The Oklahoma Racism Scandal: Why It’s Wrong to Punish the Students

by Benjamin Studebaker

The University of Oklahoma was recently scandalized when footage emerged in which members of the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon sang a revoltingly racist song:

This should make us think long and hard–how are young people acquiring racist beliefs? What are the social, economic, and environmental factors that lead young people to think negatively of other people based on their racial background? To what extent is wider society influenced by these same factors? How can we mitigate them and create a more fair and just society? But we’re not asking any of these questions. Instead, we’re going after the students and patting ourselves on the back for not being racist. That’s a mistake–here’s why.

The University of Oklahoma saw this scandal as a threat to its reputation and responded to that threat by publicly naming, shaming, and punishing those students whom they could identify. The university disaffiliated itself from the fraternity and expelled two of the students. By taking these actions, the university has attempted to drive home the point that it does not endorse racism.

It’s a worthy goal. For the sake of the university’s students, it is absolutely imperative that the university make a stand against racism in all its forms. The university must ensure that all students feel safe and welcome. But there’s a legitimate question as to how the university should make that point. There are two strategies the university could have employed:

  1. Engagement
  2. Punishment

The university chose punishment. By choosing punishment, the university sweeps the racial issue under the rug. It does not make any effort to change the thinking of racist people. Instead, it tries to make them go away. Punishing racism doesn’t eliminate racism, it just discourages its open expression and makes it more difficult for racists to be identified and rehabilitated. In the meantime, it sends a bad message to racists. Whenever there’s an effort made to silence speech, the implication is that we can’t engage with it, that if we were to engage with it, we’d lose. When we make a taboo out of racism, we turn racist speech into a subversive act. For the young and ignorant, those who have grown up in comfortable settings with little experience of how racism affects real people, this makes it seem cool.

In On LibertyJohn Stuart Mill explained why we should allow people to advance views that we think are deeply repugnant, so much so that we can’t even imagine the possibility that they could ever be right:

There is a class of persons (happily not quite so numerous as formerly) who think it enough if a person assents undoubtingly to what they think true, though he has no knowledge whatever of the grounds of the opinion, and could not make a tenable defence of it against the most superficial objections. Such persons, if they can once get their creed taught from authority, naturally think that no good, and some harm, comes of its being allowed to be questioned. Where their influence prevails, they make it nearly impossible for the received opinion to be rejected wisely and considerately, though it may still be rejected rashly and ignorantly; for to shut out discussion entirely is seldom possible, and when it once gets in, beliefs not grounded on conviction are apt to give way before the slightest semblance of an argument. Waiving, however, this possibility—assuming that the true opinion abides in the mind, but abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof against, argument—this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being. This is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.

Among the general public, opposition to racism has become something like this–an accidentally true superstition, a dead dogma. A while back, I made a distinction between two kinds of racism:

  1. Explicit Racism–people of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or orientation X are inferior by nature.
  2. Implicit Racism–people of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or orientation Y have a defective culture.

In our society, too many people only recognize explicit racism. Today, the number of explicit racists is small. Few people would openly admit to being explicit racists, and whenever a person is caught saying anything explicitly racist, there is a mass outcry for someone to make that person go away.

But many other people who pat themselves on the back when an explicit racist goes away are themselves implicitly racist. They are just as apt to make racial judgments, they just do it in a slightly more closeted way. Instead of saying “black people are inferior”, they say something like “black culture is morally bankrupt” or “blacks have a culture of violence”. Every time, the argument is the same:

  1. Some fact about the state of group X relative to group Y (e.g. “they’re poorer than whites”, “more likely to go to prison”, “more likely to be on welfare”, “more likely to be unemployed”, etc.)
  2. The fact about group X is attributed to group X’s culture (e.g. “blacks have a culture of violence” or “black people need to take responsibility for their kids”).
  3. Because “group X culture” is to blame for the group’s relative position, the state is exonerated from any duty to resolve inequalities, allowing them to persist, and the people in group Y are free to disparage group X for its cultural or moral failings.

This is not only racist, it is racist in precisely the same way that explicit racism is racist–it negatively judges people based on what group they are in. The only difference is that instead of appealing to a natural or genetic difference, the racist appeals to cultural or moral differences. In some ways implicit racism is even worse than explicit racism. If you believe black people are genetically inferior, you can’t blame them for this. But if you think black people are morally inferior, it becomes legitimate to view them with disgust and refuse to help them. And this is how we get opposition to welfare, the war on poverty, housing equality, and other policies that would help poor people from different backgrounds to make progress.

