Black Excellence Couldn’t Save Claudine Gay From Being On MAGA’s Hit List

The former president of Harvard was never going to have an easy time at the elite white institution. And Trump Republicans made sure of it.
Claudine Gay, then president of Harvard, testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee on Dec. 5 in Washington. The committee held a hearing to investigate antisemitism on college campuses.
Claudine Gay, then president of Harvard, testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee on Dec. 5 in Washington. The committee held a hearing to investigate antisemitism on college campuses.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Throughout the two-week firestorm following her remarks at a congressional hearing about antisemitism, a firestorm that culminated in her resignation on Tuesday, Harvard University President Claudine Gay had that look. Composed but stricken, barely concealed anguish about what was happening and why. The head of the prestigious university had been reduced to a Black person who had committed some transgression and was now being swiftly tried in the court of public opinion.

The crime that began with her insufficient response to a setup question about Jewish genocide expanded into allegations of plagiarism in her academic work. The crimes were unrelated, but the plagiarism charge corroded her character more, calling her competence and legitimacy and her very worth into question. It didn’t matter that Harvard defended her; Gay had given the wrong answer to white folks and had to pay for it.

There was nothing she could do but watch. Hence the look.

I know that look. In 1985, when I was a graduate student at UCLA, a professor accused me of plagiarizing a term paper. The accusation was total: None of the work, he said, was mine. This wasn’t about a passage here, a footnote there. I was dumbfounded. I had indeed written the paper and, as an English undergrad, was very used to doing so. That didn’t matter to the prof, who had zero proof. He only knew that I didn’t “speak well” and that people like me didn’t write like this, period. I fought back, and after submitting to an oral quiz about my work, which I easily passed, he gave me an A. I won the battle.

But I lost the war. That professor did not change his mind about me or about the competence of Black people. Learned as he was, he was following an ancient narrative about Blackness that always overrides evidence, facts and background. Unlike Gay, I had given all the right answers — and gotten pilloried anyway. His accusation went beyond copying a paper; it was about asserting my intellectual unworthiness.

Proving Gay’s unworthiness was always the goal here. Unworthy first because of her response to the hypothetical question about whether she would punish students who support the genocide of Jews. An insufficient response to that question forced another female head of an Ivy League school, UPenn President M. Elizabeth Magill, to resign weeks ahead of Gay. She is white but had to pay for giving the wrong answer. But Gay’s wrongness was much bigger than her answer. She is Black at an elite white institution and therefore had an obligation to defend white people vigorously and unambiguously. Even though it was clear in her answer that she doesn’t defend Jewish genocide — a totally ridiculous idea — white interrogators were incensed that she didn’t condemn it as strongly as they thought she should have.

The effort to dehumanize her swiftly got underway. After unearthing failures to cite sources in her work, which Harvard determined did not rise to the level of plagiarism, the floodgates opened: Doubt was cast, and that was enough to reduce Gay from a woman in the highest educational ranks to just another Black hustler. Not just with the academic work.

Gay became an emblem of all the reasons why, in the feverish minds of the MAGA crowd, Black people are trying to pull a fast one on America, from benefiting unfairly from affirmative action to advancing critical race theory to helping a Black man — unqualified by birth — to win the White House, twice. (Undoubtedly this is why former President Donald Trump, obsessed with numbers and getting even, is so set on getting that second term.)

Let me state the obvious: There is indeed antisemitism, which is rising, and it needs to be dealt with, at universities and elsewhere. But there’s also anti-Blackness. When have white university presidents ever had to answer for that at congressional hearings? If they faced retribution for not giving sufficient answers to pointed questions about why and how they punish students for that, we’d probably have no university presidents at all. Nikki Haley, a Republican candidate for president and former governor of South Carolina, no less, recently refused to cite slavery as a cause of the Civil War, which is about as anti-Black as it gets. I’d love to see a hearing about that.

It won’t happen. With Trump’s “Make America Great Again” adherents, anti-Blackness ― and many other kinds of “anti” ― is the point. Facts and circumspection are not. The movement is so polluted by racial lies, dodges and hypocrisy that the case against Gay feels like part of that.

Though it’s true that Gay did not properly cite sources in a few instances in the history of her academic work (mistakes which she admitted and corrected), the outrage about it feels entirely manufactured, a public expression of antipathy toward Black people that is MAGA’s bread and butter.

What’s not manufactured is the very real antisemitism embedded in so much of the movement. Trump continues to escalate rhetoric torn straight from Hitler’s playbook to the broad approval, even cheers, of his base; it’s aimed at immigrants, but everyone knows “vermin” immigrants were originally Jews. The whole toxic cluster of white supremacist conspiracies embraced by MAGA includes the theory that Jews run global finance and other powerful institutions. The Great Replacement theory demonizes modern-day immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere, but it has always had Jews in mind. The chant from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was, memorably, “Jews will not replace us.”

All that has been minimized and now obscured in the fog of the current war being waged by Israel against the Palestinian enclave of Gaza. The Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas that sparked the war has, ironically, given white supremacists in this country a great opportunity to bolster their own domestic campaigns of hate in the guise of supporting Jews.

Unfortunately, some Jews have been drawn into that campaign. Many of the big Harvard donors who are Jewish who threatened to pull their support after Gay’s testimony can say it’s simply about supporting Israel. But it’s unavoidably about white power — in this case, using financial clout to punish those who don’t toe the line, especially those of color.

The university itself should have been the arbiter of Gay’s fate, but its support of her was deemed another wrong answer and so was bypassed. It’s jarring how the racist right wing is crowing openly about Gay’s downfall, with conservative activist Christopher Rufo, a key architect of the anti-Gay campaign, declaring “Scalped” on social media. It’s an ugly, violent image presumably meant to evoke warrior-like Native Americans, but it evokes instead their wholesale slaughter by white settlers (i.e., white replacement) and reinforces the racial cast of the cultural war that continues to rage and gain strength in America.

And never forget, too, that Black women have long been on MAGA’s hit list, from the defamed election workers who testified before the Jan. 6 House select committee to Fani Willis, the implacable district attorney in Atlanta who is prosecuting the crucial case against Trump and 18 others for allegedly conspiring to engineer vote fraud and steal the 2020 presidential election. Black prosecutors like her especially have become the face of opposition to MAGA takeover, from Georgia to New York.

Trump smears them all as racist ― easy to do because of their high profiles. But in the right-wing universe, Black people are all similarly suspect; Claudine Gay is assumed to be “racist” by virtue of the fact that she supports diversity and inclusivity, ideas that are anathema to MAGA, on principle.

In the wake of her resignation, she’s detailed in a New York Times opinion article how she’d been threatened and called the n-word, something MAGA trades in. But that’s also a time-honored American tradition that always seeks to not just remove someone Black from a position of power but also to reduce their inherent worth to rubble.

I hardly think Claudine Gay will let that happen. Thankfully, I didn’t.

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