Harvard’s leadership scandal underscored by racial bias

Statement from Audra Wilson, President and CEO of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law

Dr. Claudine Gay’s recent resignation as Harvard University president is disheartening. But what’s most disturbing right now: How ugly the reactions are.

Conservatives rejoiced at the news when Gay resigned Tuesday. The criticism over citations and the congressional hearing testimony quickly got personal. Gay faces accusations about not confronting antisemitism and upholding “scholarly rigor.” Ironically, at the same time, she’s being bombarded by racism, sexism, and animosity. A racist mob on social media is insulting her leadership, qualifications, and integrity.

The first Black and second woman president at such an elite institution was forced out after only six months. As a former director of diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education, I feel sadness, anger, and frustration. And as a Black female CEO, I know the extra burdens placed on women and leaders of color are emotionally taxing. No one deserves this toxic treatment, and tolerance for it is a reflection on us all.

Gay’s credentials and contributions should not be up for debate. Pull back the curtain and you see this for what it is: A red herring. The opposition is succeeding in their efforts to turn cancel culture against leaders who look different and to reverse hard-won progress with DEI and racial justice initiatives.

We’ve seen their playbook before. Divide and conquer, where one marginalized identity is weaponized against another. Our opponents are using their resources to limit our freedom, especially on college campuses. From book bans to voting restrictions, they want to control what we know, how we think, and who we elect into office.

What happens in the halls of Harvard may seem far removed from the fight for economic justice. But it’s a sobering reminder that racial bias and discrimination play a critical role in whether our work moves forward or not. While democracy is in danger, white supremacy in our country continues to hold us all back.

Even white progressives with the best intentions can harm people of color. Within our ranks are white people with profound discomfort for having honest conversations about our country’s legacy and continued racial inequity, injustice, and violence.

I’ve said it before: There’s no room for white fragility in the fight for racial justice. People who are with us must recognize and reckon with racism at all levels — individual, institutional, systemic, and structural. Otherwise, we perpetuate within our own organizations the very systems that we seek to eliminate externally.

Despite these challenges, I remain an eternal optimist. I believe in a world with more equity and empathy. I believe in the power of people, like you, who use their influence and privilege for the greater good. With your support, we can break down barriers, transform systems, and create opportunities for people to thrive.

Building a future free from racism and poverty takes commitment from us all to do better and be better. Your partnership strengthens my resolve in our mission not only to end poverty, but to enable economic mobility. As we prepare for the War on Poverty’s 60th anniversary and the launch of our new strategic framework, we need more allies than ever.

In a few weeks, we will convene with like-minded changemakers and leaders who share our values. Together, we will engage with Matthew Desmond, author of Poverty, by America and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. We will also explore innovative strategies and best practices to amplify impact. The Shriver Center invites you to join us January 18 at our 2024 Poverty Summit and be part of the new path forward.

With you at the forefront of our movement to end racism and poverty, we are changing the rules to change lives. Thank you for staying with us on this journey toward racial justice.

About the Author

Audra Wilson
Audra Wilson
Audra Wilson
President & CEO


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