The Smith Inquisitors will come for you | Steve Berman

It’s not white power crushing the Black race; it’s elite power salving its own conscience, setting up an Inquisition against the working class. The elite don’t even realize they’re doing it. They have latent privilege, institutional power, and they will use it like a monkey flings poo.

By now, you may have read about the brouhaha at Smith College, a small private school in the rolling green hills of central Massachusetts, north of Springfield. Smith is primarily a women’s college, but it now admits men to its graduate program. Boasting a cozy 2,400 student body, tuition is $55,830, and an additional $19,420 for room and board. Studies include such liberal arts subjects as Africana Studies, Jewish Studies, Women & Gender Studies, ranging to hard sciences like Physics and Computer Science.

Courses such as Corporate Capitalism, Media and Protest in America, American Conservatism in the Age of Trump (I’d love to audit that one!), and Race, Feminism and Resistance in Movements for Social Change pepper the school’s academic catalog. Attending and graduating from Smith makes one a member of a very tight group of alums.

So when one of Smith’s alumni, a staff member, a woman named Jodi Shaw, shared her story on YouTube, along with her resignation letter, with former New York Times editorial writer Bari Weiss (read the whole thing), it sent shock waves through the academic community. Shaw was paid $45,000 a year, which in central Massachusetts is not a huge salary, as a Student Support Coordinator in the Department of Residential Life. 

Her letter claims that the “racially hostile environment that the college has subjected me to for the past two and a half years has left me physically and mentally debilitated.” The story began with a Black student, who ate her lunch, procured from a cafeteria that students were not supposed to use that summer day in 2018, in a dormitory that had been closed for the summer.

A passing janitor noticed a person where they should not be, and following procedure, called security. Security showed up (an unarmed officer), recognized the student, shared a few words, and that should have been the end of it. Oh, but it was just the beginning.

Michael Powell, writing in the NYT, covered the sad tale in depth, and with complete transparency (read the whole thing). The student, Oumu Kanoute, did not react well to being confronted by a security officer while eating her lunch. To her, it was “eating while Black” and the product of a systemically racist society. As the officer approached, Kanoute was ready. She recorded the conversation. 

She then lashed out against the officer on social media, the janitor (even another janitor, 35-year employee who wasn’t even working at the time of the incident), the lady who served her lunch, and in general, anyone not Black at the college.

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.”

Because her story had to be believed, and failure to support a Black women telling such a tale of woe is in itself a reason for cancellation in the elite halls of privileged academia, the school went full Leroy Jenkins to prove that it could cleanse itself of the stain of latent systemic racism.

The effort became an all-out attack on anyone white, an Inquisition that proceeded to collect confessions from all staff, delving into intensely personal, humiliating, and psychological exercises, not just for the senior management and academic employees, but also from lowly Student Support Coordinators whose entire annual salary could not cover tuition at her own alma mater.

It didn’t matter that the whole incident was entirely in keeping with the school’s procedures, and not in any way remotely racist. A Black student’s feelings of what Smith College president Kathleen McCartney called “living in a context of ‘living while Black’ incidents” must be avenged.

Even after a law firm investigated the incident and published a 35-page report, finding no real evidence of discrimination, it was insufficient reason to stop the Inquisition. The goalposts simply had to move.

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.”

Even though were was no actual racism at Smith College directed toward Kanoute, the fact that actual racism exists somewhere, and Kanoute was Black and therefore susceptible to receiving it from somewhere, was enough to pit the elites against the working folk.

The real privilege here was not white privilege.

Jackie Blair, the cafeteria worker who served Kanoute lunch that day, and Mark Patenaude, a janitor who had worked for Smith College for 35 years, were implicated by Kanoute online. The school refused to defend them in any way, despite threats, insults and whispers “there goes the racist” on campus.

“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.”

Kanoute, a privileged student in a protected minority, at an elite school, abused her privilege of protection and honor to destroy the lives of people who did nothing to her. But in her lashing out against Smith’s administration, she was right, just not in the way she intended. Kanoute committed a racist, cowardly act, hiding behind her skin color, just to soothe her own hurt feelings, because she was talked to about being where she should not be. In her mind, any rebuke, no matter how mild, no matter how deserved, coming from a white person, was by definition racist.

