By Thomas Lee
On an episode of the YouTube talk show parody Between Two Ferns in 2014, host Zach Galifianakis scores an interview with the real President Obama.
“I have to know,” Galifianakis says. “What’s it like being the last black President?”
Obama, America’s first and only black President, glares at him.
“Seriously?” the president said. “What’s it like for this to be the last time you talk to a President?”
This sketch came to mind as I ponder the unfortunate situation of Claudine Gay. The first African American president of Harvard University, Gay recently resigned her post amid allegations of plagiarism and right wing criticism that she was not sufficiently opposed to antisemitism.
As Harvard decides who will replace Gay, I can guarantee you this: it won’t be another black woman.
My prediction is not based on mere cynicism but rather an unfortunate truth about American society that people often overlook.
We tend to celebrate people of color or women becoming the first to occupy positions of power exclusively held by White men. But we never consider the person who immediately succeeds those trail blazers. They are almost always — White men.
Think about it. When’s the last time you ever heard a person of color or woman replacing another person of color or woman in positions of power?
Certainly not corporate America. In fact, it’s only happened once in the history of the Fortune 500, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that tracks data on women in business. In 2009, Ursula Burns replaced Anne Mulcahy as CEO of Xerox Corp.
Certainly not major news media organizations. In 2011, the New York Times named Jill Abramson as its first female executive editor. Her successors have been two men — Dean Baquet and Joseph Kahn. Baquet is the only non-white person to have served as the newsroom’s top editor.
Certainly not major sports. Since 2000, an African American replaced another African American head coach only three times in the National Football League. That figure looks especially bad when you consider there have been at least 130 permanent and interim head coaches during that 24-year period.
Certainly not state governors. Of the 50 states, only Arizona and New Mexico have ever elected consecutive woman governors. No state has ever elected consecutive African American governors.
It’s almost as if America can barely stomach a person of color or woman in power once every (fill in the blank) years at a time. But twice in a row? Yee gads, the world might explode!
In all seriousness, if America is really to evolve beyond race and gender, then we should normalize the idea that people of color and women can effectively replace each other in positions of power.
Doing so would also relieve the pressure we put on trailblazers like Barack Obama, Claudine Gay, or Jill Abramson with the knowledge that there are other people with similar backgrounds who can ably and immediately follow in their footsteps.
And as for institutions like Harvard, the best way they can demonstrate their support for diversity, equity, and inclusion is to show how placing qualified people of color or women into top positions of power is not a politically correct, “woke” novelty but rather business as usual.
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