January 23, 2024

I fell for it

Ali Michael, PhD

I fell for it.  I fell for the takedown of a Black woman academic. I am a White person who works to be antiracist, and I fell for it.

I hedged for a while, disregarded the accusations of plagiarism as small and not out of line for any academic.  Because I try not to be swayed by social media, I dutifully read the breakdown of events in the Washington Post, the New York Times and Heather Cox Richardson. And while I could see the congressional hearings for what they were—a farce led by people who occupy office for the sake of dismantling structures of democracy—I fell for the op-ed in the liberal media.  The Washington Post.  

I remember laying in bed a few days after Christmas, reading what seemed to be a level-headed analysis of the accusations.  It detailed the examples of plagiarism.  It said, in what seemed to be a well-reasoned argument: We must hold the president of Harvard to the same honor code as undergraduates.

It was so convincing. Regardless of how they got the information, of why anyone chose to look so deeply into the work of Dr. Gay, here it was laid bare for all to see in the liberal press. I mentioned it to others.  We shook our heads.  I did nothing.  I watched the takedown of a Black woman academic and I quietly thought to myself, “It’s for the best.  It’s a shame. She shouldn’t have plagiarized.”  

After Dr. Gay stepped down, I saw Elise Stefanik celebrating her resignation saying, “TWO DOWN,” having brought down Penn’s (my alma mater) president as well.  Then, the first week in January, this interview was published in Politico, in which Christopher Rufo bragged that it was he who originally sought out material to build accusations against Dr.Gay, which he then succeeded in spreading through conservative media in early December.  But his ultimate goal was to topple Harvard, discredit DEI, and disrupt liberal institutions.  He knew he wouldn’t be able to do so fully without recruiting the liberal media to the cause. He did so, according to his own account, “by shaming and bullying” his colleagues on the left.  

If his name is not familiar to you, Christopher Rufo is the architect of the Conflict Campaign in which the little known legal theory of Critical Race Theory was shaped into a wedge issue for local municipalities and school boards across the country from 2020 until today. He took the term “Critical Race Theory,” first popularized by Kimberlé Crenshaw, mainstreamed it, and created a mockery of it. At first glance, it seems he makes a living bringing down Black women academics who have spent a lifetime building robust bodies of transformational academic work.  But in fact, they are pawns in his larger objective of dismantling liberal institutions.  The anti-CRT campaign was designed to sow conflict in local communities in order to discredit and destroy public schools.  And Rufo knew what we hate to admit: the least number of people would rally in defense of Black women. So he set out to destroy them first.   

Christopher Rufo has been working to dismantle progressive institutions and liberal, democratic gains in our society for the past 4 years.  His strategy, which he seeks to help other conservatives implement in the years to come, is to develop ideas that undermine progressive gains, hone and promote said ideas with a conservative audience, maneuver to get the center-left to editorialize said ideas, and then watch as the left eats itself alive trying to avoid shame, do the right thing, and be on the bandwagon of the current moment, a moment designed by Rufo himself.  

I knew when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7 that we would see divisions in our society.  There was little space for a middle ground, for grieving those who died in Israel while grieving the circumstances in Gaza that preceded—and then followed—the attacks. Drowned out were the Israelis who loved and fought for Palestinian lives.  Drowned out were the Palestinian voices who mourned for their Israeli contemporaries, who mourned the possibilities of peace.  People spoke of “both sides” when there were countless sides.  

Yes, this issue would have divided us no matter what.  

But those divisions were stoked and fanned by conservative forces both inside and outside the U.S., including foreign governments that benefit from our collective weakness such as Russia.  A liberal Jewish neighbor said to me, “I don’t trust Elise Stefanik or Fox News, but they are saying what I want to hear on Israel.”  This circumstance created a dream scenario for conservatives: it pitted liberals against liberals.  

Leave them to devour each other on their own social media, in their schools, in their organizations, in their universities.  And whenever possible, magnify the divisions until their intractability is self-evident, overwhelming to the point that neighbor can’t recognize neighbor. Penetrate marches and promote violent speech. Create congressional hearings with questions designed to paint champions of free speech who would protect every one of their students as closeted anti-Semites. Amplify the most inhumane of the messages on either side, creating fertile ground for seeds of hatred, misunderstanding, self-righteousness, and fear.  Pressurize the most tender trauma reactions. Squeeze lemon into raw wounds. Get them to see one another as enemy, all those people who loved each other and fought for each other only a few years ago.  Break the left.   