Who is to blame for her worldview? Is it the working class folks in Northampton, Massachusetts? Is it—at the time—the Trump administration? Or is it the academic institutions that teach such things to elite educated young women, who prime them like muskets and set the firing cap, ready to go off at the slightest pull of the hair trigger?

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.

Ms. Blair also has lupus. Lupus is aggravated by stress, and the effects of it are horribly debilitating. During the pandemic, Smith College furloughed Blair, who now can’t find a decent job because “there’s that racist” has stuck to her like a scarlet letter.

Yet, the “whistleblower” Jodi Shaw, who saw all this happening, endured the painful humiliation, group chants, psychological intrusions, and loss of job opportunities because she used a rap form of a program she designed, and rapping while white is a no-no because it’s “cultural appropriation,” is the villain, according to Smith president McCartney. 

In an open letter to “members of the Smith community,” McCartney claimed it was Shaw “who demanded payment of an exceptionally large sum in exchange for dropping a threatened legal claim and agreeing to standard confidentiality provisions.”

Further, while the employee aims her complaint at Smith, her public communications make clear that her grievances about equity and inclusion training run more broadly—as she puts it “to the medical field … the publishing field, the tech field, it’s in the schools, the legal field, public schools, private schools, colleges of course, government. It’s everywhere.”

Well, it is everywhere, if you’re working in the academic field, or in many of the places Shaw cited. Then there’s “training,” and there’s Inquisition designed to elicit a confession, a guilty plea. Reading through what Smith implemented, they designed an Inquisition, not “training.” McCartney continued:

While it might be uncomfortable to accept that each of us, regardless of color or background, may have absorbed unconscious biases or at times acted in ways that are harmful to members of our community, such self-reflection is a prerequisite for making meaningful progress. The aim of our equity and inclusion training is never to shame or ostracize. Rather, the goal is to facilitate authentic conversations that help to overcome the barriers between us, and the college welcomes constructive criticism of our workshops and trainings.

If the aim of Smith’s equity and inclusion training is never to shame or ostracize, and several employees have either quit or been furloughed with their ability to find new work severely impaired by false accusations of racism, then it would be more than fair to claim Smith has failed. McCartney, as school president, needs to check her privilege before she all-knowingly claims the high road.

Frederick M. Hess, writing in National Review, claimed to know McCartney.

We were friendly for many years, and while I haven’t seen her in a long time, I remember her as being smart, sensible, good-hearted, with no interest in the struggle sessions and racist reeducation now unleashed at Smith on her watch. Perhaps she has been sold on the marvels of intellectual repression. But my hunch is that she has been stampeded and intimidated into acquiescence.

Think of that. The president of an elite women’s college that was founded in 1871 was “stampeded and intimidated.” Either it was her career and ability to find work, or it was employees who made $40,000 or $45,000 a year. We all know who she chose.

Ultimately, this is about power. Elite power over working class power. The college had power to force guilty pleas, confessions of latent racism, and humiliating apologies for things not done or even necessarily thought, by the lowest staff members, to make the top faculty feel better about themselves.

The janitor, Mark Patenaude, was not even working when Kanoute got her lunch that day. Soon after being accused, he quit.

“I was accused of being the racist,” Mr. Patenaude said. “To be honest, that just knocked me out. I’m a 58-year-old male, we’re supposed to be tough. But I suffered anxiety because of things in my past and this brought it to a whole ’nother level.”

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.”

You want to know why Donald Trump can whip up an actual insurrection, with lawyers, military people, working-class folks, all listening with rapt attention to his “fight!” message? It’s because of poo-flinging monkeys like the blind scolds at Smith College, who have no idea of the damage they cause in people’s lives because working staff who have literally done no wrong are punished to assuage the consciences of the elites.

I’m afraid this is just the tip of a very large and ugly iceberg, and it illustrates the depth of healing this nation needs to do to get back on course. Racism is terrible, but an Inquisition in search of racists who don’t exist is worse.

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.

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