Oklahoma Fraternity Learned Racist Chant at National SAE Event

Sigma Alpha Epsilon
University of Oklahoma officials announced March 27 that an investigation shows fraternity members learned a racist chant at a national function. Heide Brandes/REUTERS

University of Oklahoma officials announced today that they concluded an investigation into a racist chant by a Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chapter that drew national attention and opened questions about contemporary fraternities and historic racism.

The school's Office of Student Affairs says that its investigation found that a song that SAE members sang on March 7, which included a racial slur and lyrics about lynching and not allowing black members to join the fraternity, was taught to them at a national SAE function, a leadership cruise four years ago.

"Over time, the chant was formalized in the local SAE chapter and was taught to pledges as part of the formal and informal pledgeship process," the school says.

The investigation also found that the students had been drinking alcohol at the fraternity before getting on the bus where the video was filmed. About a dozen high school students were also "present at the house and were exposed to the chant while on the bus." The high schoolers were there for a recruitment program.

"It is clear that during the four years since the chant was brought to the university campus, its existence was known by recent members and that it became part of the institutionalized culture of the chapter," the school says.

In a letter today to SAE Executive Director Blaine Ayers, the university president wrote, "We recognize that the national SAE organization has taken certain steps to condemn the actions of those individuals engaged in this specific act of racism.…The matter cannot be closed in our view, however, until the culture at the national level has also been addressed."

The video surfaced on March 8 and soon went viral. National fraternity and university officials immediately denounced the video and within days, the chapter was kicked off campus and two of its members expelled. Other students had to perform community service or go through "cultural sensitivity training," school officials said today.

One of the students disciplined for leading the chant, Levi Pettit, gave a press conference with Oklahoma State Senator Anastasia Pittman on March 25.

"I am so sorry for the pain I have caused," Pettit said. "There are no excuses for my behavior. I never thought of myself as a racist. I never considered the possibility. But the bottom line is that the words that were said in the chant were mean, hateful and racist. I will be deeply sorry and deeply ashamed of what I have done for the rest of my life."

Chapter alumni hired a lawyer, Stephen Jones, best known for defending Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, to work with the school to pursue a "non-legal solution, a non-adversarial solution and a non-litigation solution," Jones said March 13.

The SAE executive director announced on March 18 "a groundbreaking four-pronged initiative to combat instances of racial discrimination and insensitivity among its members." It will involve appointing a director of diversity and Inclusion and establishing a hot line for reporting "inappropriate, offensive or illegal behaviors."