When a friend of mine messaged me earlier this evening to draw my attention to what had happened at the University of Oklahoma, he assumed I already knew about it. And I probably should have. But I didn’t. I was caught up in some other things, and I confess there are times when I kind of turn down the volume on my news dial.
There are times when I plain don’t want to know. I realize we are living in times when that probably shouldn’t be an option for conscious folk who claim to want to do their part to change things for the better, but sometimes when you get daily doses of how crazy everything seems to have become, a sort of reflex action kicks in and I go a little bit deaf.
But I figured if this particular friend was pulling my coat then this was probably something I needed to check out, so I did. And, you know, I suppose I should have felt more outraged or ready to protest or whatever but, quite frankly? Empty. And what worries me about my own reaction is that I’m thinking it’s worse than outrage. It’s worse because you should never get to that point where ugly incidents of racism such as this don’t even elicit much more than a yawn from you because you’re starting to accept it as normal. The way things are that most likely won’t change and so the hell with it.
And I don’t say this easily, because my father was President of the Colorado Urban League for more than a quarter century, and his contributions to the civil rights struggle shaped my life. And when I was in college I was President of the Black Student Union in Colorado Springs. I still remember joining our members with the Hispanic student organization (MECHA) as well as numerous other concerned students and helping to lead a student demonstration down the city’s streets to a park downtown to protest the plans of then KKK leader David Duke who planned to establish headquarters in the Springs. Before we led the march downtown, we marched through the lunchroom demanding that all the students stop stuffing their faces and follow us because this was more important than eating. You know how it is when you’re young and self-righteous.
But what I also remember from my college days was joining a particular fraternity, and this was before I became president of BSU. Me and one of my closest friends pledged together after drinking ourselves stupid during rush week and we were seriously thrilled when we got taken in. That was freshman year. Sophomore year was a lot of fun, but it was also a little strained because that was the year I became president of BSU, which didn’t quite jibe with being in a white fraternity. By my junior year was when my roommate was elected president of the frat and I was once again president of BSU. This was also the year when one of my frat ‘brothers’ woke me up from a nap on my couch wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood because he thought it would be funny to see my reaction. It wasn’t funny. Later that evening, some more of my frat ‘brothers’ put on Klan outfits and burned a cross on the lawn of the frat while I was still inside doing homework. A fellow frat brother and friend knocked on my door and told me apologetically that I really needed to come out and see this. Come to the window, he said.
And that’s when I saw it.
This story could go on a lot longer, but it won’t. The thing is, I knew each one of those guys under those hoods. Every single one. And it may sound crazy but none of them were guys I had ever had a problem with. Several of them I got along with really well. Or I thought I did. And when I later confronted them about what they had done, I will never forget the looks on their faces; they weren’t looks of rage, or hatred. Not at all. They simply did not understand what they had done wrong. It was just a joke, to them. Why couldn’t I see that? Was I gonna make a big thing out of it?
So how does this fit in with what happened in Oklahoma? It fits because those dumb kids whose parents tried to apologize so profusely for the actions of their children don’t get it either. They thought it was funny, and their belated apology changes nothing. If they hadn’t gotten caught they’d still think it was funny.
Just like my frat ‘brothers’ thought it was funny more than 35 years ago.
Keith Owens (AKA Black Liberal Boomer) is a Detroit-based writer who has worked for The Detroit Free Press, Detroit’s alternative newsweekly the Metro Times, the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, and other newspapers. He was also a nationally syndicated columnist with Universal Press Syndicate for three years beginning in 1993.