You might remember Sigma Alpha Epsilon from when the fraternity’s Oklahoma chapter was kicked off campus last year after several of its members were filmed singing a racist song. Although the chapter learned the song on a national leadership cruise, SAE’s directors insisted at the time that there was no endemic racism within their organization, which was founded in the 1800's by Confederate soldiers. News out of the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus in Madison once again calls that assertion into question.
Yesterday, the school suspended its SAE chapter after finding evidence of institutional racism that manifested in the repeated use of racial slurs and one incident of racial violence. Via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the school suspended the frat through Nov. 1 and barred it from recruiting new members this fall. It is also requiring SAE members to undergo diversity training and to meet with the school’s chancellor to discuss how they plan to implement changes upon reinstatement.
But that suspension feels light considering the allegations, which were first brought to the university’s attention on March 3 of this year by the lone black member of the fraternity. According to documents released by the university, the most severe incident occurred in 2014, when the man reported being choked by one of his brothers during a chapter meeting concerning the white members’ use of the n-word. (Redactions in the following excerpts were made by the school):
The school determined the student was a victim of, and witness to, extensive use of slurs, both before and after the choking incident. In one incident, the school reports, at least one fraternity member ran down the main drag in downtown Madison yelling racial slurs.
According to the school’s investigation, the student reiterated that he asked the fraternity’s white members to stop using the n-word but they excused the language by saying “no offense.” The university also found evidence that brothers were pressured not to snitch on those members who had used offensive language:
The abuse lasted through the school year, despite black member’s repeated requests that his white brothers stop using the slurs:
In deciding to suspend SAE, the school’s Committee on Student Organizations found that chapter leadership expelled and/or suspended brothers who perpetuated the abuse, but did nothing to change the culture within the fraternity. And, per the school, the fraternity handed the responsibility of rooting out racist, sexist, and homophobic language to its lone black member:
In determining whether SAE violated Code 2, the Committee examined the culture of SAE and actions taken by its executive members, and other individuals, when addressing concerns of discrimination. As noted above, with the evidence presented, the Committee agreed that the reporter had voiced his concerns of discrimination within his organization, and failed to see adequate reddress of those concerns. The Committee determined that SAE put an unfair burden on the reporter to address the cultural issues of SAE which included repeated use of racial slurs, bigoted jokes, and the general acceptance of derogatory language.
A summary of an interview with one of the leaders of the chapter gives a brief insight into how the black brother’s attempts at education were received by his white peers:
Though there appears to be something poisonous within SAE as a whole, even a year after the Oklahoma incident, it would be easy to pretend as if racism at a school like the University of Wisconsin—a classically liberal enclave—was limited to one fraternity with a bad reputation, or even within the Greek system in general. But another interview with an SAE brother illustrates something we know intuitively, which is that said racism is rooted deeply in our culture generally:
Discussions regarding campus culture wars tend to focus on the absurd—sidewalk chalk, sushi—but the sort of behavior described above is normalized and routine on campuses across the country, and encapsulates exactly why minority students seek “safe spaces.”