NBC BLK: SAE Fraternity and The White Snitch Phenomenon

Way back in 2004 the press and pop culture became obsessed with the “Stop Snitching” campaign.

Snitching — which is really just a layman’s term for whistleblowing — was seen as the lowest form of betrayal. Rappers, law enforcement, criminals and pundits argued over this idea that you don’t rat out your friends, co-workers, or even criminal conspirators because betrayal is a worse crime than whatever it was you’re going to the authorities about.

But the truth is, almost nothing in America has ever progressed without a few snitches here and there. And nowhere is that more evident than in the recent scandal of the racist chant caught on video, as performed by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma.
There are plenty of legal, social and financial implications of this scandal to unpack, but the most overlooked aspect of the story is that somebody, on that bus, snitched. And despite all of the ugliness revealed by that video and the young men involved, the fact that we even heard about this story is a sign of amazing racial progress in the Obama era.

The University of Oklahoma and the SAE national fraternity were swift to punish the students involved in the racist chant. The fraternity brothers laugh and cheer as they sing about how black people should be lynched and how they’d never allow African Americans in their frat. It’s pretty evident that this chant has been around for a long time, despite preposterous attempts to pin it on rappers. The conversation about the origins of the chant is just a red herring.

While I do not believe that students should be expelled just for saying racist words — they are entitled to free speech and they were not using University equipment, or making explicit threats — the wrangling over the legality of his action should not overshadow the significance of how this entire situation came to be known.

SAE wasn’t exposed because of some dimwitted Facebook post of a racist dress up party, or some equally obnoxious Instagram. Someone on that BUS, most definitely a white person, and quite possibly a member of SAE filmed their chant and felt compelled to report it to authorities.

The SAE scandal is the manifestation of the racist’s biggest nightmare in the Obama era: they are losing their safe spaces.

There used to be a “Mad Men” type time in America when you could spout your angry racist invective and know that other white people — whether they agreed with you or not — would maintain that wall of white silence. Not anymore.

Some of the biggest racial controversy stories over the last few years have not been African Americans exposing white bigotry but white people exposing other white people for being bigots.

In 2013, when Paula Deen’s accuser Lisa Jackson said “I may be a white woman, but racism still hurts,” that wall started to crumble. In 2014 when North Carolina school teacher Cynthia Ramsey was suspended for reportedly saying she would “kill all black people,” I’m sure she was shocked when it was a white parent that reported her.

When Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R- WI) can’t make racial jokes about Michelle Obama in a white senior citizen’s church bazaar because FLOTUS has fans, the world is changing. A bus full of white frat boys in Oklahoma used to be about the safest space for open air bigotry in America – but after this scandal, even that can be called into question.

It is never easy to be a snitch, especially when the organization that you’re about to expose is one that you have pledged loyalty to for the rest of your life. Nevertheless it cannot be understated that there is a hero in the midst of this scandal who clearly put his moral conscience above his own safety, his own social standing, his fraternity and most importantly his racial privilege.

There will likely never be a point where there aren’t racists in America, and certainly the millennial generation is no panacea of racial progress. However, like President Obama so eloquently said in his speech last Sunday in Selma, we can’t give in to cynicism either.

Fifty years ago when this chant was probably recited before every meal at SAE, nobody in the fraternity even had a problem with it, let alone felt morally compelled to bring scorn and condemnation to the organization over the chant.

When the whitest of white spaces, the hallowed chant of a white fraternity in Oklahoma is no longer a safe space for bigotry, we’re seeing progress, and that’s something worth celebrating.

This article originally appeared online at NBC BLK.

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