When Racist Acts Obscure Racism

We rush to identify, punish and isolate the racists—like members of a University of Oklahoma fraternity—without scrutinizing racism.

Imagine walking into a middle school. A 12-year-old is leading a class. The adults pass notes and fidget in their seats. The school cafeteria is serving soufflés on white table cloths. It would feel like the Bizarro World from the Superman comics had taken effect—and the world had become a parallel universe where up is down and right is left and nothing quite makes sense.

Bizarro World is the only explanation I could muster for how a major news channel could excuse a busload of white fraternity members for chanting about hanging black men from a tree by blaming a musical genre—rap music. Watching MSNBC’s morning show shift responsibility for a racist, vulgar chant (“There will never be a n----- at SAE/You can hang him from a tree/But he'll never sign with me/There will never be a n----- at SAE”) from a group of University of Oklahoma students to “kids that are buying hip hop … gangster rap” got me thinking about this inverted universe.

In a world where everything is opposite and backwards, we rush to identify, punish and isolate the racists without scrutinizing racism—leaving the structural systems and historical legacies that produce racists untouched. We sidestep evidence that Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity proudly traces its roots to the Confederacy, when Southerners went to war to preserve the “quaint” custom of enslaving black people. We label adults singing about lynching—a vile, racially violent act—an isolated incident, as we downplay behavior more indicative “of a mentality that's widespread and persistent.”

Because when everything operates in reverse, a major media powerhouse can feel justified holding a black rap artist culpable for college students using a virulent racial slur. Black people can be held up as the bonafide racists, and hip-hop music as the culprit rather than as a creative format with immense teaching and learning potential. In this surreal environment, satire is the only antidote to chip away at faulty logic.

Of course, in the real world, the refusal to discuss racism honestly and directly results in a mental shell game that is chronic throughout our society, notably in education and schools.

When we focus on overt acts—from racist chants to high school students altering a photo to show a noose around a black boy’s neck and dressing like a monkey and banana to taunt black basketball players—we distract from subtle and far more destructive patterns. Black students are suspended and expelled more than any other racial or ethnic group for committing the same offenses as their white peers. Nationally, there is an increase in the number of students taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes, but the numbers for black students in AP is unchanged. These are symptoms of a much larger systemic problem.

Elizabeth A. Self, a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College and former high school English teacher, is doing important and valuable work helping pre-service teachers shine a light on racial and cultural blindspots. Her current research moves the debate from why teachers need racial and cultural competence to how teachers can help combat racism, sexism and other -isms by seeing their own biases, being responsive to historically marginalized and underserved students and effecting change beyond themselves in society. The result is clarity of purpose and direction.

At the University of Oklahoma, President David Boren is widely credited for his response to the viral video. He expressed vehement disgust, closed the fraternity and expelled two of the students identified as the ringleaders. But, as CNN contributor Eric Liu notes, more leadership is called for, through the types of examination Self espouses.

David Boren can now examine the institution he works for and ask how and why such attitudes and behaviors -- racism so casually vicious -- could ever take root among people as young as freshmen. He can explore the ways in which everyone -- not only the obviously guilty parties at a frat party -- is touched by unconscious bias and institutional racism. He can now ask his community to face the inequities of history and race. We can all do that.

This isn't about rap music. It's about reflection that leads to meaningful action. It’s time to leave the illogical, nonsensical Bizarro World behind.

Anderson is an education writer and activist for educational equity. Follow her on Twitter @mdawriter.

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