Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

At Smith College, the racist incident that wasn’t

Students walked through Smith College’s campus last week.
Globe photo
Students walked through Smith College’s campus last week.

OUMOU KANOUTE is a black student at Smith College with a summer job on campus. This is what happened as she ate lunch in a mostly empty dining hall one day last week:

A college employee saw her “laying on the couch” alone, mistook her for an unfamiliar male who “seem[ed] to be out of place,” and phoned the campus police. An unarmed officer was sent to check things out. He spoke politely to Kanoute, saw nothing was amiss, and left her in peace.

Here’s what didn’t happen:

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Kanoute wasn’t threatened, attacked, or restrained. No weapon was brandished. No voices were raised. No racial slur was uttered — in fact, according to the transcript of the police call, there was no racial reference of any kind. No one picked a fight with Kanoute, accused her of wrongdoing, or denied her right to be where she was. A minor misunderstanding by a cautious employee was quickly resolved and never escalated into anything dangerous.

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That might have been the end of it — except that Kanoute, by her own description, “had a complete meltdown after this incident.” She took to Facebook to denounce the “racist punk who called the police on me.” In a post the next day, she urged followers “to put pressure on the [Smith College] administration” to name the employee who called the police. By day three, she was demanding that Smith address “this racist incident,” and raising the issue of “punishment for this outrageous and racist act.”

Kanoute’s story has become our latest racial caldron — anger and mistrust, intense media coverage, an elaborate apology from Smith’s president, the works. Meanwhile, the worker who called the police has been placed on leave.

It’s not hard to empathize with Kanoute’s bitterness at having the police summoned by someone who thought she looked out of place. “I did nothing wrong,” she wrote. “I wasn’t making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black.” Her indignation is especially understandable given the wave of recent stories about whites calling police to report black people who were doing nothing wrong.

But Kanoute’s emotional response doesn’t justify the over-the-top media attention, or the rush to treat this incident as proof of naked American racism.

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On the record so far, there is no evidence that Kanoute’s color was what precipitated the employee’s call. She herself claims that she was mistaken for a “suspicious black male,” and the transcript of the police call has the employee referring to Kanoute as a man: “He seems to be out of place. . . . 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” (My italics). At Smith, where all undergraduates are women, the sight of what appeared to be an unfamiliar young man sprawled on a couch in a room where men normally aren’t present might well make a staff member uneasy.

It’s easy to castigate the concerned employee for not approaching Kanoute before calling the police. A few seconds of conversation is all Kanoute would have needed to reassure the staff member that she was not a male interloper. But that’s wisdom after the fact. In the moment, wasn’t it at least as reasonable for the Smith employee to avoid direct confrontation with a person who seemed out of place?

“Get involved by becoming more security conscious,” Smith College says in its guide to campus safety, “and [report] all incidents of suspicious or criminal activity, no matter how insignificant, to Campus Police immediately.”

It explains that “suspicious behavior” isn’t always articulable.

“Sometimes, callers are unable to identify what is suspicious about a person, and often the person about whom a concern is filed is . . . here for legitimate purposes.” But even if there are “innocent explanations,” it says, “your campus police department would rather investigate these situations sooner rather than be called when it is too late.”

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So the employee apparently did just what an uneasy employee in such a situation is supposed to do: Err on the side of safety, and call security.

Americans are exhorted repeatedly: If you see something, say something. More often than not, “something” turns out to be nothing — just a kid having lunch, for example. But there have been times as well when failing to say something has led to tragedy. It may be obvious in hindsight that a call to the police was unnecessary. But life isn’t lived in hindsight, and even at Smith College — as politically correct a campus as you can find in America — the official policy is: better safe than sorry. Smith asks people to call the police on a hunch, “no matter how insignificant.” It doesn’t ask them to first calculate the potential political and media fallout, or worry that their call will later be deemed racist.

Misunderstandings happen. One aspect of maturity is learning to distinguish malice from error. What happened to Kanoute last week was unfair, but it was a momentary unpleasantness, not a hateful assault on her dignity as a black woman. If Kanoute can’t tell the difference — well, she’s still a teenager. What’s everyone else’s excuse?

This column is adapted from the current Arguable, Jeff Jacoby’s weekly newsletter. To subscribe to Arguable, click here. Jeff Jacoby can reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jeff_Jacoby.