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Claudine Gay’s ouster reveals anti-Blackness, dystopian forces in U.S.

Shaya Gregory Poku

I was at Claudine Gay’s inauguration as Harvard’s 30th president. My pumps still have mud on them from witnessing the festivities during a downpour. I saw her family waving Haitian flags. I stood between a college administrator from Japan, there to celebrate her, and two Stanford faculty who taught her. Literally, the world watched Gay at the apex of her career.

Her rapid departure is stunning.

I cannot speak to the significance of the allegations of plagiarism that, in part, led to her resignation. And we all should be unequivocal in our condemnation of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. They are despicable forms of bigotry.

Even against the backdrop of these controversies, we must know that Gay, regardless of any leadership shortcomings, was weaponized as a political tool to undermine democracy and DEI by leveraging anti-Black racism.

While her ascension was not liberation, the resignation of Gay painfully marks the end of the era of racial reckoning that became culturally salient in 2020.

Like the specter of the “welfare queen” trope used to dismantle the civil rights and Black Power movements alongside the federal surveillance program COINTELPRO, Gay’s ouster symbolizes the gutting of social justice efforts that Black Lives Matter and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd catalyzed.

Except in this case, instead of using a fictionalized person on the social margins as the wedge, detractors of equity movements used a credentialed and accomplished person to make their case.

The very word “resignation” sanitizes the way the anti-DEI movement leveraged her to reset a supremacist social order.

The same shadow actors puppeteering her departure are methodically working to turn back the social clock on more than racism. They are setting us back on income inequality, xenophobia, LGBTQ+ hate, women’s rights and anti-Semitism typified by the Unite the Right Rally, the appalling changes at New College in Florida and the end of race-conscious college admissions.

Any pretense that anti-DEI conservatives believe in fairness and the democratic process disappeared Jan. 6, 2023, when a subset of this movement tried to overtake the U.S. government. We are in treacherous times when power and control will be kept at any cost.

Yet, the story frame is “no one is culpable for this departure except Gay”: an incomplete narrative that obscures the foreboding political agenda at work here.

Christopher Rufo, an ardent anti-DEI provocateur, is part of a wider network of anti-DEI conservatives who instigated the calculated efforts to oust Gay.

Rufo boasted about his success on social media and in Politico: “It shows a successful strategy for the political right…. How we have to work the media, how we have to exert pressure and how we have to sequence our campaigns in order to be successful,” he said. “I’ve run the same playbook on critical race theory, on gender ideology, on DEI bureaucracy.”

Carol Miller Swain, a conservative Black academic, also vocally called for Gay’s resignation.

The supremacist order is not based on how people identify, but on how they choose to participate in or resist systems that replicate oppression.

Not all conservatives are anti-DEI conservatives. And no leader should be immune from critique, including the head of a prestigious university, but the forces that successfully conspired to have Gay resign set a dangerous precedent.

Etched into the walls of the Boston Public Library’s central branch is an eternal truth: The “Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty.”

Instead, education — K-12 and colleges — is again America’s political battleground.

As Gay noted in her New York Times op-ed: “Campaigns of this kind often start with attacks on education and expertise, because these are the tools that best equip communities to see through propaganda.”

Many Black people in the U.S. were skeptical that 2020’s racial reckoning would dismantle the super-infrastructure of intergenerational racist exploitation affecting all people of color.

But still, Gay’s rise was a beautiful sign of hope to many who believe in equity — a signal of the social change that is possible. Her ascent was a crown, her professional takedown a piercing reminder of our vulnerability.

This is how the supremacist social order terrorizes people into submission. Rufo and his colleagues at the Manhattan Institute have adopted the White Citizens’ Council playbook to impede social progress. The takedown of Gay is a cue to all dispossessed people that we could be next. 

Repression is what DEI is supposed to antidote.

This is bigger than Gay. It is about social control. 

Shaya Gregory Poku is vice president for equity and social justice at Emerson College.