Nine seconds of video to leave you dumbfounded

It’s just nine seconds of video. Nine seconds of hate and remarkable stupidity, dragging us back toward some of the darkest days of our country’s history.

The video captures members of a University of Oklahoma fraternity, dressed in formal wear and accompanied by their dates, riding on a bus either to or from an event. They are singing to the tune of “If You’re Happy And You Know It”. They do seem happy; they do seem to know it. But the lyrics have grown dark.

Some news accounts have described those revised lyrics as a “racist chant,” but description strips it of its chilling power. Put bluntly, because it ought to be put bluntly, the chant goes like this:

“There will never be a nigger at SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me. There will never be a nigger at SAE.”

It’s not one person chanting. It’s a collective action, expressing a group sentiment. And the lyrics were familiar enough that those in attendance didn’t need to be taught how they go. You have to wonder how many years, decades, even generations that song had been sung within SAE.

Clearly, those leading the chant had no fear of social disapproval. To the contrary, the power of social conformity was being put to quite another use. The chant was reinforcing a social norm, putting every SAE member on notice about what was acceptable to its members, and what was not. The casual, even gleeful reference to lynching was especially startling.

We like to tell ourselves that things are changing, that new generations of Americans aren’t trapped in the mindsets of their parents and grandparents. In many cases it’s true; in this case, it was not. I doubt that most of those in the video picked up such aggressive racism in college; this is something they were raised with, something learned in the home and brought with them to college, where they gravitated toward others like themselves.

And assuming that things work in Oklahoma as they do in other states, the members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity had been destined to be funneled into the state’s business and political leadership, where they would help set the tone and culture of its power structure. For these particular young men, that probably won’t happen now.

In his remarks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma over the weekend, President Obama reminded us that we’ve made remarkable progress over the past half century, and that progress must be acknowledged and honored.

“We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America,” Obama said. “To deny this progress, this hard-won progress -– our progress –- would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”

But as Obama also pointed out, “a more common mistake is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident; that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the “race card” for their own purposes. We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true. We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”

It took all of nine seconds to drive that point home.