Smith College, Free Speech and the Modern Left

In 2018, Oumou Kanoute, a Black student at Smith College reported an incident of racial profiling on campus via a Facebook post that immediately sparked student outrage and an apology from the Smith administration. The ACLU picked up the case, and several Smith employees, both involved and uninvolved in the incident, were cast out as “racist” and therefore unwelcome. Ultimately, however, an independent investigation found no evidence of bias — Kanoute had been approached for being in the wrong place at the wrong time rather than for the color of her skin. All of this information gained renewed attention last week as part of a feature piece covering race at Smith, prompted by the national attention accrued by former residential life employee Jodi Shaw following viral complaints over Smith’s handling of racial bias training.

When I initially read Michael Powell’s recent piece detailing the 2018 case at Smith College, I considered writing a response piece myself, in an attempt to find a slightly fairer understanding of the incident that Powell had approached from the lens of a culture warrior focused on “free speech” and “campus debate.” To me, his slanted approach was an evident part of the anti-leftist culture war on the right which attacks university students as out-of-touch elites for believing racism is an issue in modern America, a position that seemed better fit for the opinion pages than the U.S. news section in which it was written. 

However, I ultimately decided against writing a response because I figured that, though Powell’s piece was written with an opinionated slant that felt out of place in his section, it was still written with enough intellectual integrity to highlight real problems and pose challenging questions: What is the line between democratic norm enforcement and mob behavior? And, perhaps more pressingly, what is the role of class in informing our understanding of race? To put it more directly, should low-income white Americans be punished for not having access to the same racial education that is available to those at elite colleges? As I write this, Powell’s article has amassed over two thousand reader responses, many of which ask these very questions.

But since I’ve written this article, obviously something changed my mind about the importance of addressing this journalistic interrogation of our neighboring college. That something was New York Times Opinion columnist Bret Stephens’ op-ed on the issue, which somehow compared Smith College’s teaching on race to both the Cultural Revolution and preschool. Stephens writes that Smith College, and the “Woke left” he believes it represents, has traded “commitments to free speech” for “proscriptions on hate speech,” all while tellingly disabling comments on the article in an effort to avoid the kind of constructive dialogue that an open forum would allow. The article was especially ironic coming from a writer known for his own attempts to clamp down on speech when publicly criticized, but not altogether unexpected as it represents a broader trend in right-wing politics. 

Stephens’ article is representative of the type of hypocritical free speech posturing that has become so prevalent on the right recently, as demonstrated by the list of topics at the recent CPAC conference and written about in The Student last week. In an effort to avoid the policy nuances surrounding equity-promoting practices and to rile up conservative voters, the right instead promotes a culture war between the traditional American understanding of race and newer understandings of race relations that are developing on college campuses across the country. These bad-faith attacks do nothing to actually mend race relations, only serving to rile up conservative voters with racial resentment. 

However, this unhealthy political discourse is not the focus of this article, as it has already been covered by The Student so recently. Instead, I would like to redirect the conversation to focus on the meaningful questions that can be drawn from the initial incident.

One of the major questions raised by Powell is the question of mob mentality. It’s easy to dismiss the argument of university students’ mob mentality as an effort to hijack constructive debate on college campuses, but the fact of the matter is that innocent people were hurt in the incident, and are hurt in similar outbursts of racial conflict around the country. 

Without waiting for an investigation, Kanoute, enraged by her perception of racial discrimination, accused staff online of racism, including two staff who were uninvolved in the incident. This accusation led to hate mail, a potentially unsafe work environment and staff were asked to seek forgiveness from Kanoute in a restorative justice session even if they had been uninvolved.

Such immediate rushes to attack are becoming a more persistent danger in leftist circles today. Often, we see the victim and their peers attempting to act immediately as judge, jury and executioner, without allowing the lengthier processes of investigation to proceed. A similar rush to judgment occurred on Amherst’s campus this week, as the college’s lack of transparency surrounding the implementation of Covid-19 guidelines prompted fears of racial discrimination. The desire to find and punish wrongdoers is undertaken in good faith, but without allowing for the time necessary to find all the facts, it can result in potentially life-changing misunderstandings.

Another New York Times columnist, Michelle Goldberg, wrote an illustrative article this week about “Why Democrats Aren’t Asking Cuomo to Resign.” While, in part, Goldberg attributes this to the sad fact that “for plenty of people, it’s still easier to forgive a man for sexually harassing someone than it is to forgive a woman for ending an admired man’s career,” she also notes that the delayed call-to-arms is a result of serious setbacks the #MeToo movement suffered after attacking before investigating over the past several years. As the movement has matured, it has come to realize that accountability is more sustainable when it is supported by rigorous investigation and an acknowledgment that there are varying levels of wrongdoing and, thus, there should be varying levels of punishment.

