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Speeches & Media

Reflections on July 31, 2018, and Moving Forward

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Summer 2021

A commitment to equity and social justice is in Smith College’s history and DNA. Today, in the context of a long overdue racial reckoning in this country, such commitments are increasingly topics of heightened institutional focus and media coverage across every sector of society, including higher education.

As I write this, national media outlets have reported on controversies at Rutgers Law School, where a white student quoted a racial epithet from a legal case; at public and independent schools across the country, where some parents are angered by curricula addressing race and racism; and at the University of Richmond, where the board chair has argued to retain building names linked to slave owners.

As we all know, Smith, too, has been in the media spotlight, following the February 24 publication of a New York Times article headlined “Inside a Battle Over Race, Class and Power at Smith College.”

The Times story revisited an incident on campus from July 31, 2018, involving a Black student—now an alum—and a call to Campus Safety. As I shared with you in a letter earlier this spring, the story contained a number of factual misstatements. Accordingly, we posted corrections to the story on our website.

Arguably more important than what the article got wrong is what it omitted—viewing the incident in the broader context of race in America. At the time of the July 31 event, there had been—and, of course, continues to be—a well-documented pattern of law enforcement interventions in response to Black people being wrongly perceived as out of place or alleged to be engaged in illegal activity. As we know from cellphone videos, this bias, whether conscious or unconscious, can lead all too often to harassment, assault and even the murder of Black people. For this reason, many people of color are wary of police, as our student said she was.

In March, Amanda Gorman, the Black poet who read at President Biden’s inauguration, was stopped by security in front of her own apartment building because she looked “suspicious.” Many have concluded that race played a role in this incident, even though an investigation might not be able to prove bias. Yet, despite the pervasive nature of these occurrences, the Times writer rejected our student’s belief that she was targeted because of her race, characterizing it instead as a “deeply felt personal truth” that is “at odds’’ with the facts. This conclusion, framed as fact, bothered me deeply because it is nothing more than the reporter’s opinion.

The incident happened nearly three years ago. In its aftermath, we commissioned an external investigation and then released the findings publicly. Importantly, the investigators found that the employee who placed the call about the student “provided a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for calling the Campus Police.” At the same time, the investigators noted the fear the student felt when approached by a Campus Safety officer. Shortly after the incident, a staff member wrote to me to say: “The student was extremely hurt by the incident. AND the caller might not have done anything wrong, given the context and the instructions from the college about how to handle suspicions. Both can be true.”

Yes, both can be true. If we are to advance as a society, we must question narratives that paint issues as either/or, that fuel the fires of division and stand in the way of progress. The truth often lies in the messy middle. To find that messy middle, Smith embraces tough conversations and robust debates about issues like race in America. That engagement is the only way we will be able to learn to speak across differences.

As we move forward, we need to differentiate backlash from constructive criticism, clickbait from complexity. 

The public fallout from the July 31, 2018, incident was painful for the Smith community, especially so for those directly involved: the student, the caller and the two staff members the student incorrectly believed to have played a part in the events, as reflected in the student’s social media posts. The student and two of the staff members have reported being targeted and harassed, sometimes by external activist groups; no one deserves this kind of abuse.

Beverly Daniel Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College and a Smith trustee, has written that we all breathe the smog of racism. As a result, we internalize racial biases over the course of our lives and must actively work to eradicate them. The goal of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) education is to learn to recognize these biases so that we do not act on them. For this reason, Smith’s commitment to DEI education remains steadfast.

DEI is a relatively new field, and one that has been subject to critique. For example, community organizer and DEI consultant Kim Tran has offered constructive criticism about how and why the corporate sector often fails to deliver real change. Being willing to engage in thoughtful criticism is important because it can lead to more effective DEI programming. At the same time, it is important to note that there is also a backlash to DEI work from some who deny, in the face of compelling evidence, bias and structural inequalities across racialized groups.

As we move forward, we need to differentiate backlash from constructive criticism, clickbait from complexity. A core tenet of Smith’s Sherrerd Center for Teaching and Learning is that all teaching is improvable. We will continue to approach DEI work with that same commitment to continuous improvement— the goal for everything we do.