No persuasive evidence

Another battlefront in the Woke Wars:

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.

Kanoute was upset and angry, and posted about it on Facebook.

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 Times, the Post, and CNN picked up the story, and the ACLU took her case. But there’s a catch.

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.

So it wasn’t “a dorm lounge,” it was a lounge in a closed dorm. The appeal of that is obvious: peace and quiet. On the other hand there is the risk of people asking you what you’re doing in a dorm that’s closed for the summer. Being asked that is a lot more unnerving if you’re not white, but that doesn’t mean asking is automatically racist.

But they did not offer any public apology or amends to the workers whose lives were gravely disrupted by the student’s accusation.

This is a tale of how race, class and power collided at the elite 145-year-old liberal arts college, where tuition, room and board top $78,000 a year and where the employees who keep the school running often come from working-class enclaves beyond the school’s elegant wrought iron gates.

In other words where the employees who keep the school running are working-class. It’s well known that class has become a very distant runner-up in conflicts over social justice aka identity politics.

The atmosphere at Smith is gaining attention nationally, in part because a recently resigned employee of the school, Jodi Shaw, has attracted a fervent YouTube following by decrying what she sees as the college’s insistence that its white employees, through anti-bias training, accept the theory of structural racism.

I read Jodi Shaw’s much-circulated article on the subject a few days ago, with a lot of ambivalence. It’s complicated. I think I’m not as sure as she is that it’s possible for white people to have zero unconscious racial bias in the US, given the facts of the matter. On the other hand would I relish being forced to undergo “training” as a condition of continued employment? Oh hell no. I don’t trust the people in charge of “training” of that kind to say anything of value.

The “incident” that started all this began with Kanoute getting some lunch in a cafeteria that was closed to students.

Student workers were not supposed to use the Tyler cafeteria, which was reserved for a summer camp program for young children. Jackie Blair, a veteran cafeteria employee, mentioned that to Ms. Kanoute when she saw her getting lunch there and then decided to drop it. Staff members dance carefully around rule enforcement for fear students will lodge complaints.

“We used to joke, don’t let a rich student report you, because if you do, you’re gone,” said Mark Patenaude, a janitor.

Haha, not really a joke. Class meets race. But of course other times class meets race and fills race full of bullets.

Ms. Kanoute took her food and then walked through a set of French doors, crossed a foyer and reclined in the shadowed lounge of a dormitory closed for the summer…

It was closed but she was able to walk in. Maybe there was a sign? Or maybe not.

A janitor, who was in his 60s and poor of sight, was emptying garbage cans when he noticed someone in that closed lounge. All involved with the summer camp were required to have state background checks and campus police had advised staff it was wisest to call security rather than confront strangers on their own.

So he called security. He didn’t say anything about race.

A well-known older campus security officer drove over to the dorm. He recognized Ms. Kanoute as a student and they had a brief and polite conversation, which she recorded. He apologized for bothering her and she spoke to him of her discomfort: “Stuff like this happens way too often, where people just feel, like, threatened.”

But she was in a closed dorm…but it’s not at all clear if she knew that or not.

So anyway she wrote the Facebook post and everyone flipped out.

The president had had her own encounters with social justice “mistakes” and getting shouted at, so she erred on the side of…letting race trump class, I guess.

The school’s workers felt scapegoated.

“It is safe to say race is discussed far more often than class at Smith,” said Prof. Marc Lendler, who teaches American government at the college. “It’s a feature of elite academic institutions that faculty and students don’t recognize what it means to be elite.”

They’ll accuse themselves of structural racism in a heartbeat, but class? What’s that?

The repercussions spread. Three weeks after the incident at Tyler House, Ms. Blair, the cafeteria worker, received an email from a reporter at The Boston Globe asking her to comment on why she called security on Ms. Kanoute for “eating while Black.” That puzzled her; what did she have to do with this?

The food services director called the next morning. “Jackie,” he said, “you’re on Facebook.” She found that Ms. Kanoute had posted her photograph, name and email, along with that of Mr. Patenaude, a 21-year Smith employee and janitor.

“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 has lupus, a disease of the immune system, and stress triggers episodes. She felt faint. “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.”

Here’s where it gets much less complicated. You don’t bully janitors and cafeteria workers. Punching down, remember? REMEMBER THAT?

I worked with a dorm food service worker when I was a student. I got a gig working some afternoons at the tiny snack bar/coffee shop in the dorm, with a real employee as my supervisor. I liked her – she was sharp, funny, sensible. I was always annoyed by students who would just say “Gimme a coke” and she shrugged it off. That’s probably class too – I expected basic manners and she didn’t. Food service workers should be able to expect basic politeness, let alone not being publicly ratted out for things they didn’t do.

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.

Not cool.

Smith officials pressured Ms. Blair to go into mediation with Ms. Kanoute. “A core tenet of restorative justice,” Ms. McCartney wrote, “is to provide people with the opportunity for willing apology, forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Ms. Blair declined. “Why would I do this? This student called me a racist and I did nothing,” she said.

On Oct. 28, 2018, Ms. McCartney released a 35-page report from a law firm with a specialty in discrimination investigations. The report cleared Ms. Blair altogether and found no sufficient evidence of discrimination by anyone else involved, including the janitor who called campus police.

Ms. McCartney offered no public apology to the employees after the report was released. “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?”

Rahsaan Hall, racial justice director for the A.C.L.U. of Massachusetts and Ms. Kanoute’s lawyer, cautioned against drawing too much from the investigative report, as subconscious bias is difficult to prove. Nor was he particularly sympathetic to the accused workers.

So much for the civil liberties of the food service workers and the janitor and the security guard.

“It’s troubling that people are more offended by being called racist than by the actual racism in our society,” he said. “Allegations of being racist, even getting direct mailers in their mailbox, is not on par with the consequences of actual racism.”

So then let’s just pick people at random for public accusations of racism, yeah?

6 Responses to “No persuasive evidence”