The Twisted Logic of Blaming Waka Flocka Flame for a Fraternity’s Horrific Racism

The hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe are eager to place the blame for the now-notorious racist song that has brought deserved shame on Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and led to two expulsions and the shuttering of the fraternity’s University of Oklahoma chapter. And who have they found to wag their fingers at? No, not the frat brothers themselves, of course. In a completely unprecedented move for the mainstream media, they’re blaming hip-hop music.

Specifically, the pundits complain that Waka Flocka Flame, who canceled a performance at the university after the news broke, had the gall to condemn the widely circulated video which depicts brothers repeating a song whose lyrics are straightforward in their offensiveness: not letting students of color pledge the frat, employing a racist slur, and deliberately invoking lynching.

Again, this is a song about lynching, which to put it mildly is not a common subject for hip-hop or any popular music. It was, however, a common occurrence in the American South until very recently. It’s a song about excluding black people at a historically white frat. And it was being sung at a Southern university that celebrates its “antebellum” roots. It demonstrates an entirely clear-cut variety of racism; it’s not about micro-aggressions or subjective interpretations. And as dozens of “Greek” alumni have been saying on social media, songs like this have likely been passed down, either from brother to brother at this fraternity chapter or from branches of the national chapter.

Yet somehow the Morning Joe panel managed to make it about rap. It’s a story that feels like it came right out of the script for Dear White People, but instead of being funny it’s deeply sad. This segment was not a secret time-travel plot, nor has FOX News taken over MSNBC’s morning slot. Blaming hip hop in specific (and entertainment in general) is just a tired and harmful trope that moves responsibility away from the perpetrators of a violent act. Heaven forbid we look at this incident and see it for what it is: a group of extremely privileged young men behaving like outright bigots.

Americans are so unable to confront the reality of white supremacy that we turn to anything, anything at all, rather than being honest about it.

Here are some highlights from the discussion:

Mika Brzezinski: I look at [Waka Flocka Flame’s] lyrics, and you have to ask yourself why he would go on that campus….It’s full of N-words, it’s full of F-words. It’s wrong. And he shouldn’t be disgusted with them — he should be disgusted with himself.

Bill Kristol: People are surprised that some drunk 19-year-old kids repeat what they’ve been hearing

Joe Scarborough: The kids that are buying hip hop or gangster rap, it’s a white audience, and they hear this over and over again. So do they hear this at home? Well, chances are good, no, they heard a lot of this from guys like this who are now acting shocked.

Scarborough in particular takes the culpability right off of white communities (“at home”) and puts it on hip hop.

You know what would have been far more interesting? For the hosts to look deeper at this fraternity, which on the national level has a very troubled and extensively documented history of violent hazing, sometimes leading to “torture” and death. The fraternity also has a reputation for sexual assault; in the new film The Hunting Ground, SAE is referred to by dozens of young women as “Sexual Assault Expected.” Women interviewed in the film said they had been warned to steer clear on multiple campuses. Let us also note the fact that SAE has big ties to Wall Street — and that when universities discipline frat members for various infractions, it inevitably leads to pressure from moneyed alumni.

Of course, with all this wrongdoing, there’s a history of racism too. The New York Times‘ excellent piece about the Oklahoma chapter reveals SAE’s long history of racial “incidents”:

Chapters across the country have faced sanctions or have been forced to participate in cultural awareness programs over their members’ use of racial slurs and roles in theatrics deemed offensive to African-Americans …

Chapters have gotten into trouble for racially themed parties, most recently at Clemson University. The chapter was suspended in December for holding a “Cripmas” party. A similar party stirred anger at Baylor University in 2006. Several chapters annually hold “jungle parties,” which often go without controversy, but the one at Texas A & M in 1992 sparked an uproar after some white students went in blackface while others, dressed like hunters, chased them.

Instead of arguing about Waka Flocka’s lyrics, the Morning Joe hosts could have read an account by one of the only two black men to have ever been admitted to the Oklahoma chapter of SAE:

…it’s been 14 years since I walked in that frat house door, and there still hasn’t been a third black man in Oklahoma’s SAE chapter. I thought we were different—maybe we weren’t. Maybe I was just being hopeful, but I truly did believe. I believed in SAE. I believed in the True Gentlemen. I believed my brothers were my brothers. I believed my son might one day be their brother also if he so chose.

But then I saw that video. I saw that video that spoke of lynching me instead of letting me sign, of eradicating my four-year legacy instead of letting him wear their letters.

The hosts of Morning Joe, reliably vapid mainstream media centrists, did something dangerous and offensive with this segment. If we’re going to give blatantly racist young men a pass and blame people of color for their own oppression, who will ever be called to account for racist behavior? I’d like to see Morning Joe rectify this error by airing a more thoughtful discussion of white supremacy as it relates to the SAE scandal, led by people of color. And when that discussion takes place, they should absent themselves or simply listen.