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Nick Patler: The national lynching of Claudine Gay

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In 1975, when Claudine Gay was five years old and living in Savannah, Ga., her mother signed her up for a one-show gig with the children’s educational program, Romper Room. Everything went smoothly as she participated in activities with the other children on the show until the puppet show began. Curious, young Claudine got up several times and went backstage to see what was making the puppets talk and move, disrupting the flow of the program.

In recounting this story at Appleton Chapel on the campus of Harvard University shortly after her inauguration as president, she shared humorously that she was soon “ejected” from the show. Gay told her listeners that she was sharing this story because she had recently come across her “Romper Room” diploma while sorting through a box of her late mother’s belongings and it reminded her of how her mother encouraged her to reach for her dreams.

Gay’s mother, Claudette, had passed less than a year earlier, and would not see her daughter become president of Harvard. Her father, Sony, was in attendance, proudly watching as his daughter was sworn in, but she deeply felt her mother’s absence. Haitian immigrants, Gay’s parents came to America with little, managed to put themselves through college, and sacrificed to give Gay and her brother, Sony Jr., every opportunity possible.

Inspired by her immigrant parents, Gay would go on to flourish as an undergraduate at Stanford and then in her Ph.D. studies at Harvard. She was described as a “very talented student” at Harvard who conducted original research in her dissertation, “Taking Charge: Black Electoral Success and the Redefinition of American Politics,” awarded the school’s Toppan Prize for outstanding dissertation in political science. She would build on this research and produce an impressive body of scholarly work focused on race, inclusion, and politics in the U.S.

As we know all too well, Gay has been the target of a vicious campaign, perhaps unprecedented for any leader in academia, to not only discredit her life and work but to humiliate and eviscerate her and reduce her to ashes. Analogous to the lynchings of African Americans in the past, this bloodthirsty (mostly white) mob is dragging her through the media, beating her down with their privilege, mutilating her work and contributions, while cheering on as her career and accomplishments hang from their noose and her character burns from their fire. Like their brutally racist predecessors of old, they want to desecrate this Black life and enforce her invisibility.

I chose to begin this piece with a memory from Gay’s childhood, and her impressive journey to academic leadership because I am determined to reclaim her humanity, her personhood, and her contributions from this lynch mob and in the process to hold them accountable for their crime. Their grotesque and disgraceful use of power and privilege stops here—at least in this essay and in this moment if nothing else.

Gay’s critics have charged her with plagiarism in her dissertation and some of her other scholarly writings. Setting aside that this all-out assault on her has less to do with plagiarism than politics, let’s consider it for a moment. For one, she did not falsify data or claim that the ideas of others were her own. Her mistakes were that she did not use quotation marks in some instances and paraphrased without attributing them to their sources.

The larger volume of Gay’s scholarly work, the substantive quality of her writing and research, and the originality of her ideas are her own. Described by her predecessor, Larry Bacow, as “a scholar of uncommon rigor and creativity” who “radiates a concern for others,” she is an accomplished academic and mentor who has made significant contributions to her field and her community.

We would likely find errors in many scholarly works if we looked hard enough. Good research and writing are often an extraordinarily focused and painstaking endeavor to flesh out a thesis or narrative, and errors in the attribution of sources, particularly secondary sources, can and will occur. We should carefully strive to avoid these errors as much as possible and maintain the integrity of the sources we use. But in cases like Gay’s (and certainly others) this should not impact the validity and credibility of her research and work. Scholars in her field recognize that the important contributions she has made supersede citation errors.

And what about the critics who have castigated her for plagiarism and seek nothing less than her humiliation and ruin?

Right-wing journalist Christopher Ruffo, who as much as anyone put Critical Race Theory in the crosshairs for conservatives, and one of the most aggressive leaders of the Claudine Gay lynch mob, pushed forward the plagiarism narrative with fervor peppered with claims that her scholarship record is thin. But as one investigative journalist found, Ruffo’s writings are built on “a foundation of exaggerations and misrepresentations” and “factual mishaps” (see, Zack Beauchamp, “Chris Ruffo’s Dangerous Fictions.”) Far from a handful of citation errors, his work appears to be a distortion at its core and in no universe would even remotely approach the integrity and quality of Gay’s work.

In short, Ruffo’s attacks against Gay is the familiar story of the arrogant bully targeting the smart kid.

But of course, as much as Ruffo, along with the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news source that saturated the media with plagiarism charges, toots their horns for bringing down Gay, the issue was mostly one of at least two pretexts for why she was targeted.

Her earlier testimony before the congressional committee served as the other pretext for her expurgation. A McCarthy-like political charade under the guise of investigating antisemitism on college campuses, presidents from some of the most elite schools were forced to run the gauntlet and accused of not doing enough to address antisemitism on their campuses following the Hamas attacks on Israel.

Gay certainly understood this was a politically motivated charade to suppress if not punish collegiate dissent against Israel’s war on Gaza, which likely influenced her oblique response when badgered by Rep. Elise Stefanik. But by trying not to fall into the trap she fell into the trap. After Stepanik barked, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment,” Gay responded, “The rules around bullying and harassment are quite specific and if the context in which that language is used amounts to bullying and harassment, then we take — we take action against it.”