The lessons of the #MeToo movement are applicable to both leftist circles and academic environments regarding other difficult topics like race and class. Accusations of wrongdoing should be met with rigorous interrogation before retaliatory action is undertaken. Also important, however, is that different norm violations should be met with different levels of response. Few would suggest that sexual assault and sexual harassment warranted the same level of response, and the same should be true in cases of racial discrimination — overt racism should be met with a firmer and harsher response than accusations of implicit racial bias. 

Implicit bias, it should be noted, can still be a harmful part of campus life, as Smith College president Kathleen McCartney noted regarding the 2018 incident. One barrier to student success on campus can be a sense of belonging or its opposite, imposter syndrome. Studies show that minority students frequently feel out of place at four-year colleges, and microaggressions stemming from implicit bias can reinforce these negative self-perceptions. In the 2018 case at Smith, it’s impossible to know if Kanoute would have been similarly reprimanded if she were white. Even so, these forms of racial discrimination should be approached differently from instances of overt racism like those involving the lacrosse team’s use of the N-word and the swastikas found on a table on campus last year.

The need for different levels of response to different levels of wrongdoing is important when considering the second focus of Powell’s piece: the way in which the impacts of modern universities’ racial education often hurts those who don’t have access to it in the first place. 

Powell, in line with most current right-wing arguments about the harms of racial education, goes out of his way to highlight the elite status of the academics and university students who support it. He notes the price of Smith College tuition, interviews faculty who state that a focus on race relations has come at the expense of a knowledge of class relations on college campuses and writes that staff often avoid enforcing rules, particularly on students of color, for fear of student retribution. And while this may seem like a cooptation of class conflict in an effort to derail racial justice, Powell correctly highlights that the workers themselves often felt uncomfortable with the way racial justice issues were handled, often because the justification of potential “subconscious bias” did not seem to justify the way they were treated by the college or its students.

And here is where Powell’s argument is most impactful. Students often seem to forget that most Americans don’t have access to the same education or familiarity they do in regards to social justice and equity, drawing their ideas instead from common ideas about fairness and traditional views of equality. Blair, one of the uninvolved staff who was accused of racism, reacted, not unreasonably, with shock when asked by the college to apologize for an event in which she took no part. Anti-bias training for staff was reportedly more “psychologically intrusive” than for faculty, with staff being asked about “their childhood and family assumptions about race.” Before the investigation cleared Blair of any responsibility, she was smeared as a racist with some even going so far as to tell her, “You don’t deserve to live.”

The association between anti-bias training and feelings of intrusion or unfairness are not uncommon. People often view criticism of their thoughts, as racist or otherwise biased, as criticism of who they are as people. For low-income whites in particular, accusations of racism or privilege can be taken as a solely personal attack because personal experiences with economic hardship are more visibly evident than the structural benefits of racial privilege. Ironically, belief in societal fairness and meritocracy is also related to socioeconomic status, suggesting low-income participants in bias training are more likely to believe that the system is fair and more resistant to training that suggests it is not.  Furthermore, in circumstances like these in which training is mandated as a response to perceived failures, bias training has been shown to activate biases and racial resentments, creating more backlash than benefits.

Condescension to college staff is obviously not the correct way to go about anti-bias education and can even promote the harmful forms of resentment against the college-educated elite that have fueled right-wing populism in recent years, as it has with the case of Jodi Shaw. Staff at American colleges, who are generally non-Black and low-income, usually approach anti-bias training with good intent but with the belief that financial privilege trumps racial privilege, as remarked by former Smith janitor Mark Patenaude. The privilege of simply being in college at all, let alone prestigious schools like Amherst or Smith, often seems an afterthought compared to more visible privileges like race or gender — even though educational privilege often stems as much from luck as other forms of privilege.

Training that belittles staff’s experiences or family lives is unhelpful and unwarranted — it is unnecessary to convince staff that they have more privilege than students when the ultimate goal is making the community environment a better place. Instead, anti-bias training could be improved by shifting the focus to how small changes in actions can make the campus environment more comfortable for historically marginalized groups.

While Powell and Stephens both take part in a damaging discourse that seeks to critique the cultural elite at the expense of the racially marginalized, Powell’s article raises serious questions for both leftist circles and academic institutions to contend with. How do we make justice more inclusive and accessible? How do we avoid fear tactics in the pursuit of justice? While I certainly don’t have all the answers, what I do know is that bettering our communities, our country and our planet requires a willingness to be introspective about the failures of our own movements and to do the hard work of addressing those failures. Only through this process of constant betterment will we be able to build the world we want to see.