An unpleasant incident at an elite US women’s college shows the danger of trusting feelings over facts.
Last week the New York Times resurfaced a notorious racial profiling incident that took place in 2018 at Smith College, in Northhampton, Massachusetts. The story has struck a chord globally because of the light it sheds on the race struggle underway in the United States—a struggle now rippling across the Western world.
Smith College is the largest of the “Seven Sisters”, elite colleges for women in northeastern US; tuition, room and board for its students are about US$78,000 a year. Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, and Gloria Steinem are amongst its distinguished alumnae.
In the summer of 2018, Oumou Kanoute, a black student, was eating lunch alone in a dorm lounge. She was approached by a janitor and a campus police officer who inquired as to what she was doing there.
The encounter was distressing for Kanoute, who felt it to be part of a year-long pattern of harassment. “All I did was be Black,” she later wrote on Facebook. “It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith College, and my existence overall as a woman of colour.” She was especially upset that the officer was likely carrying a firearm.
The president of the college apologised to Kanoute, put the janitor on paid leave, and hired a law firm to investigate the incident. Apologising for the affair, the president wrote,
This painful incident reminds us of the ongoing legacy of racism and bias in which people of colour are targeted while simply going about the business of their ordinary lives.
In the months following, officials at the college emphasised “reconciliation and healing” and announced anti-bias staff training and the creation of separate dormitories for students of colour.
The problem, of course, is that the investigation eventually found no “persuasive evidence of bias”. As a Times opinion columnist highlights, “the narrative of racist harassment of a minority student at an elitist white institution turned out to be comprehensively false.”
Michael Powell, the Times reporter covering the story, summarised the findings of the law firm’s investigation:
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 unauthorised people there. The officer, like all campus police, was unarmed.
Unwittingly, Powell exposes the postmodern dilemma underlying the events at Smith College. He writes of “the tensions between a student’s deeply felt sense of personal truth and facts that are at odds with it.”
Truth be told, Kanoute’s “deeply felt sense of personal truth” did a lot of damage. She named and doxxed a janitor and a cafeteria worker who weren’t even involved in calling campus security that day. The stress of this caused a flare-up of lupus in one and anxiety attacks for the other—not to mention death threats.
And there was of course the national impact: the amplification of claims that the United States is “systemically racist”—a narrative that was never tempered by the ultimate findings of the law firm, since the news cycle had long moved on.
Owing to their breed, bogeymen aren’t easily put back in cages.
We know this, not just from the Smith College incident, but a string of apparently racist incidents that have turned out to be short on facts and long on a “deeply felt sense of personal truth”. Jussie Smollett, Bubba Wallace and the Covington Affair are just a few that spring to mind.
To the credit of the New York Times, columnist Bret Stephens was permitted to dissect the incident in an insightful piece called “Smith College and the Failing Liberal Bargain”. (This was a somewhat surprising compromise from an outlet that suffered multiple newsroom revolts over comparable stories in 2020).
Stephens asks, “Why does the embrace of social justice pedagogies seem to have gone hand in hand with deteriorating race relations on campus?”
Stephens rightly discerns that the Smith College affair is further evidence, not merely of a racial struggle in the West, but a brewing cultural revolution. “Liberal ideals themselves are up for renegotiation,” he warns.
That much is clear to anyone who has examined Critical Race Theory in some depth, the ideology shaping this revolution. Despite assertions to the contrary, Critical Race Theory is not simply about racial sensitivity. As I have documented elsewhere,
The West has long prized evidence, logic and reason as the way to discern truth from falsehood. Critical Race Theory rejects this, claiming that every part of the Western liberal order—including ideas like merit, rational inquiry, the rule of law, and individual liberty—are the very tools being used to perpetuate white supremacy and oppress people of colour.
When Stephens writes that “liberal ideals themselves are up for renegotiation,” he really means it. And he has the receipts. As Stephens points out, this is not mainly a “left versus right” battle: it’s an all-out war between the liberal left and the Woke left. “Well-meaning liberals,” he writes, “don’t seem to understand the illiberal nature of what they are facing.”
By every measure, Critical Race Theory is racism by another name. Writes Stephens,
In place of former notions of fairness toward individuals regardless of race, the Woke left has new ideas of “restorative justice” for racial groups. In place of traditional commitments to free speech, it has new proscriptions on hate speech. In place of the liberal left’s past devotion to facts, it demands new respect for feelings.
What we are witnessing is postmodernism in full flower. And given its penchant for raw power, it won’t go away until the morally courageous stand up and name it for what it is.