Oumou Kanoute is a student at Smith College.
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Dispatch: Campus Police, recorded line.
Reporting Caller: I was just walking through here in the front foyer of [REDACTED] 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 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.
Dispatch: Can I have your last name please?Reporting Caller: [REDACTED]- Advertisement -
Dispatch: I'll send someone over and check it out.
Reporting Caller: Alright. I'll wait over here.
-- Campus Police call transcript, July 31, 2018, as released by Smith College on August 3
It's very hard to see this call by a white Smith College employee as anything but a racist reaction once you know the person on the couch is a black woman, even though the caller doesn't reference race. The dispatch officer doesn't ask about that. The Smith employee isn't even sure what gender the person is but complains to the police, "I don't know what he's doing in there just laying on the couch." The police dispatcher is remarkably uncurious about why anyone should care about a person lying on a couch, much less why the police should investigate at all. Why are these supposedly security-conscious people so casual about such a non-offense offense? Are the redactions in the transcript more substantive than they appear?
Smith College should provide the full, unredacted transcript.
The white employee waits for the campus police to arrive. A second white person of the opposite gender joins the first. The second person has not been identified either.
The "out of place person" turns out to be nothing of the kind, not even close. She turns out to be a black woman with very short black hair. She is Oumou Kanoute, 21, 5'2" tall, an academically gifted Smith College sophomore working for the summer teaching chemistry to high school students in the college's STEM program. She is also a member of Smith's cross-country team. To get into the student common room in the first place she had to use her college-issued keycard. The white Smith employees weren't likely to have known who this person was, but they almost surely knew it took a keycard to get into the room, and they should have considered that along with the absence of any sign of forced entry.
While a uniformed police officer talked briefly to Kanoute, the white employees apparently waited in the foyer, possibly with a second police officer. The record is incomplete.
None of the parties have said what happened next. Presumably the police officer left Kanoute to carry on. But if the white employee was still there, did the officer explain what happened? Why didn't the white employee own the mistake and apologize on the spot? Why didn't the police officer facilitate such an opportunity? All this should be just obvious institutional behavior in an institution actually serious about promoting harmony, never mind racial harmony. Failing to resolve it in the moment is a form of institutional negligence, and it could have been avoided had either the white Smith employee or the white campus cop acted with reasonable human decency.
Oumou Kanoute grew up in New York City and is the first member of her family to go to college. She speaks four languages. She was an outstanding student at Westminster School in Simsbury, Connecticut, class of 2017. She worked hard, against long odds, to get into Smith College (roughly 5% black) in Northampton, Massachusetts (4% black). As the college describes itself: "one of the largest of the prestigious Seven Sisters women's colleges, Smith educates women of promise for lives of distinction." Smith is notoriously difficult to get into.
The casual, mindless cruelty of a still-anonymous Smith employee set off a sequence of events that continues to unfold. That same evening, Oumou Kanoute posted on Facebook:
"I am blown away at the fact that I cannot even sit down and eat lunch peacefully. Today someone felt the need to call the police on me while I was sitting down reading, and eating in a common room at Smith College. This person didn't try to bring their concerns forward to me, but instead decided to call the police. I did nothing wrong, I wasn't making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black. It's outrageous that some people question my being at Smith College, and my existence overall as a women of color. I was very nervous, and had a complete meltdown after this incident. It's just wrong and uncalled for. No students of color should have to explain why they belong at prestigious white institutions. I worked my hardest to get into Smith, and I deserve to feel safe on my campus."
Beneath that, Kanoute posted a video she made of her police interview. The picture quality is weak and the audio is poor. Over the video she wrote: "So I'm sitting down minding my damn business and someone calls the cops on me while I'm just chilling. This is why being black in America is scary." The police officer's tone in the video is mild. Kanoute adds: "Now he is apologizing on behalf of the racist punk who called the police on me for absolutely nothing." Later that same evening, Kanoute posted again on Facebook, this time asking readers to forward her story to their followers: "I demanded that the administration share the name of the person who made the [campus police] call so that they can confront and acknowledge the harm done to me as a student." I'd appreciate any message you could send to your followers in order to put pressure on the administration..." Kanoute's Facebook posts went viral.
