Claudine Gay, MLK DAY, diversity fatigue, and the complicity of White liberals

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice…Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

                                                                                                                                      – Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963

On this Dr. King day, many across the world will either share their favorite Dr. King quotations or (part of) the only one they know. You know the one. Indeed, I am sure that some already have their quotations pre-scheduled to post on their social media platforms. My hope, however, is that more of us will use this time to reflect on how Dr. King’s famed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” speaks directly to not only the movement by republicans, conservatives, and outright racists to remove Dr. Claudine Gay from Harvard, but also how many White liberals tacitly go along with the program. The Christopher Rufos of the world could not enjoy their recent successes to end anything related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) without the complacency of White so-called liberals and progressives.

After George Floyd was murdered in May of 2020, America was engulfed into a summer of so-called “racial reckoning.” Many organizations went into overdrive revamping (or actually creating) diversity statements, reviewing hiring decisions, and promising billions of dollars to DEI efforts. While some believed America had transcended racism with these efforts, I engaged in several conversations with Black individuals who stated that they needed to get this “white guilt money” before it dried up. This may sound like a crass statement, but time turned out that they were not wrong.

Corporate America made over $50 billion in racial equity pledges towards starting that summer. Many companies also pledged to hire more Black people at higher levels. By May of 2021, most of this money had not materialized. Only “$250 million [had] actually been spent or committed to a specific initiative” according to Fortune. It is also important to note to the type of funds pledged in the $50 billion. According to The Washington Post, more than 90%, or $45.2 billion was allocated for loans or investments like mortgages that companies could profit from. About $4.2 billion was dedicated to grants. Only about $70 million was allocated for criminal justice reform, which is what sparked the international protestin the first place. In reality around this time, Fortune holds that only $250,000 was actually doled out so in reality, much of corporate America spoke nice words and made large pledges but were not truly interested in using their influence to build Black America.

Furthermore, according to NBC News in February of 2023, “Diversity, equity and inclusion leaders, who were hired in waves to help companies achieve an ethnically balanced workforce after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, are being phased out, surveys indicate, leaving experts in the field concerned that corporations’ talk of affecting change was just empty words.” NBC also noted that most chief diversity officers in organizations were White (76.1%) whereas Black chief DEI heads stood at a whopping 3.8%.

Why are these statistics relevant and how do they tie back to Dr. Gay’s resignation and the haunting words of Dr. King? All of these corporations are not led by White republican conservative DEI haters. Many of these organizations and individuals discussed in these reports like Jeff Bezos or Warren Buffet have supported so-called progressive policies or even endorsed democratic candidates like Hillary Clinton. Unfortunately, this diversity fatigue represents the “shallow understanding” that Dr. King spoke of in his letter.

As someone who speaks and trains organizations in the area of DEI, I have witnessed this intense pushback firsthand. Some of the pushback has indeed come from so called White liberals, who as Dr. King said, believe in our freedom on a type of “installment” plan. They went so far with us on George Floyd but stopped after a certain point as they have done with countless freedom movements in the United States for non-White people. With Dr. Gay, there exists an “We’ve done enough for you right now” mentality that makes many White people all too comfortable with her resignation. Beyond a few social media posts and news segments, there has not been large scale White outrage to her resignation, nor has there been massive outcry to the similar charge of plagiarism to Bill Akman’s wife Neri Oxman, a former MIT professor who helped cover up donations to her program by deceased sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. One of Harvard’s largest donors, Akman led the charge to fire Gay following her antisemitism testimony on Capitol Hill and subsequent charges of plagiarism. He said that Gay’s plagiarism was “a scandal and a stain on the reputation of Harvard” but that his wife’s plagiarism can be due to “laziness”, which is “not a great excuse for a member of the faculty, but it does not seem like a crime to me.”

On this MLK Day, let us remember the end of Dr. King’s letter where he called for us all to be “extremists for the calls of justice” and not more “cautious than courageous [remaining silent] behind the anesthetizing curtains of stain glassed windows.” There is a concerted effort to combat the browning of America and it is a coordinated effort between republican and conservative academics, billionaire investors, politicians, and media outlets. Gay was the latest victim, as represented by Stefanik’s “TWO DOWN” post after Gay and then UPenn president Elizabeth McGill resigned. Note that Stefanik and her party have introduced nothing to protect Jewish students and, at the time of this writing, are still blocking aid to Israel. Those of us who are serious about being what Dr. King called “extremists for love” and justice must re-evaluate our efforts and those who define themselves as White liberals or progressives should use this time to re-evaluate how serious they are to making America as good as its promise—for everyone.