Smith College Hates The Working Class
Jodi Shaw’s travails at Smith College finally made The New York Times. Smith is an elite, predominantly white women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, where tuition, room and board run $78,000 per year. The Times story seems to back up Shaw’s complaints that the school has become absolutely obsessed over race. The story gives a lot of good background to the Shaw controversy, noting that its roots are in an incident in the summer of 2018, when a black student, Oumou Kanoute, 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.”
You can imagine what happened next. It made national news. But, says the Times:
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.
Smith College officials emphasized “reconciliation and healing” after the incident. In the months to come they announced a raft of anti-bias training for all staff, a revamped and more sensitive campus police force and the creation of dormitories — as demanded by Ms. Kanoute and her A.C.L.U. lawyer — set aside for Black students and other students of color.
But they did not offer any public apology or amends to the workers whose lives were gravely disrupted by the student’s accusation.
The Times piece frames the atmosphere at Smith as one where the administration is terrified of students, especially around questions of race, and treats the working-class staff like hell. A janitor told the Times that workers do their best to avoid complaining about the rich students, for fear the students will accuse them of something terrible, and the administration will take students’ side. The Times gives details of the Kanoute incident, and it involved an older janitor who doesn’t have good eyesight spotting this adult out of place, and doing as his training required, calling campus police. Kanoute was in the shadows, and the man couldn’t see well, which led him to describe the stranger (Kanoute) as “he.” Later, Kanoute accused him of “misgendering” her.
The Times writes:
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.”
That night Ms. Kanoute wrote a Facebook post: “It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith, and my existence overall as a woman of color.”
Her two-paragraph post hit Smith College like an electric charge. President McCartney weighed in a day later. “I begin by offering the student involved my deepest apology that this incident occurred,” she wrote. “And to assure her that she belongs in all Smith places.”
Ms. McCartney did not speak to the accused employees and put the janitor on paid leave that day.
This should have been an ordinary exchange. The Times says the older janitor didn’t even mention Kanoute’s race when he called campus police. And as the later investigation found, they had done nothing wrong. Kanoute was where she was told not to be, and the janitor didn’t recognize her as a student. He did what Smith policy required him to do. The cop came, saw that she was a student, and apologized. It was polite. Only later did Kanoute decide that she was a victim.
Smith president Kathleen McCartney made the workers feel like scapegoats, the Times reports:
“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.”
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.”
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.
The story goes on to say that the workers, who weren’t guilty of anything, were treated like racist outcasts by those snotty Smith students — and the administration would not speak up for them. There’s a lot more to the story, which only tangentially focuses on Jodi Shaw, but if you’ve been following the Shaw case — I did an interview with her about it last year — you know that accusations that Smith bullies working-class people, especially by forcing them to confess their guilt as whites, is part of her complaint against the school. Great quote here, from a janitor:
He recalled going through one training session after another in race and intersectionality at Smith. He said it left workers cynical. “I don’t know if I believe in white privilege,” he said. “I believe in money privilege.”
It’s time to lawyer up nationwide, and sue these neoracist bully-boy colleges into submission. Here’s what I can’t figure out: why aren’t Republicans making an issue of this kind of thing?