What's the right way to face racism?

Story highlights

  • David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma, responded to offensive video
  • Eric Liu: Boren did something rare in public life today -- he acted with moral clarity

Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the author of several books, including "A Chinaman's Chance" and "The Gardens of Democracy." He was a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter: @ericpliu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)A video appears online. In it, fraternity members from your university are chanting a hateful, racist song about lynching African-Americans. The video goes viral. You're president of the university.

Imagine being in that situation. What would you do?
There are two ways to answer the question. The first is in the moment of crisis. The second is about the long term.
    As most everyone knows by now, David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma, faced just this situation Monday. And I've been thinking about it intensely, not only because I care about race and civic leadership in America, but also because Boren was my first boss, when he was a U.S. senator.
    I'm not from Oklahoma but ended up working for Boren through a college internship. He was a mentor to me during my years in Washington, and a model for me when he left the Beltway to be of greater use and service as an educator. Though we haven't talked since the crisis broke, I see familiar patterns of leadership.
    Boren responded to the crisis swiftly, with a statement that went viral. Boren told the students from Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) he had a message for them: "You are disgraceful. You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves Sooners" (the OU nickname).
    Boren went on to sever all ties between OU and SAE. The national fraternity closed the local chapter. Later, Boren said he'd be glad if the students in the video left campus because "we don't provide student services for bigots." The next day he expelled two of them.
    His actions have resonated across the country. On social media, people shocked by the video find themselves also stunned by Boren's response. Why? Because he did something rare in public life today. He expressed a decisive, judgmental view with moral clarity. Then he followed through.
    His statements have been free of mushy lawyer-talk or euphemism. He's led authentically, from the heart.
    Of course, people have carped. Some question whether Boren has the legal authority, as head of a public institution, to expel students on the basis of their free speech, even racist hate speech. Some lament that what he should have branded as disgraceful was the students' actions, not the students themselves.
    Legitimate concerns, perhaps. The First Amendment question, certainly, is being debated by legal scholars. But these concerns are eclipsed by the bigger picture. Boren wasn't just condemning wrongdoers; he was shifting social norms for all.
    A cynic might consider laughable a refrain from Boren's statement about "real Sooners." Boren said that real Sooners are not racists or bigots; they believe in equal opportunity, treat people with mutual respect and love each other like family.
    A cynic might say Oklahoma is a state both very white and very red, not known for flying the banner of anti-racism. 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.
    So now begins the longer term. Here, another opportunity arises to lead by example.
    David Boren can now examine the institution he works for and ask how and why such attitudes and behaviors -- racism so casually vicious -- could ever take root among people as young as freshmen.
    He can explore the ways in which everyone -- not only the obviously guilty parties at a frat party -- is touched by unconscious bias and institutional racism. He can now ask his community to face the inequities of history and race.
    We can all do that.
    Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, is doing this at his company. He was moved after the incidents of Ferguson and Staten Island to hold truly open forums with employees about the pain and anguish of racial division.
    But you don't have to be a college president or a CEO. You don't have to be a white man in charge to start a tough reckoning with racism (though it'd help if more did).
    Whoever you are, you can start a new kind of conversation in your neighborhood. On your campus. At your house of worship. Ask what the history is. Ask why there are such imbalances of power and voice. Ask what it would take to be truly inclusive. Then, in word and deed, start answering your own questions.
    We can all do that. The sooner, the better.