A video posted to social media last week featured an OU student in blackface and using a racial slur, filmed by another OU student. The response to that video prompted the two students to withdraw from the University of Oklahoma, a press conference from OU President Jim Gallogly on Monday and a student Rally Against Racism on Tuesday.
The university's response Gallogly outlined in his press conference are good steps forward: recruiting more students, faculty and staff of color; providing access to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds; ensuring campus inclusion programs are robust and impact students; and reviewing the student code of conduct is positive movement in the right direction.
The university response Friday was weak: the word "racist" wasn't used to describe the video, there was too much about how the university's hands were tied when it came to expelling the students and the offer of an apology from the two former students was meaningless.
Since then, however, Gallogly and his administrators have taken the right steps and appear genuinely committed to initiating a cultural change at OU.
Racism isn't anything new to the University of Oklahoma (for instance, review the story of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, an OU student who successfully fought segregation all the way to the Supreme Court, became an attorney in Oklahoma and later served on the OU Board of Regents. Imagine being told you couldn't attend a university because of the color of your skin and then running the place one day).
The last major public incident may have been in 2015, when the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity was expelled from campus after a video of its members singing a racist chant surfaced, but systemic racism doesn't just raise its ugly head every few years, and as simple as it may be to point a finger at university leadership, the problem can't be solved by a program or an expulsion.
To be clear, that doesn't mean OU shouldn't condemn racism and hate speech and provide programs and opportunities that emphasize and celebrate equity and inclusiveness. But these issues permeate our entire society, not just OU, and until we begin to have real, meaningful conversations on a regular basis that result in new policies, new action and new ways of thinking, we'll continue to see incidents like the SAE chant and the blackface video.
Conversations about who we elect to lead us on the national, state and local level (how many people of color represent you in Congress? In the state legislature? At the county level? On the Norman City Council?); about racist economic, political and judicial structures that discriminate and disproportionally harm people of color; about harmful, ignorant rhetoric that obfuscates real issues.
We may embrace Martin Luther King Jr.'s words now, or, at least, the inspiring quotes we see on Instagram, but when black NFL players practice his methods of nonviolent protest, the public outcry is deafening. Don't forget, King wasn't celebrated until long after he was murdered for his beliefs and activism.
The Norman community should hold OU administrators, faculty, staff and students to a high standard when it comes to words and actions. It's a standard we need to meet ourselves, a standard that needs to be communicated first in the home, then in schools and in our civic organizations and emphasized on a daily basis in the interactions we have with family, friends and community members.
And we have to actively work to root out the racism that abides deep within our community and within our own souls through honestly, education and humility.