HomeLearning CenterClaudine Gay’s Resignation Proves That Black Women’s Leadership Is Still Political

Claudine Gay’s Resignation Proves That Black Women’s Leadership Is Still Political

Originally published by Errin Haines for The 19th

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.”

On 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. 

Gay’s exit came nearly six months to the day after she was installed president of Harvard. Gay’s 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. 

In her historically short time at the helm of Harvard, 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 Gay’s citations — which the university investigated and 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 targets have included discussions of race and LGBTQ+ issues in education — bragged in racist terms that Gay’s exit was a “scalp.”

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 Gay did not, conservative activists including 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 December 19.

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