Since Claudine Gay’s resignation as president of Harvard University on Tuesday, it has become an article of faith among some of her supporters and other observers that she was targeted, criticized and essentially driven from the job largely because of her race. The idea is that the people who questioned her abilities and academic integrity — be they Harvard donors who found fault with her leadership after Oct. 7 or conservative activists who led an inquiry into plagiarism in her scholarly work — were marked and even motivated by animus toward a Black woman attaining such a degree of power and influence.
The Rev. Al Sharpton denounced Gay’s resignation as “an attack on every Black woman in this country who’s put a crack in the glass ceiling.” Janai Nelson, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, wrote that the attacks against Gay “have been unrelenting & the biases unmasked.” Harvard’s Corporation, or governing board, noted the “repugnant and in some cases racist vitriol.” And Gay herself, writing in The Times last week, referred to “tired racial stereotypes about Black talent,” and described herself as an “ideal canvas for projecting every anxiety” due to her status as “a Black woman selected to lead a storied institution.”
But I don’t think the notion that racism was substantially to blame for Claudine Gay’s trouble holds up.
As both Gay and Harvard note, she received openly racist hate mail. This is repulsive. But however awful it must have been for Gay to endure their abuse, those people did not force her resignation.
Nor does it seem that Gay was ousted on the basis of her race in the aftermath of her Dec. 5 testimony before Congress on the topic of antisemitism on campus. Of three university presidents who attended, only one resigned under duress shortly after the hearing, and she — Liz Magill of Penn — was white.
No, the charge that ultimately led to Gay’s resignation was plagiarism, of which more than 40 alleged examples were ultimately unearthed. And plagiarism and related academic charges have of course also brought down white people at universities many times. Ward Churchill was fired from the University of Colorado for academic misconduct, including plagiarism, in 2007 in the wake of his controversially assailing people working in the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 as “little Eichmanns.” The president of the University of South Carolina, Robert Caslen, resigned thanks to a plagiarism episode in 2021. And the president of Stanford, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, resigned due to questions of data manipulation just last July.
For many, the central issue seems to be that Gay’s plagiarism would not have been uncovered at all were it not for the efforts of conservative activists, which is true. The question then is whether the people who led the charge to oust Gay from her job — principal among them the right-wing anti-critical race theory crusader Christopher Rufo and the billionaire financier and Harvard donor Bill Ackman — were acting out of racial animus, or even an opposition to Black advancement.
And here things get slightly more complicated. Rufo and Ackman are unabashedly opposed to what both perceive as an ongoing leftward drift at elite universities such as Harvard. And both are opposed to the D.E.I. — or “diversity, equity and inclusion” — programs that are increasingly prominent on campuses, within corporations, and elsewhere. According to Ackman, D.E.I. is “not about diversity” but rather is “a political advocacy movement on behalf of certain groups that are deemed oppressed.” Rufo and Ackman both believed that, in accordance with the precepts of D.E.I., Gay had been appointed as Harvard president more for her skin color than for her professional qualifications.
To analyze this position as mere racism, though, is hasty. No one is trading in “stereotypes” of Black talent by asking why Gay was elevated to the presidency of Harvard given her relatively modest academic dossier and administrative experience. It was reasonable to wonder whether Gay was appointed more because she is a Black woman than because of what she had accomplished, and whether this approach truly fosters social justice. There was a time when the word for this was tokenism, and there is a risk that it only fuels the stereotypes D.E.I. advocates so revile.
To put it succinctly: Opposing D.E.I., in part or in whole, does not make one racist. We can agree that the legacy of racism requires addressing and yet disagree about how best to do it. Of course in the pure sense, to be opposed to “diversity,” opposed to “equity” and opposed to “inclusion” would fairly be called racism. But it is coy to pretend these dictionary meanings are what D.E.I. refers to in modern practice, which is a more specific philosophy.
D.E.I. programs today often insist that we alter traditional conceptions of merit, “decenter” whiteness to the point of elevating nonwhiteness as a qualification in itself, conceive of people as groups in balkanized opposition, demand that all faculty members declare fealty to this modus operandi regardless of their field or personal opinions, and harbor a rigidly intolerant attitude toward dissent. The experience last year of Tabia Lee, a Black woman who was fired from supervising the D.E.I. program at De Anza College in California for refusing to adhere to such tenets, is sadly illustrative of the new climate. (Like Ackman, she believes that what he calls the “oppressor/oppressed framework” of D.E.I. contributes to campus antisemitism by defining Jews as “oppressors.”)
D.E.I. advocates may see their worldview and modus operandi as so wise and just that opposition can only come from racists and the otherwise morally compromised. But this is shortsighted. One can be very committed to the advancement of Black people while also seeing a certain ominous and prosecutorial groupthink in much of what has come to operate under the D.E.I. label. Not to mention an unwitting condescension to Black people.
Try this thought experiment: Harvard appoints “White Fragility” author Robin DiAngelo to become the new president of Harvard. She comes equipped with the strongest D.E.I. credentials imaginable, but with a very slender academic record. Do you imagine that conservative activists would sit back contentedly, merely because she’s white?
Or take a non-hypothetical example: After a successful tenure as the president of Smith College, Ruth Simmons became the first Black woman president of an Ivy League School when she took over Brown in 2001. Yet I am aware of no conservative crusade against her during her decade-plus in that office — despite the fact that she led a yearslong campuswide examination of the school’s role in the slave trade.
The idea that a menacing right-wing mob sits ever in wait to take down a Black woman who achieves a position of power is a gripping narrative. But its connection to reality is — blissfully — approximate at best. It is facile to dismiss opposition to modern D.E.I. as old-school bigotry in a new guise. The lessons from what happened to Professor Gay are many. But cops-and-robbers thinking about racial victims and perpetrators will help answer few of them.