Sigma Alpha Epsilon vs. Broke Phi Broke

And so it begins. Many of us knew it would almost as soon as the news broke. It is, after all, about as inevitable as it is ridiculous, and it's very, very, very ridiculous: the blaming of Black culture for white racism. That's a blunt description but it's certainly apt when it comes to what transpired on MSNBC's insufferable Morning Joe earlier this week. Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and guest Bill Kristol think that Waka Flocka Flame is a hypocrite for canceling a performance at Oklahoma University after the video leaked of the university's Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity singing about how "there will never be a n*gger SAE" and that the brothers would sooner see said "n*gger" "hanging from a tree."

Brzezinski seems confused as to whether Waka Flocka's songs are actually songs. Kristol appears bothered that major corporations are allowed to profit off of these songs (as if he ever had any problem making money of the tripe he peddles as original thought). And Scarborough wants to remind us that the majority of people who buy hip-hop records in the US are white; therefore they couldn't possibly hear such awful words at home but rather are being corrupted by amoral, violent, depraved rap artists.

Never mind that mere days after the SAE story broke and the frat was rightfully kicked off campus, a 2013 video leaked of the frat's house mother brazenly and happily repeating the n-word into a camera phone. So, in fact, yes these kids had heard the word "at home," and it's likely they heard it on a regular basis. 

Not to be outdone, Rush Limbaugh then had to chime in defending the Morning Joe crew. Using the same basic logic, he insisted that if the exact same words had been performed by Kanye West, "it'd be a hit." Limbaugh is clearly hoping that nobody questions the basic veracity of the notion that he understands anything about popular culture. Perhaps I'm wrong and he actually does, but if so then it seems to me he would have to go out of his way to prove it. That, however, would require pause for reflection, which seems more and more to be approaching the status of cardinal sin in the realm of media punditry.

This line of "reasoning" coming from Limbaugh, Brzezinski and others is nothing new. Don Imus used it in 2007 when he was rightfully pilloried for calling the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos," claiming that the term "didn't originate in the white community." Imus was later suspended and fired by CBS Radio, but his attempt to deflect the blame was taken up by several other talking head types, to the point where even moguls like Russell Simmons felt forced into demanding their own labels start applying stricter standards to their artists' language. Imus, naturally, ended up back on the air and in syndication within a year.

But really, this whole logic is about as old as American racism itself. As many others have pointed out, the vile bigotry spouted by these frat boys took root well before the existence of hip-hop or even recorded music. Sigma Alpha Epsilon — founded at the University of Alabama in 1856, when the question of slavery was just about coming to a head in the United States — is the only still-active fraternity in America with roots in the Antebellum South. The imagery of lynching these troglodytes so gleefully invoked is a brazen and frankly stomach-turning reminder of the kind of systematic violence that enabled the perpetuation of the slave system. It seems reasonable to assume that such violence has likely been manifested in the frat's culture in one way or another and more or less continuously from day one. 

Place this in the context of what Lindy West describes in her piece in The Guardian: that frats (or at least the oldest, whitest ones) aren't just for rich kids who need to pay to have friends. They are an institutional expression of America's deeply entrenched class system, which necessarily means they can't help but be saturated with the white supremacy so central to American capitalism. It is therefore easy to grasp why some are so quick to defend them, to let them off the hook, to forgive their racist behavior (along with the misogyny, the hazing, the queerphobia that still somehow manages to be vaguely homoerotic) and to furthermore suggest that they be shielded from the influence of a depraved and irresponsible underclass.

This kind of anxiety about the cultural reach of the unwashed masses has been applied in a historically unique way to Blacks. The American establishment's regard of Africans and their descendants has always bestowed upon the latter's cultural expressions a kind of sub-human, quasi-mystical power that, if left unchecked and allowed to corrupt the hearts and minds of well-meaning white folk, would potentially overrun the alleged decency and civility of European life. Upon witnessing the gathering of slaves for the purpose of communal song and dance in New Orleans' Congo Square in the early 1800's, British architect Benjamin Latrobe expressed a kind of wary amazement mixed with fear of such "savage" displays. After abolition, when the music of former slaves began to really penetrate America's nascent popular culture, it was looked at with a similar suspicion. Blues was "devil's music." Jazz (along with reefer) was in the early 1900's perceived by many a white citizen as one of the Black man's most pernicious weapons, capable of almost hypnotic powers over the white listener (particularly women).

And what exactly has comprised this noble white culture so worthy of protection? There is little likelihood that Limbaugh singled out Kanye for this reason, but it's a telling example nonetheless. Longtime Kanye fans will remember the series of skits peppered throughout Late Registration based around the foundation of a fraternity just for poor Black students: Broke Phi Broke. The humor of the skits derived from the absurd lengths that the brothers would go to in order to find pride in their own destitute situation, but it also got at more than that. Music writer Mickey Hess described the tracks as illustrating "a contradiction at the core of contemporary American life: the need to belong, to fit in, with your fellow humans versus the Darwinistic mad grab at material things, success in the latter being the very definition of success in our culture." That a college fraternity provides such a potent site for this kind of examination of American capitalism is not a coincidence. Most of the kids who pledge frats like SAE aren't the kind who see a contradiction between the need to belong and the materialistic mad grab — mostly because they've never had to sacrifice for what they want, let alone what they need to survive. Indeed, their whole notion of belonging is entirely predicated upon their ability to accumulate and possess.

Any sane society would see such people, along their rituals and gatherings, as inherently parasitic, an unnecessary hangover from an era that was pathetically trying to ape the traditions of a useless and needlessly entitled aristocracy. The quickness with which Morning Joe, Kristal and Limbaugh are rallying around SAE, the brazenness with which they are trying to shift blame, shows that this is sadly not the case. Jon Stewart is correct in pointing out the utter hypocrisy in demanding that Blacks "pull their pants up" while refusing to make similar demands of responsibility on white kids, but what he's describing is essentially the dynamic of one of America's oldest culture wars. 

Update: An article at Slate (but originally appearing at Inside Higher Ed) went up just a few hours after this post, and is highly recommended for readers who want to get a glimpse of the depth of the racism that exists at SAE. A few highlights that bear mentioning: The racist chant at Oklahoma is hardly new, and goes back at least to circa 2000 at a university in Texas. Several college chapters have been disciplined or causes outrage for everything from blackface to flying Confederate flags to throwing parties that mock inner-city people of color. The frat's "love" for music apparently goes back to the aftermath of the Civil War, when two members wrote a song claiming that SAE had “entered, met and held at bay its rivals in the North.” This was one of the songs that gained them a reputation as "the singing fraternity."

If capitalism is performative, then the revolution will be a masterpiece. "Atonal Notes" is Red Wedge editor Alexander Billet's blog on music, poetry and performance. Follow: @UbuPamplemousse