Recently a video of an overtly racist chant sung by young, white fraternity men at the University of Oklahoma (OU) went “viral.” If you’re like me, you could not avoid seeing, hearing, or reading about this chant, which used violent language to brag about the fraternity’s racial exclusivity. The fraternity in question, SAE, is the only national fraternity founded in the American South, and has a history of celebrating
secession traitors the Confederacy. Despite the expected and not so expected apologists, people were in general agreement that their behavior was unacceptable and should be punished. David Boren, OU’s president, quickly released a strong statement where he positioned the school as an example for the entire nation in taking a “zero tolerance” approach toward racist speech and kicking the fraternity off the campus. In general, he was widely celebrated for this speech,
To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you. You are disgraceful. You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves “Sooners.” Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect. Real Sooners love each other and take care of each other like family members.
Boren’s use of the term “Real Sooner,” and his reduction of racism to speech and behavior, is what is of interest to me. I have seen several responses to this statement and only Eric Liu mentions the irony of the phrase, and he does so by calling people cynics who bring up theorigin of the term “sooner.” Well, I have to disagree with him.
It could be argued that our nation has two original genocidal sins, the institutionalized destruction of indigenous peoples and, to paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates, the institutionalized plundering of black bodies. Both of these sins are the bedrock of (white) American wealth and power. Neither of these sins are discussed much publicly, and Native Americans are rarely represented in the media — and when they are, it is usually as a superficial stereotype, or as a team/school mascot.
The problems of Native American mascotry has rightly received a lot of popular and scholarly attention. Activists have also made great strides in getting some teams and schools to change these nicknames. The basic argument is that the act of using a racial category as mascots is dehumanizing and reinforces the social construction of race and the social inequalities linked to it. Coverage of the issue has increased over the lat few years because, with the support of the NFL, Washington football team owner Daniel Snyder refuses to change the name of his franchise. Several activists and journalists have condemned Snyder for this act and linked the continued use of the term to broader issues involving Native Americans; Historian James Loewen recently proposed a resolution from the Organization of American Historians calling for the end of the nickname.
But, what does this have to do with “Real Sooners”?
Both Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Joe Feagin argue that understanding our past is the best way to see how racism is constructed. They also remind us that racism is not simply an individual’s behaviors, but is a system created to privilege whites and to oppress people of color. This racist system is fundamental to the way that our nation is constructed and is foundational to how we view, think about, and live in our world. In order to de-construct this racist system, we must know how it is built. The notion of a being “real Sooner” as something worth striving for is an example for this.
Indeed, the original Sooners were the white settlers who raced in to claim land that had been wrested from Native Americans. But the point of Boren’s “real Sooners” riff is not to describe or sanitize today’s reality; it is to issue a challenge. It is to bind people to a creed, a standard of being and belief that is easy to assert but hard to achieve. Not unlike being a true patriot.
I argue that “sanitation” is exactly what Boren’s words do. (And don’t get me started on the problem of “true patriot”). Boren’s use of “Real Sooner” as an ideal erases the legacies of this country’s white supremacist and colonial past while also upholding the Sooner as something good; but not just, good, the Ideal. We should at least consider how the origin of the word, and its present usage, may fit into our view of our world.
As many of my friends know (I wrote about this on my personal facebook page), I spent a few years of elementary school in Oklahoma. Each April, we took a school day and re-enacted the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889. We would all dress up in our jeans and boots, wear cowboy hats, build covers for our red wagons, and nail bright cloth to old pieces of wood to fashion our own claim-stakes. We’d line up across an imaginary line on our school playground and as the clock struck noon, we’d rush out to the marked grids on the field, and plunge our stakes into the ground to claim that square. Then parents and younger siblings might join the student/homesteader for a chuckwagon/picnic lunch. Due to successful advocacy, this institutionally-supported celebration of white supremacy and colonization ended in Oklahoma City schools last December, but it still takes place across the state.
According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, real sooners (not the kind Boren is talking about, but the actual ones from our past) were among the land rushers who surrounded the so-called Unassigned Lands leading up to the Land Rush. In late March 1889, President Benjamin Harrison signed a proclamation that amended the Indian Appropriations Bill making the land in the middle of the Oklahoma territory open to (white) settlers. As a result, some 50,000 came to that starting line on the morning of April 22, 1889, in hopes of staking their claim to this land — land initially set aside for Native American reservations.
Not only would this event exclude Native peoples from some of the better farmland in the area, but it also reinvigorated white western expansion and the lawful appropriation of indigenous people’s lands through a practice similar to imminent domain. It is also worth noting that many of the Native Americans living in the soon-to-be Oklahoma Territory were forcibly re-located to the area as a result of President Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, which is sometimes referred to as the “Trail of Tears.”
Sooners were the folks who could not wait until the noon starting time. According to the OU site, and the state historical society, many sooners were “allowed” to go early due to political connections or job requirements. In many cases, sooners set out the night before, hid in bushes, and stole the already stolen land by light of the moon (sometimes called “moonshiners”). But, apparently, the meaning of the word changed over time, with that same university site stating that “[a]s time went on, ‘Sooner” came to be a synonym of Progressivism. The Sooner was an ‘energetic individual who travels ahead of the human procession.’ He was prosperous, ambitious, competent, a ‘can-do’ individual.”
This is a nice and easy transition for white settlers; sooners aren’t criminals who disregarded federal law by crossing the Land Rush starting line too soon. Neither were they zealous colonists who felt entitled to the land. Through the process of a-historicity, they are symbols of progress and ambition — individual embodiments of American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. The “new” meaning was further solidified when the OU teams took the nickname in 1908, and “the success of University of Oklahoma athletics teams over the years has made the nickname synonymous with winning.”
Sooner: a nickname celebrating the criminal act of stealing already stolen land and then using legal means to “legitimize” that theft is turned “progressive” and then, almost a century later, used as a defense against bigotry and for equal opportunity and respect.
And, while I have no problem with Boren’s general sentiment, we should remember that it is very easy (some have argued too easy) for him to condemn this horrible chant, shut down the offending group, and to kick two young men out of the university and then go about his day. But, in order to do the real anti-racist work that President Boren and his supporters purport to be doing, they (and we) need to engage with the history behind the word “sooner.” They (and we) must reconcile with the systemic racism represented in the celebration of that word. I am not saying that OU needs to change the nickname, but, as an institute of higher learning, they could demonstrate a great deal of leadership* by creating space for discussions about systemic racism at the school. Instead, they haven’t.
*It is worth noting that the football team has stood up behind the Sooner name to denounce racism and, through their position as un(der)paid athletic labor at an historically white institution, may be in a position to address systemic racism.
Note: this post was originally going to be a piece about women’s basketball (Go Hawks!), but, due to technical issues and personal interest, I am writing about a recent current event. I hope to write about women’s basketball this summer once my work is retrieved. Fingers crossed.
Matt Hodler is a PhD candidate in Health & Sport Studies at the University of Iowa. He lived in Edmond, OK for a few years, where he was a fan of the OKC 89ers (Rangers’ minor league team named after the Land Rush, who were then re-named the Redhawks in 1997 and were just bought by the LA Dodgers and are now called the OKC Dodgers).