A brief history of Sigma Alpha Epsilon being terrible people

Graffiti on the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house at University of Oklahoma

By now, if you spend any amount of time on the internet, you’ve seen (or at least heard about) this video of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma chanting a remarkably racist song (on a bus full of their dates, no less).

First off, holy shit. For those who have claimed that institutional racism does not exist in America, there is your proof. Those young men, bolstered by the status, prestige and social connections they make through their fraternity, will go on to become our future judges and politicians.

Look at positions of power in the U.S., and more often than not, you will find fraternity men.

Now, if you’ve been following the discourse about this news story, you’re surely also aware that one fraternity chapter can not be said to represent the entire national organization (The fallacy of composition). Even if you don’t agree with it, you have heard this viewpoint. It’s certainly an opinion worth considering, as a fraternity at a national level is a rather nebulous concept made up of many smaller units, including executive boards, regional staff, local chapters, brothers, and pledges.

Unique individuals with unique viewpoints, goals and visions for the organization exist at each of those levels. I understand this concept more than most, having personally founded a chapter of a small national fraternity. Although I was one of our founding members, I quickly realized that the chapter takes on a life of its own and somewhat steers itself, regardless of the direction from the top. Ultimately, individual members are responsible for the culture of a fraternity.

A national cannot control a fraternity chapter.

This is why the stories you are hearing from individual members at that particular SAE chapter are absolute bullshit. Did that chant make some members uncomfortable? Perhaps. More than likely, it did not. The culture of a chapter is an aggregate of the beliefs and attitudes of its most active members. If the majority of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Oklahoma disapproved of that chant, I guarantee it would not be as well-practiced as it appears in that video.

Not to mention, SAE has its roots as a Southern organization, whose original members opposed expanding into Northern states because it create conflict around slavery.

The simple fact that this video exists is proof of the cowardice of that chapter.

But this is not the first piece of evidence we have that Sigma Alpha Epsilon is a terrible organization.

Back in 2012, Rolling Stone published a (very long) expose on fraternity abuse and hazing incidents at Dartmouth College, entitled “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy.” (Great read, highly recommended). At the center of the piece was controversial fraternity man, Andrew Lohse. The fraternity Lohse belonged to? Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

Lohse, who was deeply involved with his campus’ SAE chapter, claimed that SAE at Dartmouth perpetuated a culture of “pervasive hazing, substance abuse and sexual assault.”

In the Rolling Stone piece, Lohse is portrayed as somewhat of a social pariah who set himself in direct opposition to the entire community of Greek Life at Dartmouth, a tactic which resulted in his eventual expulsion from the school and blacklisting from its influential social circles. I don’t think the entire Greek system is rotten, but I do think that anyone looking at this organization with a critical eye should understand what the video of SAE students at OU represents:

The racist SAE video doesn’t represent a few bad apples, it represents an organization which has poison running through its veins finally starting to show some symptoms.

Two years after the Rolling Stone piece kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest under Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s national board, the SAE fraternity banned pledging. You don’t do this if your organization is under control. Hazing is perpetuated because it offers a way to create bonds and a sense of togetherness. Anyone who has played on a sports team (or joined many fraternities, especially years ago) could tell you this. The trouble is when radical attitudes go too far, and other voices within the organization fail to tale a stand.

This is clearly what happened with the OU chapter of SAE.

Again, I founded a fraternity chapter. I understand the lengths these organizations go through to keep their rituals and practices secret, mysterious and alluring. This is done for a reason, but the impact it has can be quite different from the intent.

More than 100 SAE chapters across the nation have been disciplined for violating university rules and regulations since 2007.

Universities hush up many of these incidents in order to avoid damage to their reputations.

Look at the brand damage Oklahoma University has suffered due to this incident.

When an organization is allowed (nay, encouraged) to operate without any sort of direct oversight, bad things begin to creep into the culture. One pledge class gets hazed, the next gets hazed worse. Blacks are traditionally not accepted into a fraternity, this lack of diversity attracts racists, and then before you know it they’re chanting on a bus in front of sorority girls, legitimately thinking it makes them look cool.

Really. Look at that video again. Those men are excited by their chant. They know it by heart, and they feel OK reciting it in front of people. That same sort of groupthink is what has led Sigma Alpha Epsilon to brutally haze recruits at a Maryland chapter. One pledge likened the experience to Guantanamo Bay. Allowing yourself to be locked into a secretive, “us against them” mentality can be extremely ideologically and ethically dangerous.

A few more highlights before I move on:

  • Nine Sigma Alpha Epsilon members have died due to fraternity process since 2006.
  • Fifteen unique Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapters have been shuttered in the last three years alone.
  • SAE members pay an average of $340 for liability insurance, one of the highest sums among all Greek organizations, because their chapters are so prone to doing stupid shit.
  • Sigma Alpha Epsilon members reportedly yelled homophobic slurs at pledges during their initiation process.

But before we condemn them—

It’s important to remember how easy it is to inflate a few incidents and make any problem cast a bigger shadow. Do you really care about the logistics of how Hillary Clinton sends her emails? This is the argument that SAE brothers across the nation are currently frantically reciting to every friend, girlfriend and Facebook acquaintance that they have.

And they are quite right in making it.

My own fraternity, a multicultural organization which has members from all backgrounds, classes, races and sexual orientations, has a social event upcoming with their local SAE chapter. As a group, the chapter decided to honor their commitment and attend the event, despite the recent controversy. The Colorado chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon deserves a chance to prove itself.

You cannot judge one fraternity chapter by another.

That’s doing a severe disservice to men who you don’t know, and shows a real lack of understanding about the composition of Greek organizations and they way they work. Sigma Alpha Epsilon clearly has issues on a national level. The thing to remember though, is that even within a corrupt organization, there are always good people. I may disapprove of the United States Senate as a whole, but I do not labor under the delusion that every Senator is a villain.

Good people exist and labor to make this fraternity better every day, I am sure. No one ever talks about community service. No one ever talks about the work that fraternity men put into supporting everyday events on campus, event which enrich and celebrate the culture of that area. That stuff gets pushed to the wayside, behind the flashier partying and hazing. And that’s fine. We don’t do that selfless stuff for accolades or recognition. It’s just part of the package. I just want you to understand that somewhere, in some plain white rooms in some unassuming university buildings, I guarantee that there are several SAEs passionately working towards helping their community, improving their grades, and helping to defeat racism.

But unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the norm for these guys.

(If you’ve got anything to add or any other stories about this organization, please chime in via the comments.)

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