Columnist Carrie N. Baker and Marcela Rodrigues-Sherley: A response to attacks on diversity initiatives at Smith College


Published: 3/24/2021 11:09:16 AM

“Diversity, the most aggressively inculcated of all university lies, is not a strength of any nation but actually a weakness, and in America it merely translates into white genocide.”

This sentence is from an anonymous email received by several faculty members at Smith College in late February after a staff member resigned, alleging a “racially hostile environment” for white people. The former staff member, Jodi Shaw, has repeatedly spoken out against diversity initiatives at the college, gaining significant attention, particularly with conservative media outlets.

Several days after faculty received this email, the New York Times published a front page story by journalist Michael Powell attacking the college for promoting a “liberal orthodoxy on race and identity.” A few days later, the same newspaper published a column by commentator Bret Stephens criticizing the college for feeding students a “diet of courses on critical race theory.”

Powell’s article focuses on an incident that occurred at Smith three years ago when a white staff member called campus police about a Black student who was sitting and eating her lunch in the common room of a dorm. On that particular day, the dorm was only open to summer camp students, but Smith students, who have full access to all dorms with their ID cards, regularly ate there. A white police officer came to the dorm, recognized the student, and let her remain there. Knowing other Black students who had experienced someone calling campus police on them for ordinary behaviors, the frustrated student shared the incident on social media. In response, the college developed anti-racism training for all employees and ordered an investigation that subsequently found no intentional bias. The person who called campus police admitted that he saw the student was Black but denied that her race caused him to call campus police.

The heart of Powell’s article centered on one of the student’s social media posts, where she misidentified the staff member who called campus security. When the president notified the student about her misidentification, she promptly removed the post from social media.

In his article, Powell suggests the student was oversensitive about being confronted by campus security. Powell does not mention the larger political context at the time — police shootings, police departments’ refusals to hold their members accountable for these shootings, Black Lives Matter protests, or Trump’s torrent of racist statements and policies leading up to 2018. On the other hand, Powell describes in detail the white employees’ distress at being accused of racism and portrays anti-bias training as “psychological bullying.” Powell extensively quotes several white staff members about their reactions to the incident. He also quotes two white male faculty members. He does not quote any students, faculty or staff of color at Smith.

Both Powell and Stephens identify the student in their articles and portray her as overreacting and dishonest about her experience. In his op-ed, Stephens states, “if those who report being offended gain sympathy, attention and even celebrity, more accusations may be reported.” Neither Powell nor Stephens mention that Shaw has raised close to $300,000 on GoFundMe from people sympathetic to her claims of reverse racism. The journalists should not have identified the student by name in their articles, making her the target of right wing ire.

Powell and Stephens characterize anti-racist advocacy and training as a problem, rather than the underlying racism itself. Are anti-racist initiatives really the problem? At a time when violent, right-wing forces are attacking public buildings and roaming our streets wearing swastikas, carrying confederate flags, and chanting “You will not replace us” and “The South will rise again,” is critical race theory really the problem?

Powell and Stephens see racism only as individual bias, using one incident from years ago to dismiss the reality of racism, all the while ignoring bigger patterns and structural issues such as immense race-based gaps in wealth, home ownership, education, and incarceration. In deriding “critical race theory,” Powell and Stephens appear to oppose critical thinking about race in higher education. They seem to reject critical engagement about the ongoing legacy of slavery and other systems that have oppressed people of color in the U.S.

These kinds of attacks on higher education are not new. From Allen Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind” in the 1980s to “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in 2019, some people persist in resisting the incorporation of perspectives, histories and theories of non-white people. The current attack on Smith College is part of this long-standing resistance to opening up higher education to people and perspectives that have been historically excluded.

Contrary to Powell and Stephens’ dismissal of Smith College’s efforts to address endemic racism, we applaud the college for encouraging members of our community to think critically about the role of race in our lives and society. We disagree with Powell’s and Stephens’ dismissal of racism as an illusion of the “woke left.” We absolutely disagree with the anonymous emailer: diversity is never a weakness, but a strength.

Carrie N. Baker is a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College and a contributing editor to Ms. magazine. Marcela Rodrigues-Sherley is a New York City-based independent journalist and a recent graduate of Smith College.

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