What Claudine Gay’s resignation tells us about conservative activists’ playbook, by Errin Haines

1/11/2024, 6 p.m.
In her dissent in last summer’s Supreme Court case striking down affirmative action, Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman ...

In her dissent in last summer’s Supreme Court case striking down affirmative action, Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman on the court, wrote: “History speaks. In some form, it can be heard forever.”

Last Tuesday, the country’s long history of misogynoir spoke again. Claudine Gay, the first African-American and second woman to serve as president of Harvard University, resigned.

It was the latest example of the affirmative reaction against Black women’s leadership.

Conservatives have long used a racist playbook as a guide to political victory. But at the start of another consequential election year in an America that remains deeply divided, it’s clear this is a strategy they remain committed to — and have refined four years into a national reckoning over institutional inequality. The white grievance stoked by Donald Trump on his path to the presidency in 2016 was narrowly defeated in 2020 —but has come roaring back in 2024 with a fresh set of culture warriors whose targets remain largely the same: women, people of color or both.

Against Black women specifically, the conservative agenda is clear: minimize their excellence and exaggerate their mistakes. Their identities and leadership become weaponized and politicized. There is no room for error.

Dr. Gay’s exit came nearly six months to the day after she was installed president of Harvard. Her tenure is the shortest in Harvard history; it began the same week the Supreme Court issued its decision effectively banning race-based affirmative action in higher education — a case that included Harvard as a defendant.

Dr. Gay

Dr. Gay

In her historically short time at the helm of Harvard, Dr. Gay faced protests from students over the university’s response to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, criticism over her response to questions about antisemitism on college campuses during a congressional hearing and ongoing allegations of plagiarism in her scholarly record.

But the calls for her exit in recent weeks were largely not about legitimate concerns over antisemitism at Harvard, or about Dr. Gay’s citations — which the university investigated and Dr. Gay attempted to clarify.

The reaction made that clear.

On Tuesday, in a celebratory post on X, formerly known as Twitter, conservative activist Chris Rufo whose target have included discussions of race and LGBTQ+ issues in education — bragged in racist terms that Dr. Gay’s exit was a “scalp.”

Dr. Gay was the second woman president to step down after she and two other women college presidents were questioned about campus antisemitism by a House committee in December. Liz Magill resigned as University of Pennsylvania president less than a week after the hearing. When Dr. Gay did not, conservative activists including Mr. Rufo made clear that they would work to end her time leading one of the country’s top universities.

“We launched the Claudine Gay plagiarism story from the Right. The next step is to smuggle it into the media apparatus of the Left, legitimizing the narrative to center-left actors who have the power to topple her. Then squeeze,” he posted on Dec. 19.

Just last December, Dr. Gay, a qualitative social scientist with expertise in American political behavior who earned her Ph.D. in government from Harvard in 1998, was lauded as “a person of bedrock integrity” and “an inspired choice” by her predecessor, Larry Bacow.

But who’s surprised, really, that things went this way for Dr. Gay? Not the chorus of prominent Black women who also took to X to express their outrage over the outcome.

Attacks on Dr. Gay “have been unrelenting and the biases unmasked,” NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Janai Nelson posted.

“Academic freedom is under attack. Racial justice programs are under attack. Black women will be made to pay,” said Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine reporter who created the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project that was lauded before it came under attacks led by Mr. Trump.

Author Luvvie Ajayi called the concept of Black excellence “a scam that doesn’t protect us from the systems of oppression that are sustained by our continued disrespect and discrediting.”

“In a world where we are being set up to fail, our excel- lence is not an armor,” Ms. Ajayi posted.

Many of the conservative critics of Dr. Gay and of affirmative action in higher education — taking race into account in admissions decisions — want to remain the gatekeepers of power and ideas.

This isn’t just about Harvard, and affirmative action was only the beginning. Less than two months after the Supreme Court’s ruling, conservative lawyer Edward Blum’s group, the American Alliance for Equal Rights, filed lawsuits challenging DEI programs at a law firm and a venture capital firm that was issuing $20,000 grants to Black women entrepreneurs.

Former Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who helped to weaponize white grievance in his role in the administration, is advertising a “hotline” for people who “have been victimized by woke politics.” He’s offering free legal representation and touting himself as the founder of a “civil rights organization committed to defending the principle of full equality under the law.”

The specific circumstances and swiftness of Dr. Gay’s departure may be remarkable.

That she was attacked, by whom, and why, are not. The same credentials and career that qualified her to lead also made her a target.

To understand this does not require a Ph.D. in American political behavior. Black women pushing for a more free, fair and equal society are learning this lesson the hard way. But they are also recognizing what is happening, calling it out for what it is, and strategizing to figure out a response.

The opposing forces continue to mobilize headed into the 2024 election. The playbook — which has had mixed results in recent years, but has proven effective enough to still be seen as viable with voters

— is worth watching to see whose voices will be framed as “legitimate” and who will be labeled “dangerous.”

Because history speaks, and in this moment, Black women are refusing to let their voices be silenced.

The writer is Editor-at-large at The 19th.