‘Anti-racism’ as an unfair labor practice

On July 31, 2018, Oumou Kanoute, a black student and teaching assistant at Smith College was eating lunch at a dorm and was approached by a campus police officer and asked what she was doing there.

My account of what happened next is based on an article in the New York Times.

Deeply offended for being harassed for “eating while black,” she posted a denunciation on social media of a janitor and a cafeteria worker that she thought had reported her.

Kathleen McCartney, the president of Smith College, immediately apologized to her and put the janitor on paid leave.  She also hired a law firm to make an impartial investigation of the incident.

She also ordered anti-bias training for all staff, revamped the campus police force and created segregated dormitories for non-white students.

In October, the law firm submitted its report.  The dormitory in question had been reserved for high school students taking part in a summer program.  Smith had asked college staff to report unauthorized persons in the dorm.  The campus police officer had spoken to her politely and left without taking any action.

The janitor she denounced, Mark Patenaude, was not the janitor who notified police.  The cafeteria worker had mentioned to her that the dorm was off limits, but had not notified anybody.

In other words, nobody had done anything wrong.

McCartney made the report public, but commented, “I suspect you will conclude, as did I, it is impossible to rule out the potential of implicit racial bias.”

My interpretation of that comment is: (1) Employees accused of racial bias are guilty until proven innocent.  (2) It is impossible to prove you are innocent of racial bias.

Jodi Blair, the cafeteria worker, earned $40,000 a year at Smith.  Tuition, including room and board, is $78,000 a year.

Blair said she got notes in her mailboxes and taped to her car, and phone calls at home, accusing her of racism.  She heard students whisper as she went by, “There goes the racist.”

The American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who represented the student commented, “It’s troubling that people were more offended by being called racist that by actual racism in our society.  Allegations of being racist, even getting direct mailers in their mailboxes, is not on a par with the consequences of actual racism.”

Blair suffers from lupus, a disease of the immune system, and stress triggers episodes.  She checked into a hospital last year.  Then she, along with other workers, was furloughed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

She applied for a job in a restaurant, and, she said, the first thing she was asked was whether she was the notorious racist.

The janitor who called campus security is still working at Smith and didn’t want to be interviewed.  Mark Patenaude, the other janitor, quit not long after his name was posed on Facebook.

Campus staff, but not faculty, are required to attend anti-bias training.  Blair and Patenaude both disliked being interrogated about their inner feelings and childhood experiences regarding race. 

Another employee, Jodi Shaw, said being subjected to such training should not be a condition of employment.  She resigned and is suing the college.

I do not interpret this incident as an example of “reverse racism,” or oppression of white people by black people. 

It is rather an example of how powerful people, most of them white, make powerless people, many of them also white, scapegoats for the ills of society.

It also is an example of how micro-grievances take precedence over real injustices in society. 

Racial prejudice is real.  It hasn’t gone away.  It affects how black people are treated by police, by employers, by lenders and much else. 

But there are fewer consequences for actual crimes, such as unjustified killing of black people by police, than there are for using offensive language.

I have sympathy for Oumou Kanoute, the black student.  She evidently has been taught that any setback in life is due to racism, and that it is not necessary to check the facts.  I don’t think this attitude will serve her well in life.

There is such a thing as unconscious racial prejudice.  But anti-racism training, as it is now conducteddoesn’t help.

There could be some value in people of different races and sub-cultures getting together to understand each other better.  There could be some value in training administrators and teachers to be more culturally sensitive to people from different backgrounds than their own.

But typically anti-racism training consists of a facilitator with a six-figure income being hired by executives with seven-figure incomes to tell employees with five-figure incomes that they are responsible for all the racism in the world.

Racial prejudice is not diminished by telling a captive audience how racist they are.  Racism is diminished by white and black people working together on projects are in the interest of both—such as organizing labor unions or fighting environmental pollution or even playing on the same sports team.

I have criticized the New York Times in other posts.  I want to take my hat off to Michael Powell for his good article and to the NYT for publishing it.  Here is a link to the article.

Inside a Battle Over Race, Class and Power at Smith College by Michael Powell for the New York Times.  “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.”

The top video is a commentary by journalists for Jacobin magazine.  The bottom video is an in-depth interview with Michael Powell, which is excellent.

 

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One Response to “‘Anti-racism’ as an unfair labor practice”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    😦

    Like

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