SAE and the Racist History of the American Greek System

In light of recent events of the exposé of racist behavior by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter in Oklahoma University, dialogues about the widespread racism in the greek system are being demanded. Usually when white and/or affluent students act up, universities tend to play dumb and release superficial statements about how they “do not condone” such behavior. However, the perpetrators are not met with any real consequences. Nobody wants to admit that there’s a history and system of racism and discrimination on campuses. Instead of treating this case as an isolated incident, it is imperative that we use it to further shed light on the dark history of the American greek system.


For those of you unaware of what happened, the SAE chapter at OU was caught in a private video that surfaced of members singing a highly racist song. They are seen in a bus with a man standing and leading the rendition of “If You’re Happy And You Know It.” In the song, they claim that “there will never be a n***** in SAE” and make references to lynching, a common practice by the KKK and many white Americans only a few decades ago. Members involved claimed that the song was taught to them, as if that excused its existence in the first place. The public was shocked, and rightfully so.

The University reacted swiftly and mercilessly. It closed down the house, expelled two members who were leading the chant, and suspended the rest. It is in the process of expelling all students involved, and also released a statement that showed it would not tolerate this kind of behavior to any degree. OU showed no hint of trying to excuse what the students did and called them “disgraceful.” It reacted more honorably than most schools that become aware of racism on their campuses.

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Sadly, it did not come as a surprise to many that SAE members, often referred to as “sexual assault expected” or “same assholes everywhere” by other students, were virulently racist. Established in 1856, Sigma Alpha Epsilon was notorious for its involvement with the Confederacy. In fact, the founders and over 350 members fought for the Confederacy in the US Civil War. This was a history that they proudly flaunted, but are now trying to clumsily hide. There’s also a photo of an SAE house flying the Confederate flag. There were also several incidents in the past where SAE demonstrated blatantly racist behavior. Here are just some:

1982. University of Cincinnati closes its SAE chapter after a racist party held on MLK Day. 

1992. Texas A&M chapter hosts “jungle fever” party featuring black face and slave hunts 

2011. Black student George Desdunes hazed to death through alcohol poisoning 

2014. University of Arizona chapter members’ hate crime against Jewish students 

But should SAE be singled out in all this? Absolutely not. Racism and discrimination are no strangers in the American greek system. Here are 12 cases in other frats and sororities.

“We have to remember that the greek letter system in the United States was founded on pretty harsh and legally supported exclusionary practices. here’s a normal, mundane type of racism that functions every day, but it’s harder to see. We really shouldn’t be surprised at incidents like this when they get out, as they probably happen a lot behind closed doors.” –Matthew Hughey,  associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut

Let’s not forget that it wasn’t that long ago that black students had to be escorted by the army to attend schools. Many parents of current white fraternity and sorority legacies were directly involved in racism within their organizations from discrimination during rush, excessive hazing, and sometimes outright refusal to integrate. Racial minority frats and sororities emerged from this very reason. There is already a long and deep history of racism in the American education system and it only seems to become amplified within the greek system.

The unfortunate truth is that the greek system often houses valued (white) students, children of big donors, and star athletes. This gives them another layer of protection from any persecution. The laxer universities become with punishing misconduct, the more these incidents increase. We see a similar pattern with cases of sexual assault within fraternities. However, this incident and those similar to it get far more attention and criticism because it’s dictionary definition racism. The use of the n word. The explicitness of it all. Implicit, but equally dangerous forms of racism are never met with the same amount of anger. Oftentimes when institutions punish explicit racism, it is because it would tarnish their image if they let it slide. However, they’d be more than willing to let more insidious and subtle forms of racism go unchecked.

Why is it that the (white) greek system seems to have some immunity that other students aren’t afforded? Is it because they carry the school’s name? Because they come from wealthy families? Or because universities practice a decentralized form of power when it comes to management of these houses, leaving them completely to their own devices? There are too many layers that would require us to dive into many -isms and the history of discrimination in American higher education.

What we do know is that this type of behavior needs to end, full stop. No more excuses for grown men and women being racist. No more excuses for sexual assault. No more excuses for willful ignorance. Universities need to step up and start valuing their students instead of their paychecks and sacred names.


image from Slate