With both explicit and implicit racism, the racist makes a mistake of attributing the behavior of people in a group to the wrong cause. Insofar as blacks make less money, commit more crimes, have more teen pregnancies, or otherwise have worse life outcomes than whites, this is because blacks have less economic opportunity than whites. It has nothing to do with black genetics or black culture. There is no genetic difference in intelligence or capacity between blacks and whites, and culture is the product of socioeconomic factors, not the cause of said factors.

We are all the products of our genetics, our environment, and quantum randomness. No person chooses to be poor, commit crimes, or have a low standard of living. These things happen to people because of the kinds of backgrounds they have, and people have the kinds of backgrounds they have because of government policies and political choices that we all make collectively.

But too many of us haven’t learned this. We don’t engage racists in constructive dialogues, we shut them up and make them go away. As a result, we don’t think through racial issues, and racism in all but the most explicit forms continues to go on unchecked. Even the explicit racists do not change their minds–they simply go underground, where we can’t see them. Every town, every university, every city has hundreds or thousands or millions of explicit racists we don’t even know about because we’ve swept them under the rug. And there are exponentially more implicit racists that do not even know enough to recognize themselves as such.

The central lesson that needs to be learned to kill racism is that every person is a social product. No person chooses freely what to believe, what to say, or what to do. Every “decision” we make is the result of genetics and socialization, heredity and environment. Once we learn this lesson, we then realize that instead of blaming individuals for their poverty, their crime, their poor living standards, we have to look for the underlying social and structural causes of their suffering and alleviate those causes. With the right social policies and political choices, every person born with reasonable genetic capacities can be a productive member of society, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or orientation.

But you see, if we had learned that lesson, then we would also recognize that racists are themselves social products! Racists don’t just choose to be racist, they learn racism from our society, as a result of our social policies and political choices. It is their socialization, their environment, that makes them racist. They are not to blame for the fact that they believe ignorant and repugnant things. When someone believes, says, or does something racist, we are all participants in the shame because the policies we have collectively chosen have produced this result. So when we blame racists and punish them, we deny our own culpability. We deny the role society has played in manufacturing these attitudes.

This only serves to further the idea that individuals freely choose what they believe, say, and do. And the idea that individuals freely choose what they believe, say, and do is the core idea at the center of all racist thinking. By punishing racists, we concede racism’s first premise–that there is nothing we as a society can do for certain kinds of people because they choose to embrace an intrinsically defective culture. They choose poverty, they choose crime, they choose to be racist. None of these things are chosen, they are learned, and we are all each other’s students and teachers.

And when our students come to class confused, when they make mistakes, we must not blame them. We must instead ask ourselves what we are doing wrong as teachers. What’s wrong with our social structure? We aren’t creating enough opportunities for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed. When they fail, they turn to deviant, anti-social behaviors and get negatively stereotyped on this basis. Give them opportunities, and they’ll succeed. If they succeed, they won’t be associated with deviance, and if they are not associated with deviance it will become steadily less possible to sustain the stereotypes.

In America in the 1940’s, basketball was considered a Jewish sport. Then demographics changed–blacks moved into the cities to find jobs and the whites fled to the suburbs. Now basketball is considered a black sport, and Jews are stereotyped as nonathletic. But this change has nothing to do with blacks or Jews–basketball is a sport that flourishes in cities, and it was the presence of urban jobs that caused the population shift that caused the cultural shift. In every case in which there is a cultural stereotype, you could tell this kind of story about it–one that attributes the difference to social and structural forces, not individual choice.

Now, some will balk at this argument. What about the other students at the University of Oklahoma? They feel that they’re in a hostile environment, and it’s true that expelling the students might make them feel a little better about the campus. But here’s the truth–for every explicit racist who speaks out, there are many more who remain silent, and even more implicit racists who may or may not frequently air their repellent views. The university needs to make it clear that it doesn’t endorse racism–that was achieved by closing down the fraternity. The next step needed to be engagement. The university needed to educate the fraternity’s members. It could have done so by requiring them to attend  classes that would have taught them about the economic and structural causes of racial disparities and the role social policies play in perpetuating those disparities. This could have made those kids better people–it could have rehabilitated them, and it could have helped many other students to learn more about how racism operates.

Instead, we got more punishment, which only serves to reinforce racist thinking and discourage racists from subjecting their opinions to public scrutiny. We need to stop making racists go away and start treating them the way we should treat all of our fellow citizens–as individual social projects, as our collective responsibility. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, even when our brothers and sisters believe, say, or do terrible things.