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Here We Go Again – Frat Racism at Syracuse

You know, you’d think that after blackface party costumes at an Auburn fraternity became a scandal in the national newsmedia, frat boys would learn that blackface is not all that good of an idea as a prank costume.

If you did, you thought wrong. In what seems to have been a conscious decision to further shatter my faith in the basic human capacity to learn from past experience, Aaron Levine, a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, went on his fraternity bar-hopping party dressed in blackface [Syracuse Daily Orange], in what he claims was a Tiger Woods costume.

After student protests, the case was referred to the Office of Judicial Affairs. Levine faces possible expulsion from the school for violation of the Code of Student Conduct and the fraternity faces possible suspension.

The protesting students also demanded structural changes to school policy to improve the institutional racial environment, including new policies for reporting and punishing similar incidents, diversity training for students and employees, and reinstatement of the Black Student Union Building and Black Panhellenic House.

Meanwhile, Levine has said the following in his defense:

  • The my one black friend thought it was O.K. excuse — According to Levine, he asked a Black fraternity brother (SAE is predominantly white) whether the costume was offensive, and he said it was not. Whenever there’s a scandal over a blackface costume I see this same excuse and I still can’t figure out why anyone even bothers offering it. So your one Black friend thought it was O.K. Fine — but your one Black friend does not think or speak for all Black people in the world. This is mind-numbingly obvious and yet they go on using this excuse as if it meant something. I have to wonder whether it’s really just a way of saying Hey, man, some of my best friends are black rather than actually responding to the person offended.

  • The you’re taking this way too far excuseEverything’s being blown out of proportion, Levine said. It’s hard to please the mob. I’ll talk to any individual. This excuse is useful to Levine — it lets him pretend that he is the martyr of an irrational mob rather than actually personally engaging with the people who are confronting him. Well, look, I understand the feeling that this has gone way further than you ever meant it to go. But that’s the nature of the beast. When you offend someone, you don’t get to choose just how much s/he is supposed to be offended. If you’ve offended someone, your job is to take accountability for what you’ve done, to personally engage with them and understand where they are coming from.

    This seems to come from a general misunderstanding of what it means when a person’s speech or actions are offensive. Now, people can certainly be intentionally offensive–think of the average grade school bully. But most of life is not like this. If it was only what people intended that could be offensive, then a lot fewer people would be offended, because most of the time people don’t intend to piss each other off. But most of the time, what’s offensive has nothing to do with what the person intended; it has to do with what s/he was willing to ignore. In dressing up in blackface for shits and giggles, Levine surely didn’t intend to piss everyone off, but he was ignoring a long and bloody history of brutal racism behind blackface. And that is offensive, not just to people of color, but to anyone with a sense of history and a hope for racial justice. Which brings us to…

  • The I am too stupid to take responsibility for my actions excuseLevine said he had no knowledge of the history of blackface. Well, I guess that’s obvious. But rather than getting defensive and protesting his innocence, Levine ought to take this as an opportunity to educate himself about why the hell people are so pissed off at him. There is a history to these images. They are not just obsolete ephemera flashing across a History Channel documentary. For more on blackface humor and the history of white supremacy behind it, I recommend Bryan Thomas’s column Bamboozled: A True Story [Bryan Thomas. Talk.], and Spike Lee’s spectacular film Bamboozled.

How much longer is it going to take before Universities start getting serious about promoting diversity and undermining institutional racism in their campus culture? We shouldn’t have to wait for scandalous incidents like this one to realize that, in a culture where white privilege deeply shapes the composition and direction of most campus cultures, we need to take some serious steps to open up the University as a space in which students of color can participate. Students of color need spaces such as multicultural center buildings, where they can come together to build their voice and strength for participation in the campus community. Administrators and faculty need to prioritize programs which educate students about the history of race in American culture and politics, and which facilitate greater understanding and openness across racial/ethnic lines. Given the relationship between race and economic class, they also need to talk seriously about making college more affordable and a better experience for low-income students. Administrators need to get serious in holding the organizations and individuals responsible for hate images responsible, but what’s far more important than that is that they also work towards creating and maintaining a campus environment in which people actually understand something about race and white students don’t just think that throwing around casual racism is O.K.

(In related news, Auburn may be faltering or even failing in this regard, despite the bold promises administration made after our own blackface scandal hit the national airwaves. But that is another story entirely; watch this space for the upcoming story on developments in Auburn.)

