Notes & Comments April 2021
Racism at Smith?
On accusations at Smith College.
Jussie Smollett, call your office. You remember Jussie Smollett, don’t you? He’s the black actor who, back in 2019, claimed to have been assaulted by two white men who, in the most dramatic telling, wore ski masks, put a rope around his neck, and doused him in bleach as they chanted maga slogans and yelled racist and anti-homosexual slurs. Oh dear. Another sign of “systemic racism,” what?
Not quite. Once again, it turns out that “systemic racism” is what you have to rely on when there is no actual racism to be found. Smollett was not attacked by two mask-wearing, maga-spouting white men. On the contrary, he paid two black bodybuilders, the brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, to fake the attack. It was, in short, a politicized publicity stunt intended to prop up a sagging career and enhance the profile of a wannabe celebrity actor.
Sound familiar? It’s not quite in the league of Tawana Brawley. Brawley, you’ll remember, was the young black woman who, in 1987, helped put Al Sharpton on the map. She falsely claimed that she had been raped by four white men, including police officers and a prosecutor. The New York Times and other national media were all over that story until a grand jury determined that Brawley (assiduously coached by Sharpton and others) had made up the whole thing. Just like Jussie Smollett.
And just like the story of the Duke University lacrosse players who, in 2006, were charged with kidnapping and raping a black stripper. The New York Times and kindred organs went to town on that one too. “[T]he children of privilege feel vividly alive only while victimizing, even torturing,” thundered one Times op-ed. Richard Brodhead, Duke’s president, displaying the statesmanlike leadership sorely missing in many academic presidents, noted that in America one is innocent until proven guilty and urged patience and discretion while the investigation proceeded.
Brodhead said it, but did he mean it? What he did was suspend an implicated student, fire the lacrosse coach, cancel the rest of the team’s season, and pander to every possible interest, but especially to those baying for the heads of the accused. Alas for The Narrative, the story was 100 percent false. The local prosecutor, who had hoped to make a name for himself by going after a bunch of rich white boys, was himself later disbarred, indicted, and jailed. Several years later, Crystal Mangum, the stripper, was found guilty of second-degree murder after she stabbed and killed her boyfriend.
There’s a moral here, but many guardians of our institutions, determined to discover racism under every stone they turn over, remain oblivious. It is heartening, therefore, to report that The New York Times, for once, has left virtue-mongering to one side in order to report the facts.
In a long piece by Michael Powell, the Times reviewed the case of Oumou Kanoute, a black student at Smith College. In the summer of 2018, Kanoute was eating lunch in a dorm when a janitor, accompanied by a campus police officer, accosted her and asked what she was doing there. The officer might have been carrying a “lethal weapon,” Kanoute recalled, and the encounter, part of what she described as a year-long pattern of harassment, left her near “meltdown.” Kanoute told the whole story on Facebook: “All I did was be Black,” she wrote. “It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith College, and my existence overall as a woman of color.”
Kathleen McCartney, Smith’s president, was instantly on the case with apologies and imprecations against racism: “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.” All the usual media lapdogs, including The New York Times, got in line to bemoan the racist nature of an America where a student could be harassed merely for “eating while black.”
For its part, Smith went into full grovel mode.
They were less attentive when, three months later, a law firm hired by Smith to investigate the incident reported that it had found no evidence of bias. Kanoute, it transpired, was sitting in a deserted dormitory that had been closed to students for the summer. The janitor, far from “profiling” her, was simply doing what he had been told by his boss to do: report to campus police any unauthorized persons he saw in the dorm. He did notice that Kanoute was black but did not mention that to the campus police. Being short-sighted, however, he referred to Kanoute as “he.” Kanoute later complained that, in addition to being racially profiled, she had been “misgendered.” The officer, by the way, was unarmed.
For its part, Smith went into full grovel mode. The college called for “reconciliation and healing” and instituted anti-bias training for all staff, sensitivity training for the police, and special dormitories for black students and other “students of color.” The janitor in question was put on paid leave. “White Accountability” groups were instituted for faculty and staff to explore their implicit biases. But Smith did not, Powell notes, “offer any public apology or amends to the workers whose lives were gravely disrupted by the student’s accusation.” (This also included a longtime cafeteria worker whose life Kanoute turned upside down with baseless accusations of racism.)
It costs more than $78,000 per year to attend Smith. That is considerably more than most of the workers who keep Smith open earn, but it is an expensive proposition to maintain a hermetically sealed experiment in identity politics. Back in February, Jodi Shaw, a white Smith alum, made headlines when she resigned her administrative position at the college, complaining of anti-white bias. She had posted a video on YouTube in October 2020 in which she decried the racialist atmosphere. “Stop demanding that I admit to white privilege and work on my so-called implicit bias as a condition of my continued employment,” she said. As Powell reports, Shaw, after repeated clashes with the administration, resigned and appears likely to sue the college, calling it a “racially hostile workplace.”
Even now, at the high noon of identity politics, reality counts for something.
We were pleased to see Michael Powell’s forthright column in The New York Times. It exposed some portion of the racialist fantasy world embraced by elite institutions like Smith. The fact that the story appeared in the Times, itself an institution beholden to those racialist shibboleths, is a good sign. It shows that even now, at the high noon of identity politics, reality counts for something. Perhaps the Times will one day take the next step and remind its readers of the astringent, gimlet-eyed wisdom of Booker T. Washington, a black American who had no time for race-baiting. In his book My Larger Education (1911), Washington criticizes those blacks he calls “problem profiteers.” “There is another class of coloured people,” Washington wrote,
who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs—partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.
We wish someone would send this eminently sane bulletin to the partisans of Black Lives Matter and their many disciples on our college campuses, in our schools, and, alas, in the governmental agencies of the United States.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 8, on page 1
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