"Many Black and brown people in this country are familiar with the saying, 'You have to be twice as good to get a job,'" said Tanisha Sullivan, hosting GBH’s Basic Black on Friday. "Perhaps your parents or a family elder drove this into your head because they understood the uphill climb to not just survive, but to thrive, as a Black person — even when you possess the talent, credentials and experience to be there."
Harvard President Claudine Gay's resignation last week set off a firestorm, with fierce debate on the reasons for her decision to step down. "Indeed, there are plenty of paths to explore," Sullivan said. "Leadership in response to antisemitism, a less than stellar Congressional appearance, allegations of plagiarism, dogged conservative activists, wealthy donors, racism, sexism and death threats."
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"She is just one more example of the attack on academia, the attack on education, and the attack on Black people," said Traci Griffith, who leads the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. "She is just the latest in a long line of smart, capable, hardworking, people who have achieved a lot and come under fire for that success."
Kim McLarin of Emerson College says this is much bigger than Harvard.
"It's an effort to reinstate social control, and we have to be clear about that," she said. "It's not just Claudine Gay. It's Nikole Hannah Jones, it's Kathleen McElroy. Black women are often the fulcrum that's used, but we have to be really clear that it's not just her, it's not just about higher education. ... It's a battle for the American soul, and the other side is determined to win."
Others positioned it as part of a larger backlash against civil rights and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. "It's an attempt to push back gains not just from five years ago or 10 years ago, but since the Civil Rights movement," said Phillip Martin, a reporter with the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting. "The assault on [diversity, equity and inclusion], in this case in the person of Claudine Gay by conservative activists ... this is an attempt to push back gains made over many years."
Did Gay resign too soon? Panelists say that the cost of standing up to backlash is sometimes extraordinarily high.
"I know, because I've gone through it at a much lower level, that the attacks against her were vicious. When she said she was getting death threats and hate mail and had been called the n-word, I believe that is absolutely true," McLarin said. "So on a personal level, that taking herself out of that is the wrong thing to do. Why are [Black women] always expected to sacrifice ourselves to save the soul of this country?"
Watch this week’s episode of Basic Black to get the full conversation.