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Claudine Gay, white outrage and the myth of the ‘diversity hire’

Claudine Gay, white outrage and the myth of the ‘diversity hire’
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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.  

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It may be shocking to know that I rarely refer to people as “racist.” 

Don’t get me wrong — racism exists. But – aside from an occasional descriptor for my favorite fictional juvenile Klansman – I understand that the word “racism” is like the phrase “white people.” It causes many Caucasians to spontaneously combust into fits of hissy and shuts down any hope of meaningful dialogue.  Therefore, I tend to refer to actions as racist. Systems are racist. Plus, it is impossible to definitively determine whether or not someone “holds the belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” So, contrary to what those who call me “the real racist” may think, I don’t like to use the term to define people. But before we have the conversation I am here to discuss, I must first set aside my own personal rule so that we may agree on an unignorable fact. 

Some people are racists. 

Even when they aren’t performing it, racism is how they interface with the world. I’m not talking about actions or words or beliefs. When LeBron James visits a farm, he is still a basketball player. When an orange paint-wearing Bozo brought his circus act to the White House, America’s 45th president didn’t stop being a clown. And, just as there are farmers, basketball players and clowns, there are certain individuals whose entire persona can be accurately summed up as “a racist.” 

Take the recent furor over Harvard President Claudine Gay, for instance.

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For a second, let’s set aside the conservative pearl-clutching over Gay’s performance at the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s hearing on antisemitism on college campuses. Forget that Gay, along with University of Pennsylvania President M. Elizabeth Magill and M.I.T. President Sally Kornbluth, have been roundly criticized for their responses to anti-Jewish speech at their respective institutions. Ignore that the rules that govern and punish student conduct predate these women’s tenures. Try not to think about the fact that these conservative protectors of whiteness totally ignored the anti-Blackness, Islamophobia and the Karen contagion rising on these campuses. Forget that Gay, Magill and Kornbluth are not fascist dictators who can just arbitrarily boot the mostly wealthy, predominately white students out of these prestigious institutions for offending minority groups (Have you met rich white people? Well, you should really meet their parents). 

In reality, there is probably no combination of sounds these women could make with their mouths that would’ve quelled the faux outrage at the center of this conservative shitstorm. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. We’re not here to talk about antisemitism or how right-wing zealots are willing to overlook Islamophobia or how college presidents are ill-prepared to defend themselves in congressional witch hunts. 

We’re here to talk about white people.

Buried in conservatives’ calling for Gay’s resignation is a more insidious narrative. Employing the ancient Caucasian tradition of “trust me, I’m white,” billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman said he heard from “someone with first-person knowledge” that Harvard hired Gay because she was on the school’s secret list of “DEI-eligible candidates.” (Unlike Gay, Ackman managed to attend Harvard and became a wealthy financier despite being raised by a wealthy financier who attended Harvard). Christopher Rufo, the white rights advocate credited with starting the anti-critical race theory movement, accused Gay of plagiarism and being unqualified. (To be fair, as a graduate of Great Value Harvard, Rufo is an expert at misleading people in academia). Fake documentarian Dinesh D’Souza and alt-right activist Jack Posobiec both accused the more educated, more experienced, more accomplished Gay of being a diversity hire. 

Despite Gay graduating from one of the most renowned high schools in America (Phillips Exeter Academy), attending one of the most selective universities (Stanford), receiving her master’s and Ph.D. at Harvard and serving on Harvard’s faculty, people who are neither as educated or as accomplished as Gay are now contending that she was a “diversity hire.” While it is easy to characterize these libelous portrayals of Gay as “biased” or “partisan,” it is also possible that these people honestly believe what they are saying. There are many people — on the left and the right — who assume that diversity, inclusion and equity initiatives give nonwhite job candidates roles that they didn’t earn. 

Interestingly enough, these same people never consider the weight of their whiteness and the power that it holds. In their feeble minds, white people aren’t still benefitting from segregation, redlining, voter disenfranchisement and all of the race-based preferential treatment that whiteness has wrought. White people’s achievements are credited to intelligence, ability and hard work. Black people benefit from handouts and loopholes.

As illogical and biased as this argument sounds, does it rise to the level of racism?

For a second, let’s imagine that this outrage was warranted. Let’s suppose that Claudine Gay was as unqualified to be president of Harvard as two-term president Derek Bok, who does not have a Ph.D. What if she were as bigoted as Lawrence Summers, the Harvard president under whom Gay served even after he said women have a “different availability of aptitude on the high end.” What if she was as antisemitic as the former president of the United States

Even when people publicly condemned the actions of these heralded white men, their whiteness was never cited as the reason for their power. While Gay’s critics can work themselves into a bright-white lather over the unfairness of diversity initiatives, affirmative action and inclusion policies, they cannot fathom the possibility that whiteness was a major factor in white people’s accomplishments. But, of course, Black people voted for Obama because he was Black while whiteness had nothing to do with the election of 44 of 45 presidents, 1,970 of the 2,003 senators, 92.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs and every Harvard president between 1636 and 2023.

It’s almost comical to watch the conservative defenders of the status quo hopscotch over wealth disparities, systemic biases in K-12 education and the historical advantages that are baked into the foundation of America to demonize diversity, equity and inclusion. As one of the “real racists” who points out the entitlement that whiteness affords, I cannot even begin to comprehend the colossal quantity of hubris it takes to thrive inside a racialized system while weeping about the unfair slivers that don’t reinforce white privilege. 

To be fair, it is theoretically possible that America is a meritocracy. Perhaps the world is right to ascribe a level of competence, intelligence and talent to all those mediocre home run hitters who were born on the third base of whiteness. Maybe all Black success comes from handouts from the same people who withheld the American dream from every nonwhite demographic until they were dragged — kicking and screaming — toward equality. Unfortunately, my inferior negro intellect cannot even conceive of a world where every white boy and girl who ever succeeded did so because of a God-given level of intellect and hard work level of intellect that is unavailable to Black “diversity hires” like Gay, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Kamala Harris and all the thieving, pea-brained jigaboos pilfering opportunity from the historically unoppressed people of no color.  

Luckily, a white man who’s much smarter than I am already came up with a word that describes someone willing to overlook actual inequality to support “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another.”

But I don’t use that word.


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Michael Harriot is an economist, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His New York Times bestseller Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America is available everywhere books are sold.

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