From the New York Times news section in 2018:
‘All I Did Was Be Black’: Police Are Called on College Student Eating Lunch
By Daniel Victor
Aug. 2, 2018
Smith College’s president apologized this week after a campus employee called the police on a black student and said she “seemed to be out of place” as she ate lunch and read in a common area.
The student, Oumou Kanoute, was on a break from her on-campus job on Tuesday when she was approached by a campus police officer responding to the call, the college said in a statement. The officer found nothing suspicious about her.
“I did nothing wrong, I wasn’t making any noise or bothering anyone,” she wrote on Facebook. “All I did was be black.”
The encounter was the latest example of a black person encountering unwarranted police scrutiny in recent months. The list already included napping in a dorm lounge, shopping for clothes, leaving an Airbnb, golfing and sitting in a Starbucks.
Each incident shared a catalyst: Someone considered black people going about their everyday lives to be suspicious or dangerous enough to call the police. On Facebook, Ms. Kanoute noted that the person who called the police did not approach her first.
“I am blown away at the fact that I cannot even sit down and eat lunch peacefully,” she wrote.
The employee who placed the call to the police was placed on leave pending an investigation, the college announced on Friday.
In a statement on Thursday, Kathleen McCartney, Smith’s president, apologized to Ms. Kanoute and said that “we continue to fall short even as we continue to make progress.”
“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 daily lives,” Ms. McCartney said. “It is a powerful reminder that building an inclusive, diverse and sustainable community is urgent and ongoing work.” …
Ms. Kanoute, who did not respond to a Facebook message, wrote that the person who called the police was a white employee. She appealed to Smith to identify the caller, which the college has declined to do, citing campus policy.
She said the person had reported her as a “suspicious black male sitting in the common room.” In audio snippets that she posted on Facebook, she speaks cordially to the officer.
“We were wondering why you were here,” the officer says.
“I was eating lunch,” she responds. “I’m working the summer program so I was just relaxing on the couch.”
She wrote that the officer apologized on behalf of the caller, whom she described as “the racist punk who called the police on me for absolutely nothing.”
“From the doorway he didn’t know who it was,” the officer says in the audio.
“It’s O.K.,” she responds. “It’s just like, kind of stuff like this happens way too often, where people just feel, like, threatened.”
She wrote that she was “very nervous, and had a complete meltdown after this incident.”
“No student of color should have to explain why they belong at prestigious white institutions,” she wrote. “I worked my hardest to get into Smith, and I deserve to feel safe on my campus.”
Now, from the New York Times news section in 2021:
A student said she was racially profiled while eating in a college dorm. An investigation found no evidence of bias. But the incident will not fade away.
Smith College is an elite 145-year-old liberal arts college, where tuition, room and board top $78,000 a year and where the employees who keep the school running often come from working-class neighborhoods.
By Michael Powell
Feb. 24, 2021
NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — In midsummer of 2018, Oumou Kanoute, a Black student at Smith College, recounted a distressing American tale: She was eating lunch in a dorm lounge when a janitor and a campus police officer walked over and asked her what she was doing there.
The officer, who could have been carrying a “lethal weapon,” left her near “meltdown,” Ms. Kanoute wrote on Facebook, saying that this encounter continued a yearlong pattern of harassment at Smith.
“All I did was be Black,” Ms. Kanoute wrote. “It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith College, and my existence overall as a woman of color.”
The college’s president, Kathleen McCartney, offered profuse apologies and put the janitor on paid leave. “This painful incident reminds us of the ongoing legacy of racism and bias,” the president wrote, “in which people of color are targeted while simply going about the business of their ordinary lives.”
The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN picked up the story of a young female student harassed by white workers. The American Civil Liberties Union, which took the student’s case, said she was profiled for “eating while Black.”
Less attention was paid three months later when a law firm hired by Smith College to investigate the episode found no persuasive evidence of bias. Ms. Kanoute was determined to have eaten in a deserted dorm that had been closed for the summer; the janitor had been encouraged to notify security if he saw unauthorized people there. The officer, like all campus police, was unarmed.
Smith College officials emphasized “reconciliation and healing” after the incident. In the months to come they announced a raft of anti-bias training for all staff, a revamped and more sensitive campus police force and the creation of dormitories — as demanded by Ms. Kanoute and her A.C.L.U. lawyer — set aside for Black students and other students of color.
But they did not offer any public apology or amends to the workers whose lives were gravely disrupted by the student’s accusation.
This is a tale of how race, class and power collided at the elite 145-year-old liberal arts college, where tuition, room and board top $78,000 a year and where the employees who keep the school running often come from working-class enclaves beyond the school’s elegant wrought iron gates. The story highlights the tensions between a student’s deeply felt sense of personal truth and facts that are at odds with it.
