Most of the coverage about the Oklahoma University fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon specifically focuses on the students using a racial slur to describe African Americans. Their gleeful singing about lynching is overshadowed by that boogeyman — the "n-word."
It's the sensational, sexy angle. It's also lazy analysis.
The study "Lynchings in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror," was released in February by the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). The study details the organization's investigation into lynchings in 12 southern states between Reconstruction and World War II. "These lynchings were terrorism," the EJI study states in its summary. They "peaked between 1880 and 1940 and claimed the lives of African-American men, women and children who were forced to endure the fear, humiliation and barbarity of this widespread phenomenon unaided."
This is not the first study into lynching in America. According to PBS' American Experience, during the 1890s whites who carried out lynchings increasingly employed burning, torture and dismemberment to prolong suffering and create a festive atmosphere for white onlookers. White families brought their children to watch and newspapers even carried advertisements for lynchings. These atrocious acts were not carried out by "bad apples" in society; prominent members of the business community and even politicians attended and participated in these events. Lynching had become both a means of social control and recreation.
EJI researchers documented 3,959 racial terror lynchings of blacks in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Some experts estimate the total number of lynchings to actually be closer to 5,000. Lynching, among other racist practices, prompted the Great Migration, during which an estimated 5 million blacks fled the South.
In his essay for The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations," Ta-Nehisi Coates explains the cumulative impact of discrimination against blacks in America: "Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole," he wrote.
Many people believed President Barack Obama's election signified a watershed moment in "race relations." Although he was elected twice, many blacks believe Congress disrespects President Obama because of racial bias, according to studies by the Stanford Graduate School of Business. After his election, hate group membership spiked, prompting the Department of Homeland Security to issue an assessment on their growing numbers. We've witnessed voting rights erode in states with a disproportionate impact on minorities.
In the wake of the SAE incident, students created the Twitter hashtag #NotJustSAE to share their experiences of racism on college campuses. From blackface parties to microaggressions and violence, it's clear that college campuses are not post-racial utopias. Despite national progress, our work is not finished.
Part of that work involves white people rejecting the notion that having minority friends is an inoculation against racism: Show solidarity by being actively anti-racist in your daily life, acknowledge and address prejudice and discriminatory behavior among your friends and family. One of the SAE students' parents issued a statement highlighting the fact that they have diverse friends. And still, their son felt comfortable singing about lynching black people.
Those same people who carried out lynchings held positions in government. They were teachers, doctors and lawyers. They were Americans who passed prejudices to the next generation. And while racist violence is no longer as blatant as a public lynching at noon, the rate of police killings of black Americans is nearly the same as the rate of lynchings in the early 20th century. Overt acts of racism typically make the news, but the systemic racism that ensnares and damages black people is often ignored. And when the damage is acknowledged, it's often dismissed as pathology and culture, ignoring the impact of bias, prejudice and policy. There's persistent and stark inequity between black and white Americans in education, access to affordable housing as well as health outcomes and treatment in the justice system.
The methods of discrimination have changed, but the result remains: an underclass bearing the brunt of a racist society. With every viral video or revelation of racist behavior, the "National Conversation on Race" sputters and stops until the next big story. It's time to elevate the discourse.
It is a disservice to focus on the "n-word" while ignoring all the forces, structures and institutions that give the word power.
Jazzmen Knoderer is a Baltimore native and Notre Dame of Maryland University alumna. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.