By John Gravois at The Star-Telegram
As the University of Oklahoma expelled two students from North Texas on Tuesday for leading a racist song that sparked outrage across the country, the fraternity involved said it would investigate incidents at other campuses as it faced questions over the chant’s use by members at other universities.
Former members of the fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, claimed on social media that the same chant was used at colleges in other states, and University of Oklahoma officials investigating the episode said they did not believe the song had originated on their campus.
“I’m not sure that it’s strictly local,” said the university’s president, David L. Boren, a former Oklahoma governor and U.S. senator. Boren expelled the two students Tuesday but did not identify them, saying they had played a leading a role in the singing of the chant and “created a hostile learning environment for others.”
The fraternity’s national headquarters, however, said the song was not a part of the “Sigma Alpha Epsilon tradition.”
“The chant is in no way endorsed by the organization nor part of any education whatsoever,” the national fraternity said in a statement.
One of the students expelled, Parker Rice, a graduate of Jesuit College Preparatory School in Dallas, issued a statement saying he was “deeply sorry” for the incident. The family of the other DFW-area student involved, Levi Pettit, a graduate of Highland Park High School, also issued an apology.
The campus here has been reeling since members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon were shown in two videos chanting a song whose lyrics included racial slurs boasting there would never be an African-American member. The song also referred to lynching, with the words “You can hang ’em from a tree.” The videos were recorded on Saturday night as fraternity members and their dates rode a bus to a formal event celebrating the national organization’s Founders Day.
The fraternity — started in 1856 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., before the Civil War — celebrates its Southern heritage. Its online magazine, The Record, described an initiative “to bring Sigma Alpha Epsilon closer to its antebellum roots, closer to the original experience and goals shared by the founding fathers.”
Boren, as well as the fraternity’s national headquarters in Illinois, shut down the chapter after the first video appeared Sunday, and university officials severed all ties to it Monday. Black students rallied outside the fraternity’s house late Tuesday before the midnight closing of the house.
“This is reflective of a larger issue,” said Marquis Ard, 23, an African-American senior who is a member of the black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha and captain of the university’s debate team. “If they’re doing that on a charter bus what are they doing in the library, at football games?”
As about 70 fraternity members moved their belongings out of the house, university officials worked to identify all of the students involved in the chant, who Boren said, would be “subject to appropriate disciplinary action.” The expulsion letter to the two students states that the action takes effect immediately and that they can contact the university’s Equal Opportunity Officer to contest the decision.
A libertarian group, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said Tuesday that it was unconstitutional for the university to expel fraternity members for their speech, no matter how hateful.
One of two Sigma Alpha Epsilon members expelled Tuesday for leading the racist chant was identified by his Catholic high school in Dallas, which has issued a public apology.
Rice, an OU freshman, is featured prominently in the video. He wears a tuxedo and smiles as he leads a bus full of fraternity members in singing, “You can hang ’em from a tree” and “There will never be a [racial slur] SAE,” clapping in unison to the tune of If You’re Happy and You Know It.
Rice, 19, graduated from Jesuit Dallas in 2014.
“It was wrong and reckless,” Rice said in a written statement. “For me, this is a devastating lesson and I am seeking guidance on how I can learn from this and make sure it never happens again. My goal for the long-term is to be a man who has the heart and courage to reject racism wherever I see or experience it in the future.”
Rice said in his statement that alcohol consumed at the fraternity house “fueled” the incident, and acknowledged that the song had been taught to him and other fraternity members. But he took responsibility for his actions.
“I didn’t say no, and I clearly dismissed an important value I learned about my beloved high school, Dallas Jesuit,” he said.
Jesuit President Mike Earsing released a statement via Twitter early Tuesday saying, “I am appalled by the actions in the video and extremely hurt by the pain this has caused our community. It is unconscionable and very sad that in 2015 we still live in a society where this type of bigotry and racism takes place. All of us at Jesuit Dallas are deeply committed to create a culture of justice and equality for all. This was certainly true when the School became the first in Dallas to integrate and it is true today.”
Dallas Catholic Bishop Kevin J. Farrell said in a statement that he is “extremely saddened that any young person could express such vile, repulsive sentiments.”
The video also brought a sharp rebuke from Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who is a board member of the Jesuit school. He said he hopes people around the nation do not associate the actions of two people with Dallas’ large and diverse population.
“If we are going to be the city and the community we want to be, there’s no place for making fun of women, of minorities, of people in the LGBT community,” he said. “Let’s just stop that right now and grow up.”
A family’s apology
Meanwhile, Pettit’s parents, Brody and Susan Pettit, posted an apology on a website Tuesday, saying, “As parents of Levi, we love him and care for him deeply. He made a horrible mistake, and will live with the consequences forever.”
However, the Pettits continued, “we also know the depth of our son’s character. He is a good boy, but what we saw in those videos is disgusting. While it may be difficult for those who only know Levi from the video to understand, we know his heart, and he is not a racist. We raised him to be loving and inclusive and we all remain surrounded by a diverse, close-knit group of friends.”
Added the family: “We are sad for our son — but more importantly, we apologize to the community he has hurt. We would also like to apologize to the — entire African American community, University of Oklahoma student body and administration. Our family has the responsibility to apologize, and also to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Our words will only go so far — as a family, we commit to following our words with deeds.”
A new video spread on social media on Tuesday showing the white woman who was the fraternity’s live-in “house mother,” Beauton Gilbow, 79, laughing as she repeatedly says a racial slur while singing along to a rap song in the background. The footage was posted in 2013 to the video sharing service Vine.
Gilbow, who acknowledged in a statement to a local television station that she was the person in the video, said she was “heartbroken by the portrayal that I am in some way racist.” She said that she had been singing along to the song, but that she completely understood “how the video must appear in the context of the events that occurred this week.”
The fallout reverberated Tuesday far from the University of Oklahoma campus here. One of the nation’s most sought-after high school football players, Jean Delance of Mesquite, who is black, withdrew his commitment to play for Oklahoma, citing the videos.
The chant was not the first time a Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter had been involved in a racially charged episode. The fraternity’s chapters at universities across the country have faced sanctions or have been forced to participate in cultural awareness programs over their members’ use of racial slurs and their roles in theatrics deemed offensive to African-Americans. Since the 1980s, there have been at least 10 such episodes.
Chapters have gotten into trouble for racially themed parties, most recently at Clemson University. The chapter was suspended in December for holding a “Cripmas” party. A similar party stirred anger at Baylor University in 2006. Several chapters annually hold “jungle parties,” which often go without controversy, but the one at Texas A&M in 1992 sparked an uproar after some white students went in blackface, while others, dressed like hunters, chased them.
The national fraternity denied that it was in any way a racist organization.
Schools: University of Oklahoma