Giving Up On The Dream
How PR supplants progress in the fight for equality
Take the 20 mile drive down Interstate 35 from Oklahoma City into Norman and things become decidedly whiter. Like most US metropolitan suburbs, the population becomes more homogeneous as you distance yourself from the urban core—Oklahoma City’s population is 62.7% white and 15.1% black, Norman’s is 84.7% white and 4.3% black.
Nestled within Norman, The University of Oklahoma is comprised of a student body that is roughly 5% black. What do these numbers mean? For one, they mean that at the University of Oklahoma, blacks are underrepresented with respect to both Oklahoma’s statewide population (approx. 7.5% black) and the population of the nearest metro area.
This phenomenon is in no way unique to The University of Oklahoma.
You don’t have to cherry pick stats to realize how common this kind of underrepresentation is. My own home county of Miami-Dade is 19% black. How is this demographic represented at the collegiate level? Florida International University is comprised of 13% black students. The University of Miami’s black population sits at 8.4%.
Before you run a similar fact-check of your city’s demographics against those of its local universities, would you be willing to bet that the same phenomenon isn't occurring in your own backyard?
Let’s zoom out a little bit — this phenomenon is in no way unique to universities.
Just to name a few relevant categories, minorities in the US are underrepresented with respect to wealth distribution, civilian jobs, and executive positions. Conversely, minorities are overrepresented with respect to high school dropout rates, incarceration rates, people living below the poverty line, and percentage of workers at or below minimum wage.
Here’s what I’m getting at: our society sees minorities systemically coming up short in terms of degrees awarded, promotions earned and dollars made, so why are institutions that completely ignore context in painting overt displays of racism as isolated, unrepresentative incidents met with applause?
The Looking Glass
Let’s keep zooming out, and let’s adjust the focus.
Break down the timeline for how businesses, institutions and individuals react to media coverage and the subsequent public outcry when caught in a moment of indiscretion.
It’s always an iteration of this pattern: (1) A surreptitiously taped clip, exposed financial record, or victim stepping forward exposes some awful indiscretion, (2) media coverage causes the story to snowball, (3) public outcry ensues and justice is sought, (4) the offender’s employer or organization takes action to sever ties or distance themselves from the offender, with due process usually ignored, (5) the media moves on to the next story, and (6) another institution succeeds in quarantining bad publicity.
Here’s a few noteworthy examples of this pattern from the last five years: Penn State’s handling of Sandusky, the NBA’s handling of Donald Sterling, Chick-Fil-A’s same-sex marriage controversy, the NFL’s handling of Ray Rice, A&E’s handling of Phil Robertson, and of course, OU’s handling of their SAE fiasco.
No matter the kind of injustice, no matter how complicit the institution was in it, no matter whether a good faith effort to affect change is made, there is always one driving force behind how institutions have come to formulaically react to crises: they protect their brand.
In a column for USA Today, University of Tennessee Law Professor noted of OU President David Boren’s swift expulsion of the two ringleaders in the video:
“Boren’s behavior was not only illegal — and clearly so — it was also a betrayal of the duty of fairness that he, as a university president, owes to every student enrolled in his university. To have acted so hastily, in violation of OU’s own student conduct code, bespeaks a dishonorable willingness to throw students to the wolves in order to avoid bad publicity”
When it comes to businesses like the NBA or a cable network, the intent to avoid bad PR at all costs is at least understandable. They exist to make money. They can predictably be expected to mind their bottom line in a crisis.
Still, that doesn't mean more shouldn't be demanded of businesses. Their resources and audience give them tremendous potential to affect change. Due to their high profile, stories involving social issues at large corporations often become the looking glass through which society frames conversations. As long as we continue to applaud organizations for responding superficially to crises, we can expect the conversation around the relevant social issues to remain accordingly superficial.
While we can expect a dollar-driven approach to crises from businesses, an institution of higher learning ostensibly holds itself to a higher standard. Here’s the University of Oklahoma’s mission statement:
The mission of the University of Oklahoma is to provide the best possible educational experience for our students through excellence in teaching, research and creative activity, and service to the state and society.
In swiftly expelling Parker Rice and Levi Pettit, OU acted to avoid bad publicity at all costs. Part of that cost was acting unconstitutionally in penalizing free speech. Part of that cost was denying two of their students any kind of due process before deciding on the future of their education. Part of that cost was leaving no room behind for ideals like educational excellence and serving society.
For the Record
I disagree with the University of Oklahoma’s decision to expel Rice and Pettit. Legality aside, it’s counterproductive toward realizing a post-racial society.
After the story broke, Parker Rice issued a statement which begins by saying, “I know everyone wants to know why or how this happened. I admit it likely was fueled by alcohol consumed at the house before the bus trip, but that’s not an excuse. Yes, the song was taught to us, but that too doesn't work as an explanation.”
Can anyone watch that video and believe that that chant was improvised? Has anyone denied that that chant was sung by many other Sooner SAE brothers before being exposed? Would anyone be surprised to learn that chant was not limited to the OU SAE chapter?
In light of those painfully obvious likelihoods, how can President Boren piously claim that these SAE students are not “real Sooners?” How can anyone applaud that position just months after OU’s admissions process decided that Rice and Pettit were OU material? If it’s true that those were taught, then that same process made Sooners out of countless others that went unchecked as they chanted the same chant.
I’m not saying that it’s possible, desirable, or incumbent upon a university’s admissions department to screen for bigotry or assure perfect representation of a community’s demographics. But I am saying that for better or worse, the student bodies of universities — most of which systemically underrespresent minorities — are a reflection of who tomorrow’s educated professionals, policymakers, and thinkers will be. When their behavior exposes the mistakes, ignorances and hatred of our past, it deserves to be met with a response far greater than one taking the course of action needed to avoid bad publicity.
A post-racial society will not be realized by suppressing stories about race. A more educated society will not be realized by denying the ignorant an education.
Society can’t advance any form of equality by treating bigoted people like severable gangrenous appendages. It can’t be ignored that many have carried and carry the same infection.
The reality is that most of us are or have been much more like OU’s SAEs than we might be comfortable admitting. We are all living within a society that has poisoned our minds with the divisive and unfounded concept of race, and many of us have been spared that our ignorances have never gone viral.
Like Rice, I too attended a Jesuit high school. I deeply cherish the education I received there. However, I was part of a student body that was a largely homogeneous group of upper-to-middle class Catholic Hispanic-Americans. I can relate to leaving high school with a narrow view of the world.
I entered university with much to learn about society. And that’s fine — it’s about par for the course for what we can expect from any high school graduate. My college years were a time filled with education and experiences that changed my perspective on many issues and beliefs. If the University of Oklahoma wishes to accomplish its mission, it would do well to provide people like Rice and Pettit with their own version of that experience.
I’m not saying that the University of Oklahoma should be proud to call Rice and Pettit Sooners. But I am saying that OU became the latest institution to admit that their brand matters more than their mission when they decided that two of their own were just too ignorant to be educated.
I’m not saying that people like Rice and Pettit deserve pity or pardon. They deserve every second of scorn they've received. But I am saying that they deserve compassion. The moment we deny them that, we ignore that the same hatred behind their words might exist within our own hearts.