Those tensions come at a time when few in the Smith community feel comfortable publicly questioning liberal orthodoxy on race and identity, and some professors worry the administration is too deferential to its increasingly emboldened students.
“My perception is that if you’re on the wrong side of issues of identity politics, you’re not just mistaken, you’re evil,” said James Miller, an economics professor at Smith College and a conservative. …
Faculty members, however, pointed to a pattern that they say reflects the college’s growing timidity in the face of allegations from students, especially around the issue of race and ethnicity. In 2016, students denounced faculty at Smith’s social work program as racist after some professors questioned whether admissions standards for the program had been lowered and this was affecting the quality of the field work. Dennis Miehls, one of the professors they decried, left the school not long after. …
The atmosphere at Smith is gaining attention nationally, in part because a recently resigned employee of the school, Jodi Shaw, has attracted a fervent YouTube following by decrying what she sees as the college’s insistence that its white employees, through anti-bias training, accept the theory of structural racism.
“Stop demanding that I admit to white privilege, and work on my so-called implicit bias as a condition of my continued employment,” Ms. Shaw, who is also a 1993 graduate of Smith and who worked in the residential life department, said in one of her videos. After months of clashing with the administration, Ms. Shaw resigned last week and appears likely to sue the school, calling it a “racially hostile workplace.” …
Student workers were not supposed to use the Tyler cafeteria, which was reserved for a summer camp program for young children. Jackie Blair, a veteran cafeteria employee, mentioned that to Ms. Kanoute when she saw her getting lunch there and then decided to drop it. Staff members dance carefully around rule enforcement for fear students will lodge complaints.
“We used to joke, don’t let a rich student report you, because if you do, you’re gone,” said Mark Patenaude, a janitor.
Ms. Kanoute took her food and then walked through a set of French doors, crossed a foyer and reclined in the shadowed lounge of a dormitory closed for the summer, where she scrolled the web as she ate. A large stuffed bear obscured the view of her from the cafeteria.
A janitor, who was in his 60s and poor of sight, was emptying garbage cans when he noticed someone in that closed lounge. All involved with the summer camp were required to have state background checks and campus police had advised staff it was wisest to call security rather than confront strangers on their own.
The janitor, who had worked at Smith for 35 years, dialed security.
“We have a person sitting there laying down in the living room,” the janitor told a dispatcher according to a transcript. “I didn’t approach her or anything but he seems out of place.”
The janitor had noticed Ms. Kanoute’s Black skin but made no mention of that to the dispatcher. Ms. Kanoute was in the shadows; he was not sure if he was looking at a man or woman. She would later accuse the janitor of “misgendering” her.
A well-known older campus security officer drove over to the dorm. He recognized Ms. Kanoute as a student and they had a brief and polite conversation, which she recorded. He apologized for bothering her and she spoke to him of her discomfort: “Stuff like this happens way too often, where people just feel, like, threatened.”
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.”
Her two-paragraph post hit Smith College like an electric charge. President McCartney weighed in a day later. “I begin by offering the student involved my deepest apology that this incident occurred,” she wrote. “And to assure her that she belongs in all Smith places.”
Ms. McCartney did not speak to the accused employees and put the janitor on paid leave that day.
… Ms. McCartney appeared intent on making no such missteps in 2018. In an interview, she said that Ms. Kanoute deserved an apology and swift action, even before the investigation was undertaken. “It was appropriate to apologize,” Ms. McCartney said. “She is living in a context of ‘living while Black’ incidents.”
The school’s workers felt scapegoated.
… The repercussions spread. Three weeks after the incident at Tyler House, Ms. Blair, the cafeteria worker, received an email from a reporter at The Boston Globe asking her to comment on why she called security on Ms. Kanoute for “eating while Black.” That puzzled her; what did she have to do with this?
The food services director called the next morning. “Jackie,” he said, “you’re on Facebook.” She found that Ms. Kanoute had posted her photograph, name and email, along with that of Mr. Patenaude, a 21-year Smith employee and janitor.
“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.”
Ms. Blair has lupus, a disease of the immune system, and stress triggers episodes. She felt faint. “Oh my God, I didn’t do this,” she told a friend. “I exchanged a hello with that student and now I’m a racist.”
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.
Smith College put out a short statement noting that Ms. Blair had not placed the phone call to security but did not absolve her of broader responsibility. Ms. McCartney called her and briefly apologized. That apology was not made public.
… On Oct. 28, 2018, Ms. McCartney released a 35-page report from a law firm with a specialty in discrimination investigations. The 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?”