And for God’s sake, how much longer is it going to take historically white fraternities to realize how much it hurts them, as people and as an organization, to allow this kind of institutionalized racism to fester in their houses? Every few months another incident like this happens. It hits the news, people yell, the frat boys get punished, and then it happens again at another frat house somewhere else in the country. Or it even happens again at another frat house on the same campus, as if no-one in the historically white Greek system had ever figured out that this might just not be cool with other people. I mean, Christ, even amoebas can learn through operant conditioning. Can’t we expect at least that much cognitive functioning from frat boys?

For further reading:

  • GT 11/14/2001 Auburn chapter of Delta Sigma Phi dissolved, and how anti-Southern prejudice undermines the struggle for change in the North and South
  • GT 11/14/2001 Auburn chapter of Beta Theta Pi dissolved, and commentary on the moral crippling of laid-back liberalism
  • GT 11/9/01 the broader context of racism in Auburn
  • GT 11/6/2001, the original report on the Halloween blackface incident

7 replies to Here We Go Again – Frat Racism at Syracuse Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Martin Striz

    “How much longer is it going to take [sic] before Universities start getting serious about promoting diversity…”

    Hooray for social engineering.

  2. Charles W. Johnson

    Martin,

    Calls for programs which undermine institutional racism, especially in schools, are often met with the charge that they are “social engineering.”Quite honestly, I find this charge to be puzzling: I find it really hard to give a meaning to the term “social engineering” where it is something bad.

    What’s the purpose of an educational institution? To produce a society, or at least part of a society, which is well-educated, intelligent, critical, etc. Is this “social engineering?” Sure, in a sense–we are trying to instill particular intellectual virtues and values of knowledge and critical reasoning.

    The question to me doesn’t seem to be whether it’s right or wrong to promote particular social values through institutions like schools. Rather, the question is whether it’s part of the educational institution’s legitimate purposes to instill values such as intercultural understanding, negotiation of diversity in a pluralistic society, and so on.

    I happen to think that these are values which are necessarily tied up with the idea of liberal education, which is based on distinguishing between phusis and nomos, and seeking phusis. That’s not possible without being able to negotiate the diverse perspectives in which the people in a society are situated. Liberal education is not possible where institutionalized racism poisons our ability to have a true dialogue, to move from our own particularity toward a common understanding.

  3. Martin Striz

    I have a problem silencing any viewpoints, and unpopular views are the ones that need protection the most. If someone has pernicious or derogatory views of an entire “race” of people, engage that person, find out what the objections are and if/why/how they are wrong. Don’t just smack the person on the wrist or, worse yet, kick him out of school entirely. School is a place for discourse and edification, not for lectures and brainwashing, right?

    This is a propos of the current crisis in the middle east, actually. Anybody who criticizes Israel is immediately branded an anti-Semite. Of course, what is completely overlooked is that these people (you and I included) have legitimate objections, but that never gets through, because people will slough us off when we’re branded anti-Semitic.

  4. Charles W. Johnson

    Martin,

    Thanks again for the insightful comments.

    Before I begin, I want to quickly comment on the charges that opponents of Israeli government policy are all “anti-Semitic.” I think the proper response to this is just to argue that it’s not true. There’s nothing in supporting the struggle of the Jewish people against anti-Semitism, which commits you to supporting the military actions of the Israeli government against Palestinians, so the charge of racism is wrong. Levine’s case is different. It’s not a matter of his blackface capers being wrongly conflated with racism. Blackface is horrendously racist. Even if that is not the intent that Levine consciously held in mind. This is a case where he simply should have known better.

    Now, concerning the main point. One thing to keep in mind is that there are several issues being tangled together in debate over the present incident. Here are the major ones that I see:

    1. Moral evaluation of the person who goes out in blackface.

    2. Disciplinary measures taken against the person who goes out in blackface

    3. Disciplinary measures taken against the fraternity who sponsored the events at which the person went out in blackface

    4. Measures taken by the University to address and undermine institutional racism in the campus culture

    Regarding (1), moral criticism — This is what the bulk of my article was about. I find it just astounding that there are still people out there who just don’t get it that blackface might not be cool with everyone, and that they continue to get defensive when someone calls them on it. Morally, everyone is accountable for what they say and do, and Levine is clearly in the wrong.

    Regarding (2), Levine’s disciplinary status — The boy faces possible expulsion from the school for his behavior. I agree with you that kicking him entirely out of school would be the wrong thing to do, on many levels. However, I do not agree that there should be no disciplinary penalty at all for his behavior. The history and nature of Blackface is, I think, sufficient to make this a case of discriminatory harassment, and there have to be institutional procedures to deal with it. A good penalty, I think, would be to sit the boy down in a room, invite any Black student who wishes to to come in and talk to him, yell at him, or lecture him, for a good couple of hours.

