A remarkable New York Times story shows how the postmodern relativistic culture of an elite women’s college prompted administrators to appease a black student who falsely claimed she was racially profiled, wrecking the lives of four of the school’s lower-class wage earners, who were branded as bigots.
Times reporter Michael Powell begins by pointing out that at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, tuition, room and board top $78,000 a year while the employees who keep the school running often come from working-class neighborhoods.
The saga began in the summer of 2018, when Oumou Kanoute, a black student, recounted on Facebook that 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 area was off-limits to students at the time, because the school was hosting a youth conference.
Nevertheless, claiming a yearlong pattern of harassment at Smith, Kanoute said the incident caused a near “meltdown,” as the officer could have been carrying a “lethal weapon.”
“All I did was be Black,” Kanoute wrote. “It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith College, and my existence overall as a woman of color.”
Smith College President Kathleen McCartney profusely apologized and put the janitor on paid leave, saying the “painful incident reminds us of the ongoing legacy of racism and bias in which people of color are targeted while simply going about the business of their ordinary lives.”
Kanoute’s claim was reported by the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN while the ACLU took up the case, claiming the student was punished for “eating while Black.”
The Times’ Powell acknowledged there was “less attention” to the story three months later when a law firm hired by Smith College to investigate found no persuasive evidence of bias.
The 35-page report cleared the campus employees and found no sufficient evidence of discrimination by anyone else involved, including the janitor who called campus police.
Nevertheless, McCartney insisted the report validated Kanoute’s “lived experience,” notably the fear she felt at the sight of the police officer. And the president concluded it’s “impossible to rule out the potential role of implicit racial bias.”
The investigative report also said Kanoute could not point to anything that supported the claim she made on Facebook of a yearlong “pattern of discrimination.”
But McCartney offered no public apology to four employees who had been implicated in the incident and branded as racists.
“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 college then accommodated the demands of Kanoute and her lawyer, creating separate dorms for black students and announcing anti-bias training for all staff, along with a revamped and more sensitive campus police force.
The incident at Smith College took place shortly after a similar incident at Yale in May 2018, when a white graduate student named Sarah Braasch called the police on a black schoolmate, Lolade Siyonbola, who was napping in their dorm’s lounge. Braasch was accused of targeting the student for “napping while black,” but there is no evidence of any racial motivation.
When Yale investigated, nine faculty members wrote letters on behalf of Braasch, emphasizing her passionate anti-racism and social justice advocacy. It turned out she had worked in France with a group helping women in mostly North African immigrant communities. The disciplinary case against Braasch was later dropped. Yet, wrote the New York Daily News’ Cathy Young, “in the court of public opinion, she is still the Yale bigot.”
In 2017, administrators at the far-left, experimental Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, lost control of their campus despite bending over backwards to appease students who protested a professor who objected to the college-sponsored “Day of Absence” in which whites would be urged to stay home. Classes ceased for five days, and defiant students at one point surrounded and threatened the professor, Bret Weinstein, outside his office. Students took control of a building, some wielded batons as they roamed the campus. An angry mob held the college’s hapless, futilely compliant president hostage in his office, despite his confessions of “white supremacy.”
Weinstein, in a three-part film in 2019 about the uproar, said that after students took over a faculty meeting, there was a “race to the bottom amongst faculty members to virtue signal to these rioters.”
Weinstein said campus police warned him not to return to campus because he was being “hunted.” He had to hold his biology class in a public park. He and and his wife, Professor Heather Heying, later resigned and reached a $500,000 settlement with the university in a lawsuit they filed. Weinstein, who describes himself as “deeply progressive,” is now, along with Jordan Peterson and others, regarded as a member of the informal “intellectual dark web” of commentators who oppose identity politics, political correctness and cancel culture in higher education and the news media.
Weinstein supports the concept of “black lives matter,” meaning black lives have been undervalued in society and that the problem must be corrected. But the motto, he said on Twitter, “has become a front for critical race theory, which is a lethal anti-American, anti-black fiction that threatens all. We must oppose it.”
In general terms, critical race theory is a postmodern theoretical framework rooted in Marxist principles that views individuals through the lens of the oppressed or the oppressor, based largely on their skin color. It’s related to the emerging concept of “intersectionality,” which demands that educators and society make structural and systemic changes that take into account how social categories such as race, gender, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation interact to create systems of oppression, domination and discrimination.
In the 2019 documentary about the Evergreen insurrection, Weinstein said he’s often invited to speak about free speech on college campuses, and every time he’s invited he makes the same point: “This isn’t about free speech, and this is only tangentially about college campuses.”
“This is about a breakdown in basic logic of civilization, and it’s spreading,” he said.
The first “dramatic battle,” said Weinstein, may be on college campuses, but it will find its way into the courts, it’s already in the tech sector, and it “will find it’s way to the highest levels of government, if we’re not careful.”
Weinstein said “these ideas were wrong when they first took hold in the academy, and instead of shutting them down, we created phony fields that act as a kind of political affirmative action, where ideas that do not deserve to survive are given sustenance.”
