Last weekend I wrote about the resignation of Smith College staffer Jodi Shaw. Shaw had been battling the school since last year when she announced in a YouTube video that she was tired of her employer “reducing my personhood to a racial category.”
Shaw, who is white and liberal, said that ever since an incident in 2018 when a black student accused a white staffer of racism the school had embraced a strain of critical race theory which emphasized identity politics. In practice that meant being shamed in front of fellow staffers when Shaw politely declined to talk about her personal experiences as a white person. In keeping with the thesis of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, this was seen as a refusal to acknowledge white supremacy and had to be called out.
In her resignation, Shaw wrote, “Under the guise of racial progress, Smith College has created a racially hostile environment in which individual acts of discrimination and hostility flourish.”
Today the NY Times published a story about what’s going on at Smith College and, surprisingly, it’s not particularly kind to the school or the environment there. It starts by recounting the 2018 incident that launched the fixation on identity politics:
In midsummer of 2018, Oumou Kanoute, a Black student at Smith College, recounted a distressing American tale: She was eating lunch in a dorm lounge when a janitor and a campus police officer walked over and asked her what she was doing there.
The officer, who could have been carrying a “lethal weapon,” left her near “meltdown,” Ms. Kanoute wrote on Facebook, saying that this encounter continued a yearlong pattern of harassment at Smith…
The college’s president, Kathleen McCartney, offered profuse apologies and put the janitor on paid leave. “This painful incident reminds us of the ongoing legacy of racism and bias,” the president wrote, “in which people of color are targeted while simply going about the business of their ordinary lives.”
The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN picked up the story of a young female student harassed by white workers. The American Civil Liberties Union, which took the student’s case, said she was profiled for “eating while Black.”
Less attention was paid three months later when a law firm hired by Smith College to investigate the episode found no persuasive evidence of bias. Ms. Kanoute was determined to have eaten in a deserted dorm that had been closed for the summer; the janitor had been encouraged to notify security if he saw unauthorized people there. The officer, like all campus police, was unarmed.
She wasn’t just in a deserted dorm, she had picked up her food in a dining hall that was not open to Smith students. It was reserved for “a summer camp program for young children.” Everyone working there had to have a background check. That’s why people were concerned when an unknown person was seen sitting in a closed dorm.
In short, this wasn’t a racial incident until Kanoute made it one. It’s actually worse than that. In a more detailed description later in the story we learn that Kanoute accused two cafeteria workers of being the racists responsible for calling police on her. In fact, neither one had been involved:
“This is the racist person,” Ms. Kanoute wrote of Ms. Blair, adding that Mr. Patenaude too was guilty. (He in fact worked an early shift that day and had already gone home at the time of the incident.) Ms. Kanoute also lashed the Smith administration. “They’re essentially enabling racist, cowardly acts.”…
Ms. Blair was born and raised and lives in Northampton with her husband, a mechanic, and makes about $40,000 a year. Within days of being accused by Ms. Kanoute, she said she found notes in her mailbox and taped to her car window. “RACIST” read one. People called her at home. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” a caller said. “You don’t deserve to live,” said another.
Smith College put out a short statement noting that Ms. Blair had not placed the phone call to security but did not absolve her of broader responsibility. Ms. McCartney called her and briefly apologized. That apology was not made public.
Blair has Lupus and the stress from the false accusation eventually landed her in the hospital. Patenaude, the other staffer accused of racism, left his job soon afterwards, also citing the stress of the false allegation. Again, he wasn’t even there when the incident happened.
This is the story that the national media jumped all over it as an example of pervasive discrimination. In fact, it’s instructive to look back at how the Times covered this in 2018. The story was titled, “All I Did Was Be Black’: Police Are Called on College Student Eating Lunch.” There is literally not a word of doubt in the piece that this is anything other than a clear example of someone being unfairly targeted because of their race.
“We were gobsmacked — four people’s lives wrecked, two were employees of more than 35 years and no apology,” said Tracey Putnam Culver, a Smith graduate who recently retired from the college’s facilities management department. “How do you rationalize that?”
The incident may have been a bogus example of racism but the impact on the school was real enough. Anyone who refuses to toe the identity politics party line is viewed as evil according to one conservative professor of economics:
“My perception is that if you’re on the wrong side of issues of identity politics, you’re not just mistaken, you’re evil,” said James Miller, an economics professor at Smith College and a conservative.
The Times deserves credit for writing this belated but accurate account of what happened at Smith College. It’s a shame someone didn’t do that in the first place.
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