    Concerning the academic freedom issue: Syracuse, like every University, has a duty to preserve an open and critical atmosphere for discussion; which includes discussion of pernicious and degrading views. However, it also has a duty to foster an environment in which students from all backgrounds can communicate, without being harassed and insulted and intimidated into silence. This means, I think, that it has no right to censor the content or conscience of the members of its campus community, but it has every right to address forms of expression which are silencing to others, including the use of blackface. It wasn’t merely the fact that what Levine did was racist–you can argue with racism, if presented in civil discourse. You can’t argue with a Stepin Fetchit costume. It’s just a non-cognitive insult.

    Regarding (3), the frat’s responsibility — the University has a responsibility not to extend privileges to organizations which violate its basic mission, and should have basically free reign to suspend recognition of the fraternity or make it conditional on some form of mediated settlement, in orderr to make sure that SAE does not sponsor and promote events which degrade the racial climate on campus.

    Regarding (4), efforts to promote diversity — this is what the discussion in the comments originally started over. I think in your follow-up comment, you assumed that (4) would mostly consist of disciplinary actions such as (2) and (3). I disagree. In fact, I think disciplinary actions (while important) should decidedly take a back seat to more pro-active responses, such as the establishment and support of multicultural centers or Black Student Union buildings. It means prioritizing programs which educate students about the history of race and white supremacy in America. It means scholarship programs and reductions in tuition to help low-income students be able to afford to go to the school in the first place. If there are going to be Greeks on campus, given the history of racial segregation, the University should put serious pressure on social fraternities and sororities to racially integrate. And so on. I don’t see how any of these sorts of programs to enhance diversity can really be construed as suppressing any set of ideas.

· December 2002 ·

  1. anonymous

    He was Tiger Woods. Thats it. His hero, Tiger Woods. Damn, everyone has to calm down and stop looking at every single situation as racist. The people who protested claimed that “Mr. Levine dressing up as Tiger Woods is like one of us [the protesters] dressing up as Hitler”. I say fuck you. Tiger woods is only a quarter black and plays golf. To have him compared to Hitler makes me sick. Relax and stop trying to further sepearte the races.

— 2006 —

  1. Anonymous

    okay wait, you said, “A good penalty, I think, would be to sit the boy down in a room, invite any Black student who wishes to to come in and talk to him, yell at him, or lecture him, for a good couple of hours.”

    then you said, “it also has a duty to foster an environment in which students from all backgrounds can communicate, without being harassed and insulted and intimidated into silence.”

    So it is ok for people to speak their minds as long as it is speech that you agree with. That doesn’t sound like justice to me…

  2. Rad Geek

    Anonymous,

    I don’t give a damn whether or not people can speak their minds in a University setting. Academic freedom and freedom of speech are two entirely different concerns.

    The issue is not whether a given opinion may or may not be expressed. People have all kinds of opinions, and the fact that John or Joan Undergraduate happens to have such-and-such a view is not even remotely interesting. What is interesting is whether the view is defensible: whether it is true or false, whether it is well-founded or unfounded, whether the arguments and evidence given for it are strong or weak, whether the objections to it are cogent or less than cogent.

    The ability to speak your mind within a university setting is only valuable within the context of a certain sort of discourse. Being able to advocating for a particular view without reprisals from the administration is only relevant so far as your advocacy takes the form of reasoned, academic argument.

    That means that every University, in order to be successful as an educational institution, has to limit the sorts of speech that are protected by academic freedom. If you go into a history department belligerently demanding that your advocacy of Holocaust denial — a position dishonestly argued and resoundingly refuted — be taken seriously, you will be laughed out of the building, and rightly so. Holocaust denial is treated with contempt by serious academic historians because the position is facially absurd and the arguments made on its behalf simply do not live up to the standards of serious academic inquiry.

    And while dressing up in blackface for Halloween expresses a (very cruel) racist insult, it does not provide any argument or evidence for racist views at all. It merely constitutes an act of bullying (whether deliberate or not) which serves to make the campus community that much more hostile to black students. The University has no obligation, under principles of academic freedom or under any other principle, to continue to host students who make the campus worse in that way.

    Of course, you have a perfect right to believe all of these things, to defend them as sloppily as you like, to express them as stupidly and crudely and offensively as you like, and to say all of this in any forum in which you have invited to speak. But Universities have no obligation to extend you the invitation, if your mode of expression conflicts with the basic purpose or norms of the institution.

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