FOR FREE PEOPLE

Follow The FP on Instagram!

FOR FREE PEOPLE

Harvard president Claudine Gay testifies before Congress last week. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images)

Claudine Gay Is Why I Never Checked the ‘Black’ Box

I felt pressure to declare my minority status on college applications and ‘get the upper hand.’ But I refused to be currency in someone else’s power game.

The disastrous congressional testimony of three college presidents on the topic of campus antisemitism last week has led to furious calls for their resignation. While Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania stepped down from her post over the weekend, Harvard’s board ruled that Claudine Gay will stay. But, as filmmaker Eli Steele argues in this first-person essay, which first appeared in Newsweek, Gay’s emphasis on skin color and the politics of black identity have already done serious damage to American higher education. 

I have known people like Claudine Gay my entire life and they are the reason why I never checked the “black” box on college and employment applications. If I had, I would not be a free individual today.

As a child, I was fascinated by the story of my paternal grandparents’ interracial marriage in 1944 in segregated Chicago. The 1967 interracial marriage of my black father to the daughter of Holocaust survivors in the same city wasn’t much easier; at the time, America burned with race riots. My grandparents and parents had every reason not to marry across the color line. But they chose love over their racial order.

I believed then and now that they were better Americans than the white supremacists opposing their marriages and, from a young age, I’ve seen it as my birthright to defend the principles of freedom, equality, love, and a greater humanity beyond racial orders of any kind.

But, growing up, I was faced with another kind of racial order than my parents and grandparents. When I hit my teens, I encountered tremendous pressure to conform to a single race on school applications and in personal encounters. And with this pressure, it felt like my identity, which I thought was defined by the choices I made and the responsibilities I accepted, had become a currency in someone else’s political power game.

But it was not until I applied to college in the early 1990s that I encountered people like Claudine Gay and truly saw behind the curtain of identity politics. That was when, with grades and SATs that were borderline acceptable for top-tier colleges, my high school counselor—along with most university officials—urged me to boost my chances of admission by checking the “black” box on applications. And when they saw my reluctance, they routinely dismissed my misgivings with the same line: “Oh, it’s nothing, just check the box and you’ll get the upper hand.”

They weren’t wrong: I was once offered a $25,000 Martin Luther King scholarship, a lot of money in 1993. Checking the black box was tempting, to say the least.

But it was a sham. At that time, the percentage of all blacks on college campuses who were from lower economic backgrounds had fallen to the single digits. These students had been replaced by middle- to upper-class blacks, Africans, Caribbeans, and multiracials like me.

By checking the black box, I was being asked to mask the actual problems and inequities that undermine the efforts of lower-class blacks—all so university administrations could claim the pretense of racial redemption through higher enrollment numbers.

And we wonder why there are permanent black underclasses in nearly every major city today?

But for me, on a personal level, this was not the worst part of these life-altering encounters. I knew that if I checked the black box, administrators and corporate executives would feel like they owned me. They had opened the doors to their esteemed institutions and, in return, I would be expected to show fealty to their racial politics and ideologies.

Checking the black box on college applications would have forced me to enter what I call the Minority State of Mind, divorcing myself from my larger American identity to embrace a far narrower identity based on the politics of race. In my case, that meant embracing a racialized and victimized mindset in which everything is defined by slavery, segregation, disparities, and racism.

People have mocked me, saying that I give far too much importance to the black box, but they have no idea what awaits a black student who puts that check mark next to “black.” If I had indicated “black” on my college applications, it would have opened the door to black scholarships, black-only orientations, black fraternities, black housing, black-oriented majors, black student associations, black this and that. How could I have gone through these experiences without becoming beholden to the politics of blackness?

Even at that young age, I knew that to check that black box was to move off the merit track and onto the race track, where people like Claudine Gay excel. She is perhaps the most successful black to walk this path, but she is not a free individual.

Throughout her career, Gay has placed emphasis on her skin color and the politics of the black identity, which we are now learning involved a brew of incompetence, racial essentialism, and plagiarism, all emerging now.

As bad as this all is, the worst thing that the Claudine Gays of America did was lead so many people of their race down this dead-end path of racial essentialism.

Today, the focus has been on how Gay hurt Asians and Jews, but it can never be forgotten that people like her hurt blacks far more and for such a sustained period of time, affecting multiple generations.

My refusal to check the race box meant that no one could hold a claim over me. I’m a free individual, and the only thing I owe is gratitude to the many people who helped me as I pursued the path of merit.

But if one really wants to know why I never checked the black box, the true answer lies in my black grandfather’s life. Born to formerly enslaved parents on a dirt floor in Camp Nelson, Kentucky, his parents died when he was just a teen. On his own, he traveled to Detroit and then to Chicago, where he worked odd jobs to fuel his playboy lifestyle. Then one day, he realized his current life would lead to no good. He straightened up and became a founding member of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), where he met my grandmother. He got a job as a truck driver, became a family man, and educated himself by reading every book he could find. In doing so, he lifted his family from poverty to a solid lower-middle-class life despite living under segregation.

Why, then, would I betray this admirable progress for the empty promise of skin color?

Eli Steele is a documentary filmmaker and writer. His latest film is What Killed Michael Brown? Find him on Substack at Man of Steele and on X (formerly Twitter) @Hebro_Steele.  

Become a Free Press subscriber today:

Subscribe now

Latest