Can exchanges between individuals always unproblematically be characterized as either racist or not racist? Bret Stephens appears to think so. Smith College hired an independent law firm to investigate what a student argued was a racist incident on campus back in 2018. The investigation ended with a finding of “no persuasive evidence of bias.” This was enough for Stephens to conclude “the narrative of racist harassment of a minority student at an elitist white institution turned out to be false” (“Smith College and the Failing Liberal Bargain,” The New York Times, March 1, 20221)
But was it? The details of the event are now well known. A Black student chose to eat her lunch in a deserted dorm lounge. Someone saw her there and called security on her. The student became angry and posted about the experience on Facebook, accusing not merely the college of racism, but specific individuals within the institution that appear not to have been involved in the incident.
By the time the incident was investigated, though, the damage had been done. One janitor, whom the student had accused of being racist, left Smith. A cafeteria worker, whom the student also accused of racism, was furloughed, along with other workers, as a result of declining enrollments, but had difficulty getting another job because she had become infamous as a result of the student’s FaceBook posts.
There is understandable outrage over the reaction of the student. Stephens makes no secret of the fact that he thinks the student’s claim was bogus and that such claims are becoming increasingly frequent as a result of the attention and even celebrity they can confer on those who make them.
But was the student’s claim of racism bogus? She ate her lunch in a dorm that, according to the official report, “had been closed for the summer.” Except the dorm wasn’t closed. It was being used for a summer camp program for children. The student didn’t break into the dorm, she simply decided to eat her lunch where she felt was most convenient for her. That happens a lot on college campuses. My friends and I used to crash events for undergrads when I was a graduate student at Bryn Mawr, or eat in parts of buildings that were being used for special events. No one ever called security on us.
Even more telling is a detail of the case that appeared in an article in the UK paper The Daily Mail, but which appears not to have made it into any of the accounts of the incident that appeared in the mainstream media in the U.S. The student was teaching in the summer program in question.
Our society is pervasively racist. If you are Black you will have experienced that racism so often by the time you reach college that you will have become permanently sensitized to it. Would the janitor at Smith have called security on a white student eating in that part of a dorm that was not actually closed but which was simply being used for some other purpose than its traditional one? My own experience of more than thirty years in the world of higher education suggests to me that he probably would not have.
“We used to joke, don’t let a rich student report you, because if you do, you’re gone,” said another Smith janitor in “Inside a Battle Over Race, Class and Power at Smith College” (New York Times, February 24, 2021). But if Smith janitors are so afraid of being reported by students, why did a janitor call security on a student who was simply eating lunch in a dorm that was not, in fact, closed? The conclusion to which one is almost irresistibly drawn is that this student didn’t fit the standard profile of the rich Smith student for the sole reason that she was Black.
Was “the narrative of racist harassment of a minority student at an elitist white institution….comprehensively false” as Stephens, and others, claim? The answer is not so obvious. It’s nearly impossible for white people to understand what it is like to be Black in America. Once, a few years ago, when I was riding with an acquaintance through downtown Harrisburg, PA, we passed a bar I used to frequent with friends when I was a canvasser for the Pennsylvania Public Interest Coalition.
“Oh look,” I said, with a whiff of nostalgia in my voice. “There’s my old hangout!”
“That place has gone downhill since you used to go there,” my friend responded.
What a shame, I thought as I surveyed the people standing in line waiting to get in. Yes, that’s right, there was a line of people waiting to get in, which suggests that the place was still very popular. The thing is, everyone in the line was Black.
There was nothing at all wrong with the people in that line. They were just Black. They didn’t look like criminals or low-lifes. They were simply Black. That was all that was required apparently, to justify the judgment that that place had gone downhill. So it seems our culture has not changed all that much from the time when the fact that a neighborhood was predominantly Black was enough to justify the judgement that it was bad.
There has been genuine progress on issues of equity and diversity. But anyone who thinks that it is possible to be purely objective or to rely purely on facts in cases like what happened at Smith is deluded. My own experience, again, suggests that security would not have been called on a white student who was eating in a deserted dorm lounge. The Smith student knows that. That’s what upset her so much. It won’t have been the first time that she has been treated differently because she was Black. It won’t be the last time, either.
Faculty at Smith have been complaining about anti-bias training that they charge attempts to convince them that they are racists even if they don’t feel they are. Smith faculty are not alone. That sort of anti-bias training is increasingly common at institutions of higher education. Most attempts to convince privileged white people that they are racist, even if they don’t feel that they are, fail. People tend to get their backs up when they are accused of things of which they don’t feel they are guilty.
“In place of former notions of fairness toward individuals regardless of race,” writes Stephens, “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 fact, it demands new respect for feelings.”
“All this,” he continues, “has left many of the traditional gatekeepers of liberal institutions uncertain, timid and, in many cases, quietly outraged. This is not the deal they thought they struck. But it’s the deal they’re going to get until they recover the courage of their liberal convictions.”
The best way to recover the courage of our liberal convictions would be to abandon falsely dichotomous thinking, to recognize that the characterization of people and/or events as either racist or not racist is simplistic. Feelings are important even when they appear to go against facts. To suggest, as Stephens does, that devotion to facts should always trump respect for feelings expresses yet another false dichotomy. Firstly, facts themselves can be equivocal. Just because it is possible to produce an account of an event that makes it appear that it was not racist, doesn’t mean it wasn’t. Again, no matter how justified the person who called security on the Smith student may have felt, there is a legitimate question as to whether they would have called security on a white student in the same situation. Secondly, even independently of the sometimes equivocal nature of “facts,” it is possible to respect both facts and feelings.
We need to do a better job of listening to the experience of Black people and of appreciating that facts admit of different interpretations based on the experience of the person doing the interpreting. We need to get beyond falsely dichotomous thinking, and the blame game that so often goes along with it, and recognize that it is possible to respect both facts and feelings, and that it is crucial that we do this if we really wish to eradicate racism.
I’ve heard more than a few white people complain that any Black person who ends up as a student at Smith, or Bryn Mawr, or any of the other elitist institutions that are so enthusiastically recruiting Black students now, very likely comes from an affluent background and hence will not have experienced the kind of discrimination from which poorer Blacks routinely suffer.
Oh yeah? Even social economic privilege is not enough to protect Black people in this country from racism. Just ask Henry Louis Gates Jr.
(This piece originally appeared in 17 March 2021 issue of Counterpunch.)