Attacks against Claudine Gay maintain racial stratification and further subordinate Black women.
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As a Black woman academic, it has been painful to witness the attacks on the character of Claudine Gay—Harvard University’s former president and its first Black leader—and their after-effects. However, as a scholar of education, race and the law, these attacks also ring familiar. The project of white supremacy is to instill panic, to distort history and facts, to erase the contributions of Black and other minoritized people.
White supremacy appeals to the basest parts of us by stoking our fears, stereotypes and biases. It relies on disregard for the truth. It relies on resistance to recognizing the humanity of Black and other minoritized people. It appeals to the worst in America. And I believe it will take the best of America to affirmatively defeat it.
The White Supremacist Attack on Diversity and Education
The current so-called “culture wars” facilitated by the likes of Christopher Rufo and Edward Blum—fueled by a now-defunct Trump executive order attacking federal diversity, equity and inclusion efforts—are being waged on multiple fronts, from classrooms to libraries to institutions of higher learning.
The attack on Claudine Gay’s intellectual integrity is just the latest effort of this project, which has included attacks on public education, a fabricated moral panic about critical race theory (CRT) as well as bans on books by historically marginalized writers. These are all threads of the same project.
Anti-Blackness is at the root of this agenda, but Black Americans are not the only ones in its crosshairs. This project has fueled the momentum for the Supreme Court to strip women of bodily autonomy and to dismantle affirmative-action in higher education, which will undoubtedly harm Asian American students who were used as convenient foils to wage the attack, alongside other minoritized students. This project co-opts the language of the civil rights movement’s martyrs, arguing that remedying past racial harm is racist, and espousing a colorblind Constitution that fails to contextualize the history and purpose behind the Reconstruction Amendments, which Justice Jackson has recognized in Supreme Court debates. All the while, these efforts facilitate white supremacy.
While many people are hesitant to utter the words white supremacy, we must name and expose it if we hope to dismantle it. White supremacy is not new, it has stained our nation since its inception, and it reasserts itself over and over to stifle racial progress (“racial retrenchment,” something I explore further in a forthcoming paper).
This latest anti-Black backlash transcends prior backlashes to racial progress like massive resistance to shutter schoolhouse doors after the Brown ruling, and threatens the very viability of a multi-racial democracy on the eve of a monumental presidential election. As Rufo admitted, he seeks to “demoralize” his opponents.
Miseducation and the Project of White Supremacy
Dismantling hard-won civil rights progress relies upon miseducation—a tried-and-true strategy employed to sustain slavery, to subordinate women and consign others to second-class citizenship and to obscure the evils that racial inequality has allowed to endure in this country. Education is essential for liberation, and denial of education is elemental for oppression. As one anti-slavery magazine noted in the 1860s, the “alphabet is an abolitionist.”
Today’s racial retrenchment relies upon miseducation and is deploying it beyond the classroom. Today, miseducation is taking place in the media, from social media to the left-wing media, and is part of a coordinated and organized conservative campaign.
These tactics are not covert; Rufo boasts that his campaign strategies include:
- shaping the public narrative.
- leveraging financial pressure (the attacks on Gay were also led by Harvard donor Bill Ackerman—whose wife’s scholarship is being critiqued for plagiarism)
- leveraging political pressure through conservative Republican policymakers.
Just as proponents of anti-CRT legislation are not concerned about what CRT actually is or whether it is being taught in schools, critics of Gay were not concerned with the findings of the Harvard Corporation’s investigation concluding that she had not engaged in any research misconduct or statements of those she was accused of incorrectly quoting, who also asserted she did nothing wrong. Gay’s critics disregarded her numerous credentials and experience, concluding that her Black skin and gender rendered her “unqualified” or a “diversity hire”—all code for her being undeserving of the position because of her Blackness—and fabricated their own narrative of her to fit racial tropes.
This miseducation campaign critiques so-called left, elite academia while seeking to keep it exclusive and white. Like the “whites only” signs of the Jim Crow era, this miseducation campaign seeks to exclude Black people from these spaces and to discredit the power and influence of Black and other minoritized people in so-called elite positions. It thrives in the face of silence and fear.
Another insidious feature of the project of white supremacy is that it seeks to strip us of our ability to think for ourselves, to discern for ourselves what is right and what is wrong, and to speak out against inequality. Miseducation stokes fear and resentment and encourages cowardice. It seeks to intimidate and to chill efforts to expand opportunity. It seeks to hold onto power and to quell progress that threatens the status quo of racial stratification.
Countering Miseducation With Education
The late Audre Lorde warned us that our silence would not protect us. We must counter miseducation with education that teaches the full spectrum of American history—which is, as James Baldwin noted in 1963, “more various, more beautiful, and more terrible” than most of us have been taught.
Countering miseducation means teaching, and learning, about discriminatory practices like redlining, voter suppression, gender discrimination, economic exploitation, anti-immigrant exclusion and apartheid education. It means recognizing that the singular attacks against Gay align with prolonged efforts to maintain racial stratification that rely in large part upon the subordination of Black women and the erasure of the contributions of Black Americans.
At its heart, the project of white supremacy relies upon our complicity. By naming it, speaking out against it, and resisting it, as well as teaching and learning about the tactics used to sustain it—we collectively draw upon the best of us to defeat it.
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