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Smith College continues to face fallout over an allegedly racist 2018 incident, which independent investigators later determined wasn’t necessarily racist after all.
This week, activist Robert L. Woodson and Jodi Shaw, a former Smith staff member, called on the college do more for two service workers whose lives they say were upended as a result of that incident.
“Make no mistake -- we are witnessing the latest struggle for equality and justice unfold before our eyes,” said Shaw, who resigned from Smith in February over what she called a racially hostile climate on campus, namely for white people. “Many institutions all across America, including once liberal academic institutions, are trampling the rights of working-class people.”
A Smith spokesperson said the sudden resurgence of interest in the events of 2018 makes clear that “some are trying to leverage this incident to promote their own assault on diversity and equity initiatives.”
Smith made headlines several summers ago after a Black student said a white employee called the police on her for simply eating her lunch in a campus building. The case resonated with other students and even faculty members of color who had been racially profiled on or near their own campuses; just a few months earlier, a white student called Yale University police on a Black graduate student napping in her own dormitory's common room.
Yale apologized for what happened on its campus, as did Smith. In her initial statement about the case, Smith president Kathleen McCartney said that she’d offered the student in question her deepest apology and assured her she belonged in any campus space. McCartney also promised a third-party investigation into exactly what happened and, eventually, new diversity and antibias training programs.
“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,” McCartney said at the time. “It is a powerful reminder that building an inclusive, diverse and sustainable community is urgent and ongoing work.”
A few months later, Smith published the findings of the independent inquiry. Investigators found discrepancies between various parties’ version of events but ultimately concluded that the employee who called the police on the student had “a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason” for doing so. The investigation did “not find sufficient information that this decision was based on the Reported Party’s race or color.”
According to the report, the student entered a campus building around 12:30 p.m. and got lunch at the dining hall, where she interacted with a food service worker. The student said the dining hall worker told her she shouldn’t have been there at that time. The dining hall worker recalled saying that she didn’t know the student was part of a particular summer program that would have granted her access to the building. In any case, the student took her food across the hall and sat in a living room-style area for about an hour.
At 1:40 p.m., according to the report, another service worker entered the area and was surprised to see a student in the cleared-out living room, especially because it was not air-conditioned. He told investigators that he wondered what the student was doing and if she was sick and decided it was “suspicious” enough to call campus police. The student told investigators that both the male service worker and female dining hall worker, who were both white, were “pacing” outside the glass door of the living room. She thought it was "strange" but ignored them.
The male employee soon called campus security, according to the report. He told the dispatcher, “I was just walking through here in the front foyer of Tyler and we have a person sitting there, laying down in the living room area over here. I didn't approach her or anything, but, um, and he seems to be out of place … umm … I don't see anybody in the building at this point and, uh, I don't know what he’s doing in there just laying on the couch.”
The dispatcher asked for the worker's name, which is redacted in the report, and said, “I’ll send someone over and check it out.” The man told investigators that he blocked the steps to the building’s dormitory area while he waited to make sure no one went up there.
The responding officer told investigators that it was immediately clear to him that the supposedly suspicious person was a student eating her lunch. The student told investigators she was “really scared” to see a police officer and wondered what was happening. She began to film part of the encounter on her cellphone and later posted it on her Facebook page.
According to the report, the officer said hello and asked the student what she was doing there. After she said she was a teaching assistant in a summer program, he apologized. The police officer, who was also white, told investigators he talked to the male employee and then approached the student a second time to say, “I think I know what’s going on here. I think I know why we were here.” Explaining that he hadn’t had a lot of information about what prompted the police call, he added, “I recognize you now, but I couldn’t see you either from the doors.”
According to the student’s video, she said, “Yeah. I, I, it’s OK. It’s just like, kind of stuff like this happens way too often where people just feel, like threatened.”
In a statement about the findings, McCartney said that “in investigations like this, as in our daily interactions, it is impossible to rule out the potential role of implicit racial bias. Let us begin with this recognition as we embrace the work that lies ahead.”