Setting aside here that there is no evidence that some Harvard students called for genocide (calling for intifada is not calling for genocide), I wish Gay had answered more from her heart rather than an ethics code and stressed that she had even created a committee to “combat antisemitism at Harvard.” Speaking last October at the Harvard Hillel Shabbat Dinner where she strongly condemned the Hamas attack and described antisemitism as a “corrosive hatred,” Gay stressed, “As we grapple with this resurgence of bigotry, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: Antisemitism has no place at Harvard,” reiterating throughout the speech her active commitment to “combatting antisemitism” (see, “Remarks at Harvard Hillel,” October 27, 2023). Gay’s entire life and career have rested solidly on trying to establish those protections, opposing intolerance, and prospering the marginalized.

But Gay’s formal response during the hearing was enough for Stefanik and the mob to pull the noose tightly around her neck and falsely brand her as an antisemite in a flurry of tweets and posts. And the hate mail came as well—and ever since—dripping with threats and racist invective against an accomplished Black woman who only wanted to responsibly lead and serve her collegiate community and society. She recently shared that it all unnerves her, and, sadly, that she is living in some fear.

And what about Stefanik?

She is the poster child for distortion and deceit, referred to by one of her Republican peers as “a handmaiden for Trump” and by another former colleague as “never motivated by principles.” She has perpetuated Trump’s lies about the 2020 election and other fictions and voted to keep the epically dishonest George Santos in Congress. Worse, she is now peddling fear and lies by blaming Democrats for trying to steal the upcoming 2024 election and getting a jumpstart on releasing poison into our discourse. And while she accused Gay and her colleagues of not doing enough to address antisemitism at their universities, Stefanik has done plenty to support the violence against Palestinians from her pulpit of power. She has been one of the most vocal supporters in Congress of U.S. weaponry to Israel as it ferociously bombs children, women, and men in Gaza.

It is an obscene twist of reality for the dangerously myopic Stefanik and her mob to accuse the sagacious and farsighted Gay of bigotry. Stefanic suffers from a low social IQ and works within its restricted confines and cannot hold a candle to the thoughtful academic. She may be celebrating jubilantly what she described as her “take down” of Claudine Gay, but she is nothing more than an example of what we have seen throughout history (and today): the self-serving mediocre trying to topple or extinguish the best among us.

Finally, if plagiarism and antisemitism are mostly pretexts for Gay’s forced exit from the presidency, what is the underlying reason? Gay was likely in the crosshairs of opposition from the moment she was selected to be president of Harvard. And one of the most powerful people aching to take aim was one of Harvard’s own, hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman.

Vigorously stirring the pot of antisemitism and plagiarism with his privilege, Ackman never liked Gay as the choice for Harvard president, claiming that she was selected because of race and was a product of Division, Equity, and Inclusion efforts or DEI, which he loathes. DEI is a commitment by institutions like Harvard to efforts that seek the inclusion of populations who have historically been underrepresented or subject to discrimination (see, dictionary.com/browse/dei).

Trotting out some of the same old racist tropes, Ackman and his ilk claim that DEI is “racism against whites” and that it violates the concept of merit, meaning that efforts to address the inequalities and barriers presented by systemic racism are a bad thing because, well, whites only get 90 percent of everything and damn it, that is just not enough. How dare we discriminate against their privilege! The documentation and experience of systemic racism is so irrefutable that it should be a no-brainer to a fifth grader that we have to be intentional about addressing it to create a more just and honest society.

But not for Ackman who cannot imagine that Gay was selected not as a Black woman, but as a very accomplished and qualified Black woman and leader with 25 years of experience, echoing so many racists past and present who think African Americans and people of color are undeserving of positions of influence in historically privileged white spaces. And God forbid that a Black woman assume the reigns at Harvard, the first African American in the school’s 387-year history, one out of 30 presidents.

Ackman is an example that wealth and privilege do not always correlate to social and emotional intelligence. When he turned up the heat on his alma mater, Harvard should have told him to piss off. They can afford to lose the funding of ten Ackman’s. But they cannot afford to punish and lose some of their wisest and most insightful mentors and leaders. The costs to the soul and integrity of the academy are far greater—and thus to society and the most vulnerable among us.

Harvard has unfortunately become akin to the sheriff who released the Black suspect to the lynch mob, banging down the door to string up and brutalize their victim.

To end, I want to issue a clarion call. I am only one person, and it may not amount to a hill of beans, but it will at least be trumpeted here. We—our institutions—all must take a stand against this aggressive campaign of intimidation to move us backward and dumb us down. As Claudine Gay recently warned in an op-ed, the attack against her “was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society.” Those pillars, which strengthen a commitment to building space for diverse voices and talents to flourish, are offensive to the Ackmans of the world because they threaten their sense of white entitlement and privilege. But efforts like DEI, and the inclusion of books and narratives of the historically marginalized and oppressed, are an indication of an intelligent and empathetic society that is striving to honor and respect all voices and talents.

That is worth fighting for—for that little girl of Haitian immigrants and all children like her.

Nick Patler resides in Waynesboro.

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