Why I Applaud Levi Pettit for Confronting Racism

Important step against bigotry

Earl Ofari Hutchinson | 4/7/2015, 2:20 p.m.
A study found that young whites under 30 are no more enlightened in their racial views especially of blacks than ...
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Former Oklahoma University fraternity member Levi Pettit recently stood before a bank of cameras and microphones flanked by a bevy of black elected officials, ministers and civil rights leaders at a black church in Oklahoma City. He apologized for his racially insensitive acts and ignorance.

This was the act of a sincere young man who has been battered from pillar to post after the video surfaced of he, and his frat pals, carousing on a bus and shouting racist epithets. For speaking out, he has been the butt of snickers, derision, and flat out condemnation. The African-American leaders who stood with and behind him haven’t been spared the vitriol either. They’ve been the object of vicious name calling and attacks for having the temerity to back him in his mea culpa.

Pettit though doesn’t deserve condemnation, he deserves praise. He and his fraternity were booted from the university. His name and that of his family has been dragged deep through the mud. He’ll remain for some time the poster boy for offensive and disgusting frat racial antics whenever some wayward fraternity inevitably engages in them. He could have stood on the prior statement of apology and regret that he issued after the tape went viral and set off a national howl. He could have easily melted into the student woodwork somewhere, completed his studies, and gone on about his business. But he didn’t. Instead, he went very public with his apology and pledge to action.

Despite the lambaste of him and the racial put downs and myopia of the detractors, this is an important step forward. The public outing of the fraternity came the same week that a study was released on racial attitudes of the millennials. The study found that young whites under 30 are no more enlightened in their racial views especially of blacks than their parents.

For example, when respondents were asked, “How much needs to be done in order to achieve Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality?” There was a huge gap in how they answered the question as opposed to young respondents of color. 42 percent of whites answered that “a lot” must be done to achieve racial equality, which was almost identical to the percent that answered the same of white Gen Xers and 44 percent of white baby boomers.

The survey finding conformed pretty much to an AP survey on racial attitudes toward minorities that was conducted in October 2012. That survey found that in the four-year period from a prior AP survey on racial attitudes in 2008 a clear majority of whites (56 percent) expressed animus toward blacks. The jump in anti-black racial sentiment came despite nearly four years in office of an African-American president.

It’s been the rare day that’s passed in the now more than six years that Obama has been in the White House that there hasn’t been a racially inflammatory video, photo, a sign, or some public figure popping off on race that has made a headline somewhere. When it does, the predictable happens. The battle lines get quickly drawn, countless individuals jam websites and chat room and boards to downplay, or worse condemn the critics of the actions as being too sensitive, thin skinned, or slamming them for playing the race card with their denunciation of a racial dig or taunt. The Oklahoma University frat debacle was a near textbook example of that.