Why Zero Tolerance and Inclusion Do Not Mix

On March 10, 2015, University of Oklahoma President, David Boren expelled two students who were responsible for leading a racial chant that was secretly filmed on video. He defended the decision based on the school’s policy of zero tolerance for racism.

This decision comes from a school that from 1940-1970 had an Indian mascot called “Little Red” and a current nickname of “Sooners.” This term was given to settlers who entered territory now known as the state of Oklahoma before President Grover Cleveland opened it up for settlement via the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889. The act allocated funds to move western American Indians onto reservations.

Isn’t ironic that a school that has a zero tolerance for racism has its very existence rooted in racism against American Indians? This is why zero tolerance for racism or for anything is a near impossibility. You are biased, I am biased and we are all biased. The failure to recognize this human reality in the long run, will slow the development of an inclusive University of Oklahoma because in the words of Dr. Maria Dixon Hall, an associate professor of organizational communication at Southern Methodist University, the University of Oklahoma’s reaction to the offending students was one of blame them, shame them and erase them.

Blame Them
It is hard to argue with this one. These two students were caught in the act. As referees say the ball does not lie. The video tape does not lie as well. On the other hand, is anyone else responsible for their behavior? Did their parents utter obscenities on a regular basis? Did their families isolate them from experiences with people of color? Did their fraternity institutionalize the “n-word” in their vocabulary? What safe environments did these young men circulate in on a regular basis to feel secure in uttering such a vile word? The record is clear that the university does not have a squeaky clean history when it comes to creating an inclusive culture.

Shame Them
Not much disagreement here. However, the question is how much shame is enough? For one student’s family, the shame was so much that they vacated their home and shut down their social media accounts. Obviously, some of the shame was self-inflicted but are some people in this conversation piling on here of late. Who among us can claim they have never uttered a vulgarity?

Erase Them
I think the University of Oklahoma had too much of a knee jerk, amygdala hijack moment regarding this incident and forgot about what kind of outcome did they want for everyone involved, including the two expelled students. This swift justice response to offensiveness is rooted in our own hesitancy to stay in long conversations about race. We are more concerned about intervention and fixing people as opposed to extended dialogue about how to prevent this problem.

Sure, they have gotten rid of the bad apples. But what lesson did the two students receive. I got caught uttering the “n-word” in public. Does that mean they would still use the “n-word” in private?

Inclusion is ultimately about second chances. And just as Parker Rice and Levi Pettit should not be labeled as racists for the rest of their lives, neither should we be unwilling to forgive them for the rest of our lives.

Inclusion happens at the intersection of redemption and conversion.

• Redemption-we all want social primacy, affiliation and connection even when we fail.
• Conversion-we all have the capacity to change we just need little help along the way.

My wish for the University of Oklahoma, Parker Rice and Levi Pettit is they find their redemption and conversion. I hope we keep talking and listening to ensure that the next time this happens, we won’t talk about zero tolerance but about universal forgiveness.

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply