The University of Georgia chapter of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity found itself in controversy after a video showing four unidentified members egging on the use of racial slurs went viral on March 22.
Four days later, more than 300 students gathered on campus for an open discussion on race for an event hosted by the UGA chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“This has a much greater effect than anybody could ever think of. I’m sure that black student enrollment numbers are going to plummet, just because of some racist video making the headlines,” SGA Treasurer Destin Mizelle said at the event. “There definitely has to be some type of solution for this because the sake of black student life will be affected in the coming years.”
Actions and consequences
The students’ behavior in the video, which featured one student jokingly hitting another with a belt and “engaging in behaviors that mock the suffering of enslaved peoples,” according to a statement issued by the UGA Student Government Association, led to the Xi Lambda chapter’s temporary suspension.
After leading an investigation into the behavior of the students, all of whom remain publicly unidentified, the national fraternity released a statement on March 23 announcing the students’ expulsion from the chapter after finding they acted outside of the expectations of chapter membership.
The university released an official statement via Twitter, which addressed its commitment to “continue [its] efforts to promote a welcoming and supportive learning environment for [its] students, faculty and staff.” President Jere Morehead released his statement on behalf of the university on the night of March 23, saying the incident “does not reflect the culture of unity and inclusion which we support on campus.”
Neither the university nor the national chapter has provided more comments on the situation. The Equal Opportunity Office is investigating the incident.
A viral response
Shortly after the video gained traction, news of the fraternity’s suspension and the students’ expulsion from the chapter spread from local to national news.
This isn’t the first reported incident of controversial speech at UGA this academic year. In October 2018, UGA baseball player Adam Sasser was dismissed from the team after a social media post in UGA’s Overheard Facebook page gained national attention, alleging Sasser’s use of racial slurs during a Georgia football game.
In January 2019, UGA teaching assistant Irami Osei-Frimpong’s controversial social media posts went viral after a video of him arguing with a since-graduated student about Osei-Frimpong’s posts gained attention. The nature of Osei-Frimpong’s tweets led to a national discussion into the racial and legal implications of his rhetoric.
When the president of UGA’s chapter of the NAACP, Kaela Yamini, first saw the TKE video on Twitter, she said she was not surprised by the students’ conduct, but disappointed to find the use of racial slurs and derogatory gestures still happening in 2019.
“The university prides itself on promoting diversity and inclusion and making sure that we’re being sensitive to different cultures that are around us, so when you see and hear people using derogatory words like that, it makes it seem like the progress we think we’ve made is pretty much just going backwards,” Yamini said.
Alongside SGA, the UGA NAACP chapter organized an open forum on March 25 for students to express their feelings and concerns about the video. The “In Solidarity” event drew out a crowd of nearly 300 students, many of whom conveyed their frustration and shared incidents of microaggressions on campus relating to their race.
“It definitely was a gut check, if anything,” Student Government Association President Ammishaddai Grand-Jean said. “Brought you back to reality and reminded you that it’s not Mr. Roger’s neighborhood.”
In a structure organized like a town hall meeting, audience members expressed frustrations with UGA administration, both in its lack of action since the TKE video surfaced — beside a public statement from Morehead emailed university-wide — and in a lack of administrative presence at the “In Solidarity” event.
As for the students in the video, the future of their status at UGA likely lies in the hands of social repercussions rather than legal, said Adam Steinbaugh, the director of the individual rights defense program within the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Because the university is a public institution, it cannot legally impose formal discipline for speech that is viewed as hateful or offensive, Steinbaugh said. Any further discipline imposed by the university would violate the students’ free speech rights.
Likely consequences to occur that don’t abridge the First Amendment are social consequences, in which peers stop associating themselves with the students or future employers look down on the students’ judgment, Steinbaugh said.
Continuing the conversation
For the rest of the UGA community, SGA is working on continuing the conversation by presenting legislation and discussion aimed at progressing and uniting the university.
“It definitely was a gut check, if anything. Brought you back to reality and reminded you that it’s not Mr. Roger’s neighborhood.”
- SGA President Ammishaddai Grand-Jean
Legislation responding to the controversy was presented at the SGA Senate meeting on March 26. The resolution recommends the university and several of its offices work in conjunction with SGA to hold discussions about racism, the “impacts of offensive language” and the “implicit racial bias” on campus for students.
The resolution also offers a follow-up discussion for students on campus to further discuss the comments and plans of action proposed at the “In Solidarity” discussion by April 30.
“We don’t want to be united just on Saturdays for game days, we want to be united on every single day,” Grand-Jean said. “We need to take this energy to really bring unity and camaraderie among ourselves.”
CORRECTIONS: A former version of this article misidentified the NAACP as the "National Association of Colored People." It also misquoted Grand-Jean for saying "commodity" instead of "camaraderie." The Red & Black regrets these errors and they have since been fixed.