I resisted the division for months.  And then, when I wasn’t paying close enough attention, the first Black president of Harvard was forced to resign, and I condoned it.   

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Who are you?  Who cares if you condoned it?”  The truth is, I’m nobody.  I'm not on Harvard's Board. I don’t hold a position from which I could advocate for or against Dr. Gay’s presidency.  I didn’t even mention it publicly to my tiny group of colleagues on social media. But that’s what makes the fact of my naivete matter so much more. I decided, without saying a word to anyone outside my household, that it was probably good and right that Dr. Gay resigned.  And I moved on with my life.  

I saw no connection to the conservative attacks on democratic ideals, in spite of the fact that I knew the congressional hearings of college presidents on anti-Semitism existed only for that purpose.

Christopher Rufo has managed to find ways to sow conservative ideology into the very fabric of mainstream society, and to get liberals to convince one another of ideas that he himself concocted; ideas that would not exist were they not expedient to the overall goal of dismantling liberal democracy; ideas that nobody pursues except when attempting to divide and destroy.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, lawyer and President of the African American Policy Forum, has said that the only way we can make gains for everyone is to do so together.  It’s not enough to labor only for our racial group or our gender identity group, or any other form of affinity.  We need to labor for one another because we need to be able to labor with one another.  We need all of us if we’re going to build a society where everybody belongs.

My team is not White people. It’s not Jews.  It’s not middle-aged women or people with Multiple Sclerosis.  My team consists of every person in the US who understands that we are fundamentally interdependent, that we need one another.  My team consists of people who resist division, simplification, and dogma.  My team consists of people who recognize that equal rights require that we think in particulars about different groups, groups that are often denied rights and protections because of who they are.  My team consists of people who want every person to count and every person to vote.  My team consists of people who love and care for their families and neighbors. My team consists of people who labor with and for one another because we will not survive otherwise.

When Black women stand for “excellence, openness, independence, and truth” (as Dr. Gay said in her own words), I want to be on their team.  But why didn’t I see that Dr. Gay and I live and work for the same values?  And why couldn’t I see that the efforts to discredit her are the same efforts to discredit truthful history, freedom of choice, freedom to read, transgender rights, gay rights, civil rights, voting rights?  Why did it take the rallying op-eds of several Black colleagues to help me see what I had not, that I had fallen for conservative propaganda?  Would I even have believed it fully without Christopher Rufo’s blatant acknowledgement of both strategy and purpose written for all to see in his interview in Politico?  

Where do we go from here? We need to get clear about the stakes, and stop falling for the falsehoods we’re being fed.  There may be more than two sides, and there may be many teams, but I’m clear that I want to be on the side of democracy.  Those who seek to discredit or dismantle democratic systems are not on my team.

What can we do in our spheres of influence to interrupt this brokenness?  First, we need to reaffirm connections with people with whom we disagree.  Make a short list—two or three people with whom you are not 100% aligned. Consider how your division from them benefits the people currently working to dismantle democracy.  Find a way to reach out to this person you disagree with—email them, call them, stop by their office.  Brainstorm with them about what you agree about. Affirm your common ground.  Ask them to tell you more about their opinions with regard to what you disagree on.  Listen. Tell them you need them. Walk away.  

Second, when you see a progressive leader being hyper-scrutinized in your local community or in the media, ask yourself why it is happening. Ask whether the same scrutiny would be exercised with someone who is White, male, or wealthy. Seek out alternative interpretations of what’s happening. Speak up in their defense. Ask what you can do to help. This will continue to happen to Black women who are leading institutions, resolutions, prosecutions, because they are championing democracy. And this is an attack on democracy. But it will also continue to happen to Black women because we as a democratic society are easily divided by race. And if we’re not careful, we just might be duped into forgetting that they are fighting for all of us.  I was.

Ali Michael, PhD, is an award winning author and renowned, nationally recognized facilitator. In addition to many bestselling books and articles, she is the co-author of Our Problem, Our Path, where she argues that building a critical mass of antiracist White people requires that White people learn to support one another in their learning and action, rather than compete.

Photo Aaron Burden