Slandering While Black // Investigation results are a woke-up call

To The New York Times’ credit, and the surprise of all who regard the paper as hopelessly woke and blinkered, the Old Gray Lady recently published a lengthy front-page article about a supposedly racist act that, well, wasn’t.

The incident took place in 2018 at Smith College, an elite private liberal arts women’s institution in Northampton, Massachusetts, a school that prides itself on its progressive ideals and politically active student body.

That July, an African-American Smith student, Oumou Kanoute, announced that she had been racially profiled on campus. Her accusation shocked college administrators and students alike.

The following month, she wrote an account of her experience that was published by the American Civil Liberties Union, garnering even wider attention.

She recounted how she “went into the cafeteria to grab lunch” one day but was told by a woman,  “You’re not supposed to eat here.” The woman left her alone, but Ms. Kanoute saw her, through a glass partition, conversing with a man who subsequently entered the room accompanied by a police officer who told her that she had been described as “out of place.”

Ms. Kanoute wrote, “In my fear, I prayed and tried to remain calm.” She was, she concluded, being harassed for simply “living while Black [sic].”

As it turned out, it wasn’t because she was black that she was spoken to but because she was in fact out of place. The room in which she had decided to eat lunch, in a deserted dorm, was off limits to Smith students since it was being used at the time for a teen summer camp program.

The man who brought in the police officer (who, like all the campus police, was unarmed) was a janitor who had been told to notify security of any unauthorized people there. In his 60s and with poor eyesight, he had reported a person in the restricted area, unsure if it was a man or a woman. (Which led Ms. Kanoute to later add “misgendering” to her misguided charge of racism.)

In a wondrously mindless reaction, the college, instead of lauding the janitor, put him on paid leave. And with equally absurd overkill, it instituted “anti-bias training” for all its non-teaching staff. The college president apologized to Ms. Kanoute, bemoaning how “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.”

A law firm—hired by the college—found no evidence of bias.

What was worse, Ms. Kanoute publicly misidentified the janitor who had been doing his job, fingering a different employee and a cafeteria worker—neither of whom had been involved in her “harassment”—of “racist, cowardly acts.” Among the results were insults and threats aimed at the worker. One called her home and told her, “You don’t deserve to live.”

Workers at the college reported that they had been grilled by the anti-bias training folks about their childhood and family attitudes about race, leaving them feeling offended. One school administrator resigned from the college, saying it had become a “racially hostile environment.”

The more far-reaching harm of Ms. Kanoute’s hysteria, though, is to black Americans, who in fact suffer not only blatant racism and disproportionate violence at the hands of police but numerous actual, not imaginary, microaggressions.

When things that aren’t racist are called racist, racism wins.

The same is true about anti-Semitism, truth be told. Like anti-black sentiment, it’s ubiquitous. But that doesn’t mean that every slight, real or imagined, that any of us may endure is due to hatred.

I recall a high school rebbe who slyly imparted that lesson, back in the days of chalkboards. When he was excitedly depicting a diagram on the board and the piece of chalk he held broke and fell to the floor, he would sneer at it and shout, “Anti-seMEET!”

There are more than enough all-too-real challenges. It’s important to take care not to conjure imaginary others.


To read more, subscribe to Ami