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SAE-800x400You’re white, running low on gas, and forced to turn off the highway to refuel in an area you know nothing about. You pull into the gas station and are immediately gripped by fear. Heavy bass thumps in your chest and rattles your windows. It’s a black neighborhood. The station is teeming with young black people at the pumps and in the mini mart. If you could drive off and find another station in a ‘better’ neighborhood, you would. But you’re running on fumes and can’t risk it. So, you pull up to a pump, get out, lock your door, quickly insert the nozzle, and keep your head down, refusing to make eye contact with the young black guy at the pump on the other side of the island from you. No one approaches you. No one speaks to you. But your discomfort is building. Why are you feeling this way? Why are you unwilling to engage this environment. The gas seems to be dripping into the tank more slowly than molasses. You realize you need to use the restroom but quickly reject the thought of using it here and prefer to risk peeing on yourself. As you pull out of the station with your tank full, your heart racing, your palms sweating, you tell yourself you’ve done a good job, you’re a survivor, you can overcome anything.

Now, imagine that gas station being ACME Corporation on Main Street, USA. Imagine the pump being the HR office, and the young black guy at the pump across the island from you being the HR director you are interviewing with. You’re uncomfortable. Why? You want to get up and leave, but you need the job. You’ve got over 100 grand in student loans to pay back and the meter started running the moment they handed you your pigskin last month. People of color run into this kind of environment frequently, especially when pursuing education, employment, and housing.

Attitudes and beliefs, far more than specific actions, create climates that are comfortable for some and oppressive, even suffocating for others. The racist chanting on an SAE frat bus at OU caught on video last week by one of the riders isn’t in itself responsible for a climate of hostility toward blacks on that campus. It merely exposes the attitudes and beliefs that conspire to form such a climate.

Two students from SAE fraternity at Oklahoma University subsequently issued an apology. While such apologies offer some solace, they do little in the way of effecting real climate change.  They do more for the racist chanters than for the students most negatively affected by the chanters’  racist ideology. Really, these two students were apologizing to the authoritative people, organizations, and systems that can in the future and do now exert influence and determinative power over their lives, their careers, their futures. They issued apologies to the university officials who will have to allow them admission to their next schools, the HR directors who will be hiring them for their first jobs, the residents who will be welcoming them into the neighborhood of their first homes. They were apologizing to protect what’s possible for their futures. They were not apologizing to the people whose discomfort was amplified by the environment their chanted beliefs helped to create and reinforce. They were not apologizing to the black students on campus who were not welcomed to engage the environment SAE openly and distastefully excluded them from. Their apology was an attempt at damage control, not reconciliation or bridge building or healing.

The most telling silence is that of the other 53 students on that bus who were fully engaged in that racist chant. It’s the kind of silence that allows racist systems to endure, that allows racist people to remain cloaked, that allows hostile, divisive environments to flourish, that keeps us racially divided as a nation.

Despite all of this, I still don’t know that our goal as a society should be to eradicate discomfort from the public square and all of our institutions, including the marketplace. Discomfort has been known to spur creativity, determination, and accomplishment. Just ask a generation of blacks who braved the first waves of government mandated integration to become outstanding torchbearers in their chosen fields. Perhaps a better goal, a more noble goal, though just as difficult to pull off, is to forge a community buttressed and galvanized by love. The kind of love embodied in the Alpha & Omega, the beginning and the end, the one who endured the ultimate hostile environment to model transforming love to humankind. Expulsion and shame will not transform these racist chanters, nor eliminate environments hostile to blacks on college campuses. We continue to try to legislate a world free of hate, refusing to even consider the glaring truth that it’s only possible in a world full of love.

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