Letter castigates Smith over handling of 2018 incident where no bias was found

  • The Grecourt Gates of Smith College on Elm Street in Northampton. Leslee_atFlickr

  • Smith College President Kathleen McCartney introduces Gloria Steinem, Monday at John M. Greene Hall. JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/24/2021 7:14:16 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A group of more than three dozen Black academic, religious leaders and others from around the country, many of them conservative, sent an open letter to Smith College President Kathleen McCartney this week urging the college to rethink how it handled allegations of racial profiling on campus in 2018 that made national headlines.

The group asks that the college publicly apologize to, as they put it, falsely accused service workers and to cease “forced, accusatory ‘anti-bias’ training.” They also request that the college compensate service workers harmed by the college’s handling of the situation.

“When an investigation of the precipitating incident revealed no evidence of bias, Smith College offered no public apology to the falsely accused and merely doubled down on the shaming of its most vulnerable employees,” the letter states.

In 2018, a Smith employee called campus police on a Black student worker who the employee said seemed to be “out of place” while she was on her lunch break in a residence hall. The college commissioned a third-party investigative report into an apparent incident of racial profiling on campus, which found no discriminatory action on the part of college employees. The incident happened in July 2018 and the independent report was released the same year. Last month, The New York Times published a front-page story about the incident headlined “Inside a Battle Over Race, Class and Power at Smith College.”

The letter is signed by several dozen Black professors, nonprofit founders, pastors, and others under a group called 1776 Unites.

“Many of us participated in the Civil Rights Movement, fighting for equal treatment under the law, which included due process and the presumption of innocence,” the letter reads. “We didn’t march so that Americans of any race could be presumed guilty and punished for false accusations while the elite institution that employed them cowered in fear of a social media mob.”

No one from Smith College signed the letter and the college issued a statement Tuesday.

“Smith received the letter yesterday, and is reviewing it,” Stacey Schmeidel, a spokesperson for the college, wrote in an email. She pointed out a FAQ page on Smith’s website about the incident that says it was updated this month “due to ongoing inaccuracies in reporting about the events of July 31, 2018.”

The FAQ page says that McCartney reached out to the employees involved in the 2018 incident and “apologized on behalf of the college for difficulties they had endured as a result.” All employees, both faculty and staff, were required to do anti-bias training, according to Smith’s website.

1776 Unites formed in response to The New York Times 1619 Project, which one founder of the group recently told EdWeek was an “effort to cherry-pick parts of American history and paint the United States as an irredeemably racist nation.” The 1776 Unites group launched educational materials that feature African Americans who have prospered and that “reject victimhood culture.” The curriculum was praised by then-education secretary Betsy Devos, Politico reported.

Those who signed the letter to Smith College include Bob Woodson, founder of the Woodson Center, writer Clarence Page and scholars John McWhorter and Glenn Loury. It’s also signed by Carol Swain, a former Vanderbilt Law professor who co-chaired then-President Donald Trump’s “1776 Commission,” which was created to advance “patriotic education” and whose subsequent report was condemned by historians, which the commission lacked.

Loretta Ross, a visiting associate professor at Smith who teaches a class called “White Supremacy, Human Rights and Calling In the Calling Out Culture,” did not know about the letter and had not heard of the group 1776 Unites until contacted by a Gazette reporter. 

“I think that everybody’s got an opinion about what we should do at Smith but they don’t have a dog in the race,” she said. Everybody remembers the incident in 2018, she said, but “nobody remembers the swastikas painted on our buildings,” she said, referring to swastikas found drawn on three academic halls in 2019.

The school is “working slowly and methodically” to address racism on campus, Ross said. She was not yet at Smith when the anti-bias training took place, “but it think it’s good that they’re trying to do something,” she said. “It’s a predominantly white college … that is trying to do the right thing.”

Ross felt The New York Times story by writer Michael Powell published last month on Smith was “deeply flawed.”

“It was his opinion, not his research,” she said. “I don’t like mesearch substituting for research … It was an opinion piece pretending to be an investigative one.” She later added, “It feels very unfair for the whitest campus in the whitest town to talk about what we’re doing is hurting white people. What the hell.”

Carrie Baker, a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College, and Marcela Rodrigues-Sherley, a recent Smith graduate and an independent journalist, wrote a column in Thursday’s Gazette (see page A6) in reaction to “attacks on diversity initiatives at Smith College.”

They write, “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?”

Tracey Putnam Culver is a Smith College alumna who retired last year from a 35-year career at the college doing a number of jobs, including working as a gardener and custodian. She said the 1776 Unites letter “hit the nail on the head.”

She went to the anti-bias trainings, which she claims targeted service workers, and said they were “humiliating.” She said she felt the trainers treated service workers poorly. “They talked to us like we were 14,” she said. When asked if there is racism to address on Smith’s campus, she said racism is everywhere. “It’s unavoidable. But you don’t make that go away by treating people differently.”

After the 2018 incident, she said, “now everybody is afraid of getting too close to a student. They don’t trust that if something happens Smith is going to take the time to hear both sides.”

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