While apologetic, Smith denied the student’s demand that the college release the names of those who called the police on her. In a Facebook post immediately after the incident, for instance, the student wrote, “I want to identify the 9-1-1 caller to confirm that this person was a staff member or student of Smith College, and I want this person to acknowledge the distress and harm they have caused me from calling the police while I was simply taking my mandated break from my job.”
In a later post on a Smith group Facebook page, the student wrote that she was independently “able to identify the man and woman who I saw pacing back and forth looking into the [living] room before the cop or campus police officer arrived. This woman knows for a fact that I am a student at Smith and has seen me in the dining halls during the academic year.” The student added a photo and name of the female dining worker. She named a longtime janitor at the institution, too.
‘The Culture War Arrived’
In February, Shaw, a student support coordinator in residence life at Smith, resigned, writing in a now-public letter that “I have no choice. The racially hostile environment that the college has subjected me to for the past two and a half years has left me physically and mentally debilitated. I can no longer work in this environment, nor can I remain silent about a matter so central to basic human dignity and freedom.”
Shaw traced this climate shift back to the 2018 police call, saying that’s when “the culture war arrived at our campus.” Smith mishandled the incident, Shaw said, as “before even investigating the facts of the incident, the college immediately issued a public apology to the student, placed the employee on leave, and announced its intention to create new initiatives, committees, workshops, trainings and policies aimed at combating ‘systemic racism’ on campus.”
Saying she’d personally been affected by this “narrative,” Shaw recalled that her supervisor had told her she couldn’t rap during a 2018 library orientation program because she is white. Shaw said not being able to execute her planned rap essentially cost her the full-time library gig she was up for, and that she moved into the student life coordinator position. In that job, she said, “I endured racially hostile comments, and was expected to participate in racially prejudicial behavior as a continued condition of my employment. I endured meetings in which another staff member violently banged his fist on the table, chanting ‘Rich, white women! Rich, white women!’ in reference to Smith alumnae. I listened to my supervisor openly name preferred racial quotas for job openings in our department. I was given supplemental literature in which the world’s population was reduced to two categories -- ‘dominant group members’ and ‘subordinated group members’ -- based solely on characteristics like race.”
Other staff and faculty members feel similarly discomfited, she said, but they are “too terrified to speak out about it. This illustrates the deeply hostile and fearful culture that pervades Smith College.”
Shaw said her own “last straw” came in early 2020, when she declined to answer certain questions about race at a staff retreat.
“Later, the facilitators told everyone present that a white person’s discomfort at discussing their race is a symptom of ‘white fragility,’” she said. “They said that the white person may seem like they are in distress, but that it is actually a ‘power play.’ In other words, because I am white, my genuine discomfort was framed as an act of aggression. I was shamed and humiliated in front of all of my colleagues.”
Shaw said she filed an internal complaint but that it wasn’t taken seriously, and that she suspected she was being retaliated against.
“I can no longer continue to work in an environment where I am constantly subjected to additional scrutiny because of my skin color,” Shaw wrote. “What passes for ‘progressive’ today at Smith and at so many other institutions is regressive. It taps into humanity’s worst instincts to break down into warring factions, and I fear this is rapidly leading us to a very twisted place.”
Shaw, a “proud” Smith alumna, said she was offered a settlement in exchange for her “silence,” but she turned it down, even though she made no more than $45,000 per year.
“My need to tell the truth -- and to be the kind of woman Smith taught me to be -- makes it impossible for me to accept financial security at the expense of remaining silent about something I know is wrong,” she said.
Smith has said that this is incorrect, and that Shaw "demanded payment of an exceptionally large sum in exchange for dropping a threatened legal claim and agreeing to standard confidentiality provisions."
‘My Life Has Not Been the Same’
Shaw’s story only recently became entwined with the two service workers from 2018 after she joined with the Woodson Center to launch a crowdfunding effort for them. The stated goal is to help make the workers “whole,” instead of “collateral damage.”
