SAE, Ferguson, and the Myth of a Few Bad Apples

I started Monday morning the same way I start every weekday: I reached for my phone, turned off my alarm, and opened my Twitter feed to shake off the sleepies. At the top of my feed was a video of members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Oklahoma enthusiastically shouting a racist chant involving the n-word and lynching. Within hours, OU kicked the fraternity off campus and SAE’s national headquarters shut the chapter down. The next day, two students were expelled. The incident was widely and quickly denounced by everyone from university president David Boren to football coach Bob Stoops to the hundreds of students who protested the incident on campus.

Last week, I started several mornings by reading the details of the Department of Justice’s damning report about Ferguson, which outlined the city’s systematic oppression of its black residents. Among the offenses listed were a number of racist emails that had been widely forwarded by city employees. One person responsible for the emails was fired, and two more resigned.

In my mind, these firings and expulsions are appropriate responses – but they are not enough. They communicate that the organizations take these issues seriously and these behaviors are unacceptable, both of which are good things. For better and for worse, they also satisfy the public’s primal sense of justice, our desire to see some kind of swift and immediate action in response to an offense. But when it comes to addressing the systemic issues involved in both incidents, these actions fall woefully short.

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