By Clarence Page
Tribune Content Agency
Frat boys caught on video singing a racist chant are shocking but not as surprising as we might think. New studies show young folks to be no less prejudiced than their elders. They just believe they are.
And so do we, their elders.
That belief stems largely and ironically from our reluctance in today's polite society to talk about race candidly across racial lines. That's reason enough to use these eruptions of so-called political correctness as opportunities not only to castigate but also to educate.
The University of Oklahoma stirred a national reconsideration of youth attitudes after startling video surfaced. It shows members of the campus's Sigma Alpha Epsilon singing a racist chant from the days of legal segregation: "There will never be a n----- at SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me...."
University and national fraternity reflexes respond quickly to such dust-ups.
The national fraternity immediately suspended the chapter; the university's president expelled two students involved and emptied the chapter's house of inhabitants.
Many of us are shocked and dismayed by this video in light of our widespread happier perceptions of today's rising millennial generation. These, after all, are kids of a supposedly post-racial or colorblind generation that certainly displays more tolerant behaviors and attitudes than their elders.
A 2010 Pew Research Center report for example, found declared millennials to be more likely to support interracial marriage and dating and to be generally more accepting of immigrants and other minorities.
However a closer look taken by analysts such as Spencer Piston, a professor at the Campbell Institute at Syracuse University, found that such studies were distorted by failing to take into account the inclusion of more people of color in the sampling pool.
Viewed by themselves, Piston found "White millennials appear to be no less prejudiced than the rest of the white population," on questions such as rating various groups for intelligence and how hard working they are.
Even though younger whites were more optimistic than their elders about racial progress, they also were just as conservative in their views of whether racial prejudice against whites, for example, is as much or more of a problem than racial prejudice against minorities.
Among African-Americans, Piston found a different surprise: evidence that young blacks are more racially conservative than their parents in being less likely to support government aid to minorities.
OU President David Boren's heart was in the right place when he moved quickly and decisively, but I would prefer that he and other college administrators keep their heads about the method of punishment in such matters.
Boren, a former Democratic senator from Oklahoma, sent a bold and important message when he shut down the SAE house and expelled two of the offending students.
But instead of settling the matter as he might have hoped, his action quickly triggered the equally well-tuned reflexes of organized backlash.
The fraternity intends to take legal action and First Amendment experts say they have a good case. As organs of government, public universities in particular are barred from infringing on speech and other freedoms.
In his statement to the students, Boren said, "You will be expelled because of your leadership role in leading a racist and exclusionary chant which has created a hostile educational environment for others."
Yet, as we have seen in recent debates about whether "trigger warnings" should be given to students before assigning, for example, Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" with its frequent use of the N-word, one person's "hostile educational environment" can be another person's perfectly reasonable topic for discussion.
As First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh of UCLA School of Law blogs in the Washington Post, harsh punishments can lead to "censorship envy." If expulsion is an acceptable penalty for people who express racist views about blacks, for example, why would other students not be justified in calling for expulsion of students who express views that seem to express sexism, anti-Semitism or some other hostile attitude?
Colleges should be a place for education, not just condemnation. Before we rush to punish young people for their bad attitudes, we need to take a closer look at where those attitudes come from and what can be done to improve them.
Reach Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.