Does SAE Have a Race Problem? Some Black Members Don’t Think So

A sign post is seen outside the international headquarters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon

A sign post is seen outside the international headquarters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon

In the wake of the racist chant exposed at the University of Oklahoma, allegations of racist behavior continue to plague Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapters nationwide.

The most recent, at a chapter at the University of Washington, is being investigated by the university after black students there alleged that members called them “apes” as they marched past the fraternity house during a February march to raise awareness about racism. As The Seattle Times reported, the UW chapter conducted its own investigation and said it doesn’t believe its members were involved. And on Saturday, BuzzFeed reported allegations that the chapter at George Mason University discriminated against African-American pledges.

However, many African-American SAE brothers paint a different and decidedly more inclusive picture of the embattled fraternity.

“Surprised and embarrassed,” is the way a black brother describes his reaction after seeing the ten-second video, which was published widely online and broadcast nationally on various media outlets when it became public on March 8, a day before the fraternity was to celebrate its 159th anniversary.

The SAE member, who belongs to a chapter at a Pennsylvania college, preferred to remain anonymous because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the matter. “Throughout my time in SAE I never really thought about race within the fraternity,” he wrote during an exchange on Twitter direct message, “especially since I saw black people in chapters in Texas and Missouri.” He also took issue with being referred to as a “black” SAE member, writing: “I personally don’t think of myself as a ‘black SAE,’ and I never have. I’ve always thought of myself as a brother.”

He said he decided to pledge SAE because the chapter at his school is highly regarded by the campus community and he wanted to be a part of it. He went on to say that the chapter there is very diverse, especially because it was founded by a black brother. “I’ve become a better man” from being in the fraternity, he said.

In the OU video, SAE members dressed in evening wear can be seen chanting about lynching black men and about how “There will never be a n***** SAE.” It sparked days of protests on the OU campus, including from the black student organization, Unheard, which was responsible for disseminating the clip, and the university’s football team, which lost a star recruit after the racist incident went public.

University of Oklahoma students march to the now closed University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house during a rally on March 11, 2015. (Sue Ogrocki / AP)

University of Oklahoma students march to the now closed University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house during a rally on March 11, 2015. (Sue Ogrocki / AP)

A day later, the national organization disbanded and shut down the OU chapter, putting out a statement apologizing for the racist behavior of its members. And on March 10, the university expelled two students it said were “identified as playing a leadership role” in the incident.

Many African-American SAE members would not publicly comment on the matter for this article, but their statements on social media reinforce the notion that what happened at Oklahoma is not representative of the organization as a whole.

“As a proud member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon I can say this is not what our organization stands for,” wrote one member on his Facebook page. “Being a member [of] Sigma Alpha Epsilon is one of the greatest blessings I have ever recieved [sic] in my life. It has provided me with a second family that I can rely on no matter what and will support me throughout all my future endeavors. The fraternity has taught me what it truly means to be a man of your word and helped me grow in so many aspects of life.”

“I didn’t join SAE because the majority of people didn’t look like me, I joined because of the values and brotherhood in my chapter,” tweeted another. “I definitely think the actions of one chapter does not define the whole organization.”

“I’m hurt by this but I still love SAE,” he added.

“I am a proud member of SAE at FSU,” said another member on Twitter.

Ngonidzashe Nembaware, an African-American member and a sophomore at The University of Texas at Tyler, told USA Today, “The views of the individuals in that video do not reflect us as a whole. Those were a few arrogant individuals. I still follow our creed, the true gentleman.”

Damon Hart, a 20-year-old Columbia University sophomore and Bronx native—and the chairman of the Black Student Organization political committee at Columbia—said he expected what happened at OU this past week to play out the way it did after the video went public.

“It’s easy to catch that overt stuff,” said Hart, who is majoring in sociology. “I wasn’t really worried about it, because no institution wants to be branded overtly racist.”

“But here at Columbia, and I’m sure at OU,” Hart added, “there are bigger issues that affect more people that people don’t care about.”

Though Columbia has Greek fraternities and sororities on campus, no SAE chapter exists there. But Hart said he has heard Columbia students of color speak of racial incidents that have happened to them involving Greek members. He declined to go into specifics.

For its part, the fraternity’s national body, based in Evanston, Ill., announced on Saturday that it is readying the judicial process that will determine the future of its members at OU. According to the body, which counts 15,000 undergraduate and collegiate members and 200,000 living alumni, 20 percent of its members self-identify as nonwhite or a minority.

In a statement posted on its website, SAE said it has put together a special trial commission “composed of impartial alumni” that could recommend either continued suspension or expulsion. Members, it said, “will have an opportunity to defend themselves and present information or facts for review” in their case.

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