More than 1,000 people have written to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), demanding the organization retract and apologize for its smear campaign against working-class victims of a 2018 racial discrimination hoax at Smith College. In July 2018, a black student ate lunch in a closed dorm and falsely claimed that security targeted her due to her race. The ACLU took up her case, framing the issue as racist employees accosting the student for “eating while black.” The New York Times revealed the truth last month, but the ACLU has not retracted or apologized.
“The ACLU has ruined the lives of a cafeteria worker and janitor with false accusations of racism,” Nicki Neily, an advisory board member at the New Tolerance Campaign (NTC), said in a statement. “The ACLU must do the right thing by making amends to these individuals.”
NTC has mobilized activists to contact ACLU and demand an apology and a retraction. As of Wednesday, 1,130 activists sent letters to the ACLU, demanding the organization apologize to workers unfairly branded racists.
After the Times story dropped, the ACLU did nothing. In the past few days, however, the organization deleted the original article that uncritically reported the student’s false claims. However, the ACLU has not retracted subsequent statements and articles repeating the claim that the student, Oumou Kanoute, had experienced racial profiling.
“The ACLU has yet to issue any kind of apology to the people whose reputations they helped destroy,” Neily noted. “An organization that once defended civil liberties for all — no matter how unpopular they may be — has traded principle for a politicized agenda, standing by a now-debunked narrative rather than acknowledging their error. This speaks volumes about their commitment to the civil liberties of working-class Americans.”
The New York Times put together an account of the events of July 31, 2018 from an investigative report and dozens of interviews.
Kanoute, the black student, had been working as a teaching assistant on campus on July 31, 2018. She woke up late and stopped at the Tyler House dormitory cafeteria for lunch on her way to the gym. The Tyler cafeteria was off-limits to student workers at the time, as it had been reserved for a summer camp program for teenagers.
Jackie Blair, a veteran cafeteria employee, mentioned this fact to Kanoute when she saw her getting lunch there. However, Blair decided to drop the issue. Staff tend to show deference to students out of fear that the students will report them.
Kanoute took her food to the lounge of the dormitory closed for the summer. A janitor, who was in his 60s and poor of sight, noticed someone in the closed lounge, but he could not see Kanoute clearly because a large stuffed bear obscured his view. Everyone involved with the summer camp had been required to have states background checks and campus police had advised staff to call security rather than to confront strangers on their own.
The janitor, who had worked at Smith for 35 years, called security. “We have a person sitting there laying down in the living room,” the janitor told a dispatcher, according to a call transcript. “I didn’t approach her or anything but he seems out of place.”
The janitor had noticed Kanoute was black but he made no mention of her skin color to the dispatcher. He was not sure if Kanoute was a man or a woman. Kanoute would later accuse him of “misgendering” her.
A well-known campus security officer came to confront Kanoute but recognized her and had a police conversation with her, which she recorded. He apologized for bothering her and she shot back, “Stuff like this happens way too often, where people just feel, like, threatened.”
That night, Kanoute wrote a Facebook post declaring, “It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith, and my existence overall as a woman of color.”
Smith College President Kathleen McCartney issued profuse apologies and placed the janitor who made the call on leave. “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 ordinary lives,” McCartney wrote.
McCartney, who had faced loud backlash for insufficiently “woke” responses to alleged incidents of racism in the years prior to the incident, seems to have decided to fall on her sword. She appeared not to notice that her apology for “racism” involved throwing her own staff under the bus.
Kanoute went on to “doxx” Blair and a janitor, Mark Patenoude, accusing them both of racism.
“This is the racist person,” the student wrote of Blair, the food services director, in a Facebook post. She shared Blair’s photograph, name, and email, along with the information of Patenaude. Kanoute appears to have confused Patenaude — who had worked an early shift on the day of the incident and who had already gone home by the time Kanoute got lunch — with the janitor who called security.
“They’re essentially enabling racist, cowardly acts,” Kanoute wrote.
A reporter from The Boston Globe reached out to Blair for comment. He told her Kanoute had posted her information publicly. Blair has lupus, an immune disease, and stress triggers episodes. She felt faint. “Oh my God, I didn’t do this,” she told a friend. “I exchanged a hello with that student and now I’m a racist.”
Days after Kanoute accused Blair of racism, the food services director found notes in her mailbox and taped to her car window. “RACIST,” one note read. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” a caller said. “You don’t deserve to live,” another said.
Smith College put out a statement noting that Blair had not called security but did not absolve her of responsibility in the episode. McCartney called her and apologized, but the apology was not made public.
The janitor who actually called security returned to work after three months of paid leave. He declined to speak about the incident. Patenaude, who was not working at the time of the incident, left his job at Smith not long after Kanoute falsely accused him of “racist cowardly acts.”
“I was accused of being the racist,” Patenaude told the Times. “To be honest, that just knocked me out. I’m a 58-year-old male, we’re supposed to be tough. But I suffered anxiety because of things in my past and this brought it to a whole ’nother level.”
He recalled multiple training sessions on race and intersectionality. “I don’t know if I believe in white privilege,” he said. “I believe in money privilege.”
As for Blair, the cafeteria worker, she checked into the hospital last year. After the death of George Floyd, she found more accusations of racism in her mailbox and on Smith College’s Facebook page. The school furloughed her along with other workers this past fall, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and empty dorms.
Blair applied for an hourly job with a local restaurant, but during a Zoom interview, the manager asked her, “Aren’t you the one involved in that incident?”
“I was pissed,” Blair told the Times. “I told her I didn’t do anything wrong, nothing. And she said, ‘Well, we’re all set.'”
Exasperated, Blair asked, “When does this racist label go away?”
Apparently, the label still has not gone away even after The New York Times revealed the truth. It is long past time for the ACLU to retract and apologize, and more than 1,000 people have stepped forward to demand that it does so.
This horrific incident illustrates a key fact about the false claims of systemic racism: when the leader of an institution decides to cave to the woke mob and thinks she is falling on her own sword, she is actually throwing her own staff under the bus — and propping up a false narrative about America as a whole. Innocent people suffer when conspiratorial ideologies win.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.