Issac Bailey

Expulsion of ‘racist’ white students let the rest of us off the hook

Editor’s note: Issac Bailey will co-host a public discussion - “When race isn't about racism - but still potentially dangerous” - from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 28 at Christ Community Church in Conway.

Here’s why a group of white students who got caught on video chanting about n-words hanging from trees should not have been expelled from school:

It does them no good, lets the rest of us off the hook and does little to provide space for the kind of in-depth, complex discussions about race this country is sorely lacking.

A quick recap:

Members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter at Oklahoma University sang a racist song on a bus. A 9-second section of the performance was captured on a cell phone camera and sent to the student newspaper.

From there, a firestorm engulfed SAE, which was suspended, maybe permanently, from the university, and it is investigating claims that the chant has been taught to members of the fraternity throughout the country.

There have been protests and anger expressed by Oklahoma students via social media. A high-profile football recruit and a Hip Hop artist have canceled plans to perform for the university on the football field and in a concert, respectively.

That kind of reaction makes sense to something so ugly, so blatant. The university’s president had to respond quickly, and he did.

But he went too far when he expelled two of the students identified on the video.

I’ll let others grapple with their free speech rights, because there’s something even more important at play.

Kicking those students off campus was neither as constructive nor as necessary as the protesters believed it would be.

The road less traveled would have been to embrace those students - yes, embrace rather than reject white students singing about lynching black people.

They could have been assigned community service, put on probation and taught the history of such chants and why that kind of language is so powerfully ugly.

Having them take part in discussions about the macro (disparities in the criminal justice and educational systems) and the micro (inter-racial individual interactions) of U.S. race relations, as well as about our fraught history on the subject would have been in order.

Having to do that would have been harder than having them just walk away, or be pushed, possibly to another school.

And after they’ve been disciplined, they should have been allowed to make amends.

Throwing them away simply perpetuated the myth that some of us are free of racial sin, others not.

But it’s even bigger than that.

The other students, the ones who feel offended, the ones marching in protest and demanding harsher punishment, needed to be reminded that none of us wants to be forever identified by our worst racial mistake, no matter how egregious, especially so early in life.

They needed to be taught the difference between someone committing a racist act, which is what happened in the video, and being a racist.

They are not one in the same, yet that important distinction is too often ignored.

The students who are offended by the video also needed to be taught empathy and be encouraged to practice it.

They needed to be challenged about what they should do after the white hot reaction died down.

Would they let the offending students make amends? Would they be willing to forgive?

Would this prompt them to search their own hearts and minds and past actions to determine if what they’ve been doing helped create an atmosphere in which dealing forthrightly with the complex issue of race is nearly impossible because they have been too quick to brand imperfect people with the scarlet letter?

Would those students - black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American - be willing to reveal times they’ve crossed the racism line, why they did it and why they are grateful no one judged them on a 9-second clip of their life?

Everyone knows what the students on that video did was wrong.

But by so swiftly ushering them into the dustbin of history, everyone missed a chance to help them make it right.