Why Racist Emails at U. of Chicago Frat Made Me So Furious

I grimaced when I heard about the racist and sexist emails exchanged at the Alpha Epsilon Pi Chapter at the University of Chicago, my alma mater. Then I read the emails, and I became furious.

They are awful. They are disgraceful. They are racist, sexist, sometimes both, often more. Whoever wrote them is a disgrace to the Jewish community at Chicago. I am deeply sorry for whoever has been hurt by them.

A disclaimer: I was never part of the AEPi chapter at Chicago, nor was I particularly close to it as an organization. I was heavily involved in Jewish religious life on campus, and thus occasionally interfaced with AEPi. As far as I know, it’s still mostly white. I know many of the brothers in the organization and count some of them as friends. Some of those friends have privately expressed concern to me about behavior like this at AEPi before. (Many of them, for obvious reasons, are not commenting publicly.) I do not know who the authors of the messages are. I probably have met them. If they are my friends, I do have to say: you guys have seriously, seriously disappointed your community.

The University of Chicago Hillel responded forcefully, and that is to their credit; the staff there have also been active in calling out bad behavior within the community. And, to the credit of the AEPi chapter, the board of the fraternity has publicly apologized and are “investigating the issue.” Jewish students at the University and alumni are, for the most part, infuriated.

At the same time, I am not surprised that this sort of thing has happened again on Chicago’s campus. UChicago has had a very difficult history with discussing race issues on campus - several other fraternities have exchanged racist messages or put up racist publicity; cyber-bullying based on race and gender was rampant during my time there; Chicago’s students of color have heavily documented the environment of constant and damaging racist micro-aggressions they face on the campus. I myself saw far too much racist behavior at Chicago. There is so much work to be done.

This is background. Because of course none of this backdrop excuses the AEPi brothers who wrote these emails, or whoever participated in racist banter, dialogue, or activities at Chicago. At the very least, the authors need some serious education about race and gender, about rape culture, and about Jewish values.

Repentance will not be marked by apologies but by actions and behavior. This means not harassing Muslim students. This means not engaging in racist practices. This means not doing shitty things. Because, boy, this stuff is shitty.

But I think we need to discuss this case anyway, since it reflects something broader about certain things that we sometimes see in Jewish and non-Jewish spaces. Things that I think the authors of the emails involved were parroting. This is absolutely not to say that Jewish communities are inherently racist. This is to say instead that sometimes, as is the case in the United States more generally, harmful behavior has not been addressed where it should have been.

For the sake of clarity, I will focus on Jewish communal institutions.

Firstly, white Jews are still given far too easy a pass to casual and not-so-casual racism and sexism in our communities, activities that are easily parroted and repeated in various forms.. I honestly think some of the emails parroted these sentiments, or sentiments heard and gained elsewhere. This does not excuse the emails. How many times have you heard jokes about “Arabs” or a certain Yiddish word I won’t repeat? How many times have you encountered rape culture in Jewish environments? How many times have you been told to pass off an offensive comment by a rabbi as a joke?

I myself can think of so many instances, and so many instances where I failed to speak up. Sometimes, as Jews, we don’t want to cause a fuss in the wider community — “what will the Gentiles say?” Sometimes, we are so inured to it that we don’t pay attention. Sometimes we forget that those of us who are white do, in fact, benefit from white privilege daily. Sometimes, we pass it off as a folly of youth.

But this is how racism is allowed to fester and infect our communities. Maybe it’s time that we talked back. Maybe it’s time that we got angry. But of course, we’ve been saying this for years. Jews of color have been asking us white Jews to step up to the plate for decades. Let’s make it real. Our rebuke does not necessarily have to be public - I am strongly in favor of “calling in” privately rather than “calling out” publicly in some cases - but it should happen.

Secondly, we really need to have a better communal process around the consequences of racist behavior. When I say consequences, I do not necessarily mean “a slap on the wrist,” nor “burn them with fire.” I’m discussing first and foremost that white Jews should listen to those that suffered from the racist behavior, and support them in whatever way they can. Only if, of course, those who suffered want the support at all. Let us not forget that it is not the racists who suffer from the worst consequences of racist behavior. Secondly, we who are not victims should enact some sort of consequence for racist behavior. Not necessarily public or direct, but definitely a push towards responsibility, and something that would teach people a lesson.

Do we invite someone who has a continued record of racist rhetoric, like Pamela Geller, to our events? Do we take those with leadership roles in our organization to task for this behavior? Do we push them to maybe take a back seat? Do our Jewish organizations partner with groups that engage in racist rhetoric or behavior? Do we give those groups money? A little pressure can go a long way.

I know that many of you are concerned about freedom of speech if we demand consequences for racist rhetoric. This is a constant question at Chicago, where the worry has been raised repeatedly in response to furor over racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and/or Islamophobic rhetoric. Some might argue that “free speech” is the spice of life. But “free speech” is not really a valid justification for racism, nor is “airing unpopular opinions.” Perhaps — and an XKCD comic puts this beautifully — we have the right to determine that certain behavior is, to put it kindly, assinine. Besides, any adult should know that malicious speech leads to consequences. Let’s make sure that more responsibility is taken.

Of course this challenging is hard. It’s something that I have myself learned when I have failed to respond to racist or sexist behavior I have witnessed. I have no doubt that some of the AEPi brothers saw things, wanted to do so as well. Peer pressure is a powerful thing, and so is the fear of confrontation. I no doubt have fear writing this article myself. But I think we should heed the Torah’s words in this week’s parsha: “do not follow a multitude to evil.” That includes racism, even by your friends.

Jonathan Paul Katz is a civil servant and a U. of Chicago alum. This piece is solely his opinion and is in no way connected to his place of employment. Contact him on Twitter @jonathanpkatz

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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