This incident illustrates just how thin the veneer of "feeling safe" is for a black person in America these days. Only it's not just these days, it's effectively forever, and white society -- as Smith College is currently demonstrating -- still has a long way to go to achieve any decent version of that "post-racial society" so many callow idiots were crowing about in late 2008.
The next day, August 1, the Smith College "Interim Director of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity," Amy Hunter, posted a sterilized response to the event. She did not say how it came to her attention, and she named no names. In the midst of her flat, bureaucratic text, she included: "I have reached out to the student to offer support and discuss next steps, and will conduct an investigation of the incident with the employee, with Human Resources and with Campus Police."
As a personal response, this is worthless, but even as an institutional response it seems rather lame. By then Amy Hunter knew, or should have known, what distress Kanoute had expressed. Personal contact, not mere "reaching out," is what a responsible institution would require. Perhaps that has happened since.
By August 2, Massachusetts media were running the story, as was The New York Times, which quoted the college president's response and put the incident in the context of similar racist cop callers in recent months, targeting black people doing ordinary things. The Washington Post, the Daily Mail, ABC, CBS, and CNN also covered the story over a two-day period. As of August 6, the story was still trending on YouTube with 30,972 views.
On August 2, Smith College president Kathleen McCartney made her first public statement in a letter to "Students, Staff and Faculty." She refers to the event, then says:
"I begin by offering the student involved my deepest apology that this incident occurred and to assure her that she belongs in all Smith spaces. 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. It is a powerful reminder that building an inclusive, diverse and sustainable community is urgent and ongoing work."
By omission, McCartney implies that she, too, has not felt that any personal contact with the unnamed Oumou Kanoute was necessary or desirable or something. Her letter goes on for another page or two coldly articulating all the right thoughts. She announces that -- for the first time: "Beginning this fall, every Smith staff member will be required to participate in mandatory anti-bias training." There will also be workshops. And Amy Hunter's office will work with the campus police not to go off half-cocked, though she put it more delicately: "to strengthen protocols by which they triage, assess and respond to calls for assistance." McCartney's letter also announces engaging an outside law firm as a "third-party investigator" whose investigation will remain secret, at least insofar as protecting the privacy and concealing the identity of the perp who called the cops in the first place.
Personal responsibility, anyone? Smith College says no, racial harassment is protected speech, apparently, or maybe it's a form of academic freedom. The college should be ashamed of putting itself in the position of protecting the instigator while attending minimally to the victim. McCartney shows no sign of shame, or even awareness of her structural culpability. With apparently unintended irony, she ends her letter with an appeal to the community to send her ideas: "we need everyone's input, and we pledge to listen to you."
Late on August 2, Oumou Kanoute posted again on Facebook to address the unexpected "volume of response to come from this situation, promising to respond to everyone. She addressed the media, saying she was the only contact and not to contact anyone else for interviews. She addressed family and friends and allies, thanking them for support. And she addressed Smith College:
"Smith College: I recognize and appreciate the effort that you all continuously put into inclusion on this campus. However, we must be intentional about addressing this racist incident and systemic racism on campus. Your response has been helpful, but it is incomplete. I will be unable to move forward from this incident without the following personal demands --
"1. The name of the employee (confidentially or publicly)
"2. A private conversation between me, that employee, and the administration focused on reconciliation and acknowledgement of this wrongdoing from the employee and the college
"3. An apology from the school and the employee during that meeting -- This process must precede any type of decision for or against punishment for this outrageous and racist act. This process must also be accompanied by beginning a mandatory campus-wide conversation and new school policy concerning racism, gender, and policing that centers the voices of students and faculty of color when we return from summer vacation in Fall 2018."
On August 3, Inclusion director Amy Hunter announced "Updates on the Investigation," including releasing the call transcript and naming the Sanghavi Law Office as the college's "external investigator." Hunter also wrote, without revealing the identity, that: "The employee who placed the call to Campus Police has been placed on leave pending the outcome of the external investigation."
Smith has struggled with race issues in the past. President McCartney stakes out an honorable if somewhat bloodless position (smacking of white privilege?). Oumou Kanoute stakes out a heartfelt demand for a humane institutional response that offers an opportunity for meaningful institutional growth, especially in the current presidentially-induced atmosphere of racist pollution.
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