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North Carolina GOP lawmaker assailed for questioning Black colleague’s Harvard credentials during floor debate

North Carolina state Representative Abe JonesRobert Willett/Associated Press

A North Carolina Republican lawmaker has come under fire for asking a Black Democratic colleague who attended Harvard University if he would’ve gotten into the Ivy League school if he wasn’t “a minority” or “an athlete.”

State Representative Jeff McNeely directed the incendiary comments at Representative Abe Jones during a floor debate last week on private school scholarships, the News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., reported Thursday.

Jones received bachelor’s and law degrees from Harvard and later served as a prosecutor and judge in North Carolina, according to his official campaign website. Harvard confirmed Thursday that he graduated from the Law School in 1977.


McNeely, speaking during last week’s floor debate, told Jones he understood “you went to Harvard and Harvard Law,” according to a video clip of the exchange uploaded to the News & Observer’s website and widely shared on social media.

“Would you have been able to maybe achieve this if you were not an athlete, or a minority, or any of these things, but you were a student trapped in a school that, the slowest — you know, in the wild, we’ll say the slowest gazelle does not survive, but yet the herd moves at that pace,” McNeely said.

He continued, “so the brightest child is sometimes held back.”

McNeely’s comments prompted an immediate retort from Representative Robert T. Reives II, the North Carolina House’s Democratic leader.

“I’m hoping I wasn’t the only one that got shocked by that comment, that the only reason you went to Harvard is because you were Black and an athlete?” an incredulous Reives said.

“I did not say that,” McNeely replied. “I said, would that, did that end up being one of the reasons? I do not know that. ... I apologize and I’ll reframe.”

Jones then spoke, telling colleagues he earned everything he achieved in the classroom.


“I’m just going to say one thing,” Jones said. “Harvard had five rankings for their students. One, two, three, four, five. And when I graduated from Harvard, I was at rank two. So I earned my place. And I did well.”

After Jones spoke, several fellow lawmakers rose to give him a standing ovation.

A request for comment was sent Thursday to McNeely, who resigned his post as Republican deputy whip in the House, the Charlotte Observer reported.

“I think the right move was made, as far as the deputy whip position,” said Jones in a phone interview Thursday, adding that he didn’t think McNeely should resign outright from the Legislature. “We all make mistakes.”

He said that if McNeely truly felt what he expressed on the House floor then “he should have kept his mouth shut.”

At the same time, Jones said, “I’m not going to lambaste him and beat him down. ... He’s been punished now, in the sense of having to give up something of value to him, for that remark.”

Jones, who received his Harvard undergraduate degree in American history in 1974 and lettered in track and cross country, said he accepted McNeely’s apology and that he’s “ready to move on.”

He said the atmosphere that took hold during the Trump years has emboldened people to say things that were previously unacceptable to voice publicly.

“There is a silver lining,” Jones said. “I’m sort of glad to know what you’re thinking.”


The nation, Jones continued, has made strides in terms of racial and gender equity, but “there is still work to be done.”

Travis Andersen can be reached at