During the summer of 2018, a Facebook post by a black Smith College student named Oumou Kanoute went viral. Smith recounted being harassed by a college janitor and police officer who had accused her of trespassing while eating inside a dormitory lounge. The incident left her shaken and frightened—in Kanoute’s telling, she was persecuted for the crime of “eating while black.”
The Washington Post and The New York Times both covered her story, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) came to her assistance. As a result of the attention brought to the situation, many of the employees involved—particularly the janitor and a cafeteria worker who had spoken with Kanoute—were publicly branded racists and subjected to extreme opprobrium. Kanoute eventually received a formal apology from Smith College’s president, Kathleen McCartney.
“This 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,” said McCartney in a public statement.
Yesterday, the Times revisited the story, adding some key details. It turns out that Kanoute was trespassing: The dormitory in which she ate lunch was closed to students for the summer. Only children attending a summer camp were allowed to use the building’s cafeteria. The janitor who approached Kanoute—a nearsighted man in his 60s—had every reason to call security, and the officer who showed up apologized for bothering the student. Contrary to Kanoute’s claim that she thought her life might be in danger, the officer was quite unarmed.
According to the Times, Smith commissioned a report on the incident, and that report
cleared Ms. Blair altogether and found no sufficient evidence of discrimination by anyone else involved, including the janitor who called campus police.
Still, Ms. McCartney said the report validated Ms. Kanoute’s lived experience, notably the fear she felt at the sight of the police officer. “I suspect many of you will conclude, as did I,” she wrote, “it is impossible to rule out the potential role of implicit racial bias.”
The report said Ms. Kanoute could not point to anything that supported the claim she made on Facebook of a yearlong “pattern of discrimination.”
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.
“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.”
The revelation that the entire narrative surrounding the incident was a lie has not changed matters one bit at Smith. Employees must now undergo rigorous anti-bias training. Faculty are exempt from these sessions, but they are encouraged to attend “white accountability” Zoom groups, in which they are supposed to interrogate their prejudices.
The Times story is worth reading in full, because it’s a welcome instance of the mainstream media giving much-needed attention to the phenomenon of ostensibly progressive (though considerably privileged) college students weaponizing false claims of racism or sexism to punish ordinary, innocent people who irked them. It’s a tactic that is spreading from elite college campuses to elite media institutions—like the Times itself—which disproportionately hire graduates of places like Smith. And it’s spreading still. As Andrew Sullivan once observed, “We all live on campus now.”
Amazon is no longer carrying When Harry Became Sally, a socially conservative take on transgenderism by Ryan Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Amazon has not offered an explanation, but appears to have recently crafted a policy against “content that we determine is hate speech,” according to The Washington Free Beacon.
As a private bookseller, Amazon is not required to stock its virtual shelves with any particular tome. But refusing to sell Anderson’s book will prompt understandable charges of rank hypocrisy. Prime users can currently order Mein Kampf and have it delivered in 48 hours.
The White House is still backing former Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden to head the Office of Management and Budget, but Senate Democrats are postponing committee votes on her nomination. According to Reuters:
Biden, a Democrat, still supports Tanden, an Indian American who would be the first woman of color to lead the agency.
“Neera Tanden is a leading policy expert who brings critical qualifications to the table during this time of unprecedented crisis,” his press secretary, Jen Psaki, wrote on Twitter.
Asked later at the White House whether Tanden had offered to withdraw her nomination, Psaki said: “That’s not the stage we’re in.”
• The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) begins today, and former President Donald Trump is slated to speak on Sunday. Rep. Liz Cheney (R–Wy.), who voted to impeach the president, thinks Trump should not continue to play a role in the Republican Party’s activities, but she seems to be vastly outnumbered.
• Hillary Clinton is writing a thriller.
• Mercia Bowser, elder sister of Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, has died of COVID-19.
• New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing his own #MeToo scandal.
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