The dining worker, Jackie Blair, has not denied being part of the incident. But the janitor named by the student, Mark Patenaude, says he took an early shift that day and was not even on campus when the police were called. Both say they’ve been labeled “racists” for years now, and Smith has taken no meaningful action to correct that perception, despite the findings of the report. Patenaude says his anxiety disorder has been made worse and that he’s had to go on disability leave. Blair says she’s received hostile and intimidating notes and phone calls, both on and off campus.
“I was falsely accused of racism by a black student on her Facebook page and my life has not been the same since,” Blair wrote on her fundraising page. “I have obtained legal counsel and have filed an internal complaint against Smith College administration in response to their treatment of me. I started this fundraiser to help me pay my legal expenses, as well as personal expenses (including medical and therapy bills) and living expenses in the case I am either terminated or am otherwise forced out of my job as a result of speaking out about this.”
Patenaude wrote on his own page that on the day in question, “I worked the early morning shift 5am-1pm and then went home. Unbeknownst to me, a custodian who had worked at Smith for over 30 years with no prior conflicts with students was preparing to close a house and caught a glimpse of a student (an adult that he did not recognize) lying down on a couch in the closed living room.” A few weeks later, he said, “I was horrified to discover that the same student had identified me as on her Facebook page at ‘the racist,’ who had been involved in making the call to campus police.”
Quoting a letter that the Woodson Center recently sent to Smith -- which, according to Patenaude, was “signed by over 40 prominent black intellectuals and leaders across the country” -- Patenaude said that the college should make a public apology to the service workers involved, cease “forced and accusatory ‘anti-racist’ trainings,” and “compensate the service workers for the harm they have endured.”
In a response to the Woodson Center’s letter, McCartney encouraged Woodson and his supporters to read the full independent report, given that “recent reporting on the topic has included inaccuracies and misleading statements.”
Smith recently shared some additional information about the 2018 call on its website. While the independent report says that the employee who called the police told investigators he was being put on leave, Smith says that “at no time did any Smith employee receive punitive or disciplinary action of any form related to the events.” In the days after the incident, it said, Smith “offered the option of paid leave to the employee who placed the call to campus police. Such leaves are common practice among employers, and employees are generally grateful for the breathing room they afford while the story runs its course.”
A spokesperson for Blair and Patenaude confirmed that they are still employed by Smith. The third employee, whom the report identifies as the “caller,” still has not been named publicly.
As for whether all faculty and staff members were required to take the same antibias training, Smith says yes, and that that the training required in 2018-19 “was not unique to Smith, nor even to higher education; it is standard across many industries.” And while employees are required to participate, Smith says, “approval of such events, or agreement with their content, is never a term or condition of employment at Smith. Smith encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints and dissenting voices.”
Smith says McCartney also reached out to Blair and Patenaude in 2018 and apologized for the difficulties they’d endured, and she took prompt action to have the post identifying them removed. McCartney also offered the student a chance to meet with the caller in the interest of restorative justice mediation, but an agreement on that mediation was never reached.
Regarding the student’s previously reported partnership with American Civil Liberties Union, and various related requests -- including that it introduce affinity housing for students of color -- Smith says that last academic year, the college launched a two-year pilot program with two affinity houses that “cultivate and foster a sense of belonging for, respectively, students of color and Black students.”
In addition to suggesting that the resurgence of interest in the case was politically motivated, Samuel Mastinter, Smith spokesperson, said he encouraged interested parties to read the publicly available findings of the independent investigation of the incident.
In addition to the Smith case, the Woodson Center has recently been involved in a campaign against The New York Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project” on the founding of the U.S. Criticism of that project inspired the Trump administration's widely panned 1776 Commission report.
“The most devastating aspect of the project’s narrative is its insinuation that blacks are born inherently damaged by an all-prevailing racism and that their future prospects are determined by the whims of whites,” wrote Woodson, who is Black, in a 2019 opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal. “Barraging minorities with constant reminders of the injuries their ancestors suffered only discourages them from working to surmount the obstacles in their way.”
Many historians, including Black historians, have embraced “The 1619 Project.”