them). Reminder: the lyrics were "There will never be a ni**er at SAE ... you can hang him from a tree, but he'll never sign with me; there will never be a ni**er at SAE."

It's hard to understand the logic that would attribute this to "hip-hop or gangster rap" music (recognizing the absurdity, Twitter users started the hashtag #RapAlbumsThatCausedSlavery). But the Morning Joe segment (and the take of Rush Limbaugh, who took their idea and ran with it, declaring that if Kanye West had sung the song "it would be a hit") offer a striking example of the way many Americans will manage to ensure black people are blamed for racism against them — whether it's bias by police officers, unfair treatment by teachers, housing discrimination, or, in this case, explicit, blatant expressions of hate and hostility.

Racism isn't going to die out with old people

Millennials are a little naive and delusional about race and racism. According to an MTV-sponsored national poll of Americans ages 18 to 24 conducted in 2014, 89 percent said they believed everyone should be treated equally, but only 37 percent said their families ever talked about race. A majority thought of themselves as "postracial."

(Further reading: Nothing is racist anymore: 17 racist incidents people actually tried to defend)

The vague interest in equality among this young crowd, combined with their lack of sophistication about how white supremacy operates, helps explain things like the annoying racial microaggressions that can make college tough for students of color these days. And their outlook makes the chances look slim that the next generation of leaders will be able to deal with inequality.

Slate's Jamelle Bouie, writing about the poll results, explained:

From these results, it's clear that-like most Americans-millennials see racism as a matter of different treatment, justified by race, that you solve by removing race from the equation. If we ignore skin color in our decisions, then there can't be racism.

The problem is that racism isn't reducible to "different treatment." Since if it is, measures to ameliorate racial inequality-like the Voting Rights Act-would be as "racist" as the policies that necessitated them. No, racism is better understood as white supremacy-anything that furthers a broad hierarchy of racist inequity, where whites possess the greatest share of power, respect, and resources, and blacks the least.

And the magic of white supremacy is that its presence is obscured by the focus on race.

The SAE members' use of the type of aggressive, racist language and sentiments that most people attribute to people their grandparents' age simply piles on to the racial ignorance of their more polite and well-intended peers.  And it's another reminder that there's little reason to be hopeful the simple passage of time will diminish prejudice and hostility.

No, racists aren't going to naturally die out and leave the world a better place. New ones are going out into the world every day, and rarely will their conduct be this easy to identify and condemn.

Watch: Race isn't biologically real

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