“These ideas are so toxic and so ill-conceived that to the extent that they are allowed to hold sway – as if one truth is equal to every other truth, my truth is as good as your truth – to the extent that that idea is allowed to pervade other institutions on which civilization depends, civilization will come apart,” said Weinstein.
“So we have to fight this,” he said. “And don’t get the sense that this is just about college campuses, or kids overreacting, because that ain’t what this is.
“This is far more important than that.”
See Weinstein’s remarks in “The Hunted Individual”:
One year after the uproar at Evergreen, the taxpayer-funded institution suffered a 50% drop in freshman enrollment while the University of Washington had its biggest freshman class ever.
Evergreen’s enrollment and financial woes mirrored the consequences the University of Missouri suffered after its mishandling of “hate crimes” charges by students. The Kansas City Star reported in June 2018 that Mizzou planned to eliminate 185 positions and lay off 30 staff members to manage a $49 million budget shortfall amid declining enrollment.
The racial unrest at Missouri was prompted by allegations of racial slurs that were never independently confirmed. But school administrators were accused of slow-walking the investigation, prompting students to construct an Occupy-like tent city and one student went on a hunger strike. Before there had been any conclusive investigation, the university’s president and chancellor were forced to resign.
In his first week in office, President Biden unveiled a plan to “embed racial equity,” rather than equality of opportunity, in all government agencies and “redress systemic racism where it exists” across the nation. Among his moves was the elimination of President Trump’s 1776 Commission, which released a report in January explaining why critical race theory is destructive.
Evergreen College in 2016 created an Equity Council to help shift the college “from a diversity agenda” to an “equity agenda.” The panel produced an “equity plan” that among other things, required an “equity justification” for every faculty position and every hire.
The vice chairman of the 1776 Commision, retired Vanderbilt professor Carol Swain, said in a recent interview that having already “destroyed” higher education, the political left is ramping up its effort to fundamentally transform K-12 schooling, teaching children that anything associated with Western Civilization is dangerous.
At odds with ‘personal truth’
In the New York Times story, Powell said the Smith College saga “highlights the tensions between a student’s deeply felt sense of personal truth and facts that are at odds with it.”
“Those tensions come at a time when few in the Smith community feel comfortable publicly questioning liberal orthodoxy on race and identity, and some professors worry the administration is too deferential to its increasingly emboldened students,” he wrote.
Powell quoted James Miller, an economics professor at Smith College and a conservative, who said his view is that “if you’re on the wrong side of issues of identity politics, you’re not just mistaken, you’re evil.”
McCartney insisted in a Times interview that Kanoute’s encounter with campus staff was among a number of cases of “living while black” harassment across the nation.
But Smith faculty members, Powell writes, see a “pattern that they say reflects the college’s growing timidity in the face of allegations from students, especially around the issue of race and ethnicity.”
The Times reporter noted the atmosphere at Smith is gaining attention nationally, in part because a recently resigned employee, Jodi Shaw, has a following on YouTube.
“Stop demanding that I admit to white privilege, and work on my so-called implicit bias as a condition of my continued employment, Shaw says in a video.
The school’s workers felt scapegoated
While Smith is sensitive to racial issues, it’s blind to class divisions, said faculty member Marc Lendler, a professor of American government.
“It’s a feature of elite academic institutions that faculty and students don’t recognize what it means to be elite,” he told the New York Times.
Three weeks after the incident, a cafeteria worker, Jackie Blair, received an email from a Boston Globe reporter asking her to comment on why she called security on Kanoute for “eating while Black.”
She wondered what she had to do with the incident.
It turned out that Kanoute had posted Blair’s photograph, name and email, along with a janitor, Mark Patenaude.
“This is the racist person,” Kanoute wrote of Blair, charging that Patenaude also was guilty, even though he wasn’t even there at the time of the incident.
Blair, who makes about 40,000 a year, has the immune-system disease lupus. Stress tends to trigger episodes.
“Oh my god, I didn’t do this,” she told a friend. “I exchanged a hello with that student and now I’m a racist.”
Days after the Facebook post, Blair found notes in her mailbox and taped to her car window. One read “RACIST.”
People called her at home. One caller said, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” Another said, “You don’t deserve to live.”
Smith College put out a short statement noting that Blair had not placed the phone call to security. But the college did not absolve her of broader responsibility. She since has been laid off, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She told the Times that when she applied for a new job, her perspective employer brought up the Smith incident, which branded her a racist.
Meanwhile, the college began anti-bias training in which cafeteria and grounds workers were probed about their childhood and family assumptions about race.
The c0llege also has set up “White Accountability” groups in which faculty and staff are encouraged to meet on Zoom and explore their biases.
The janitor who called campus security quietly returned to work after three months of paid leave. The other janitor, Patenaude, who was not working at the time of the incident, left his job at the college not long after Kanoute accused him of “racist cowardly acts.”
Patenaude told the Times the race and intersectionality training sessions at Smith has left workers cynical.
“I don’t know if I believe in white privilege,” he said. “I believe in money privilege.”
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