SAE racism flap
Other chapters and the national leadership of Sigma Alpha Epsilon are distancing themselves from the University of Oklahoma chapter after a video of a racist chant surfaced. Above, people load up moving trucks at the SAE house at Oklahoma, March 9, 2015, after the university closed the fraternity. Reuters/Heide Brandes

Sigma Alpha Epsilon is not a racist fraternity, chapters around the country and the national leadership will have you know. After two students in the University of Oklahoma chapter were expelled for leading racist chants captured on video, their SAE brothers are trying to distance themselves from the incident and advance the image of members as role models and gentlemen.

“We teach our members to serve as role models in their communities and to live up to our creed, ‘The True Gentleman,’” the national leadership of SAE said in a statement, seemingly seeking to absolve the national organization of responsibility or connection to the video and blame such racism on an isolated group. “Our investigation has found very likely that the men learned the song from fellow chapter members,” it said, in reference to the video that surfaced Sunday of SAE members singing chants imbued with racial slurs and references to lynching.

Insisting that “the national fraternity does not teach such a racist, hateful chant,” the leadership said it supported the expulsion of the two students from the university after the chant they led surfaced in a video Sunday.

Other chapters similarly decried the behavior of their Oklahoma brothers as not reflecting the values of the fraternity as a whole. The president of the chapter at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut, said members of the Oklahoma chapter “weren’t following the creed” of the fraternity. He called the recent events in Oklahoma “a geographic issue,” adding, “It’s cultural. Their parents are products of Jim Crow segregation,” the New Haven Register reported.

The University of Kentucky’s chapter went so far as to apologize, on Twitter:

The reaction from dozens of other SAE chapters was less clear-cut, however. Without necessarily referencing the events in Oklahoma, they tweeted text from and photos of “The True Gentleman: The Creed of Sigma Alpha Epsilon,” often using the hashtag #WhatWeLiveBy, and retweeting similar posts from other SAE chapters. It was unclear whether the statements were expected to show solidarity, outrage, pride or some other sentiment.

From the chapter at San Jose University, in California:

And the chapter at Midwestern State, in Texas:

For those who were once members of the Oklahoma chapter, watching the video had a visceral effect. “It’s like getting punched in the stomach,” Jonathon Davis, an African-American who was a member of SAE at the University of Oklahoma from 1998 to 2002, said. When Davis recounted his time at the fraternity, he said members had diverse backgrounds and that such racism would never have been allowed. “Somewhere along the line, everything went off the rails,” he told He said that closing the fraternity was the right response from the university.

William Bruce James II, who from 2001 to 2005 was a member of SAE at the University of Oklahoma and has said he was that chapter's last black member, said on CNN that he was “devastated” by the video. “I don’t understand what has happened in this time – since my being there, to this weekend,” he said. “That is not my home, that is not SAE and they are not my brothers.”

With this latest incident, SAE may adamantly insist that it doesn't have a problem with race, but recent events would suggest that the fraternity has, in fact, deeper and more widespread issues. Its chapters have a troubled history peppered with not just racist but also sexist behavior, as well as hazing and alleged assault. In February 2011, George Desdunes, an African-American sophomore at SAE at Cornell University, died from alcohol poisoning after being forced to drink during a hazing rite. At the University of Arizona in 2014, SAE members allegedly assaulted four members of a Jewish fraternity, and ethnic slurs were used.