- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2008


By Randall Kennedy

Pantheon, $22, 228 pages


“Do not be a slave to any form of selling out,” Oprah Winfrey told the graduating class of Howard University last May. But, as Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy points out in “Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal,” his fourth book, “any form of selling out” covers a lot of ground. So, immediately after starting this fascinating and thought-provoking book with the Winfrey quote, he sets to work defining his terms.

“A sellout is a person who ‘betrays’ something to which he is said to owe allegiance. When used in a racial context among African Americans, ‘sellout’ is a disparaging term that refers to blacks who knowingly or with gross negligence act against the interests of blacks as a whole. Defining it that clearly, however, offers a misleading sense of clarity. ‘Sellout’ is a messy, volatile, contested term about which disagreement is rife, especially when it comes to applying the label to specific persons or conduct.”

As the book’s format is academic, some of its most interesting information is found at the bottom of the page (where Mr. Kennedy drops in relevant little factual gems and professorial bon mots) and in the notes at the back.

For example, he explains that to sell out can also refer to a performance in which no more tickets are available, and then adds, “On the other hand, critics castigate as sellouts performers who are deemed to have compromised their artistry for the sake of popular approval … such luminaries as Luciano Pavarotti, Bob Dylan, and Louis Armstrong. In political struggles, those who compromise with adversaries often run the risk of being branded as sellouts. Examples include Michael Collins, Mohandas Gandhi, Anwar Sadat, and Yitzak Rabin — all of whom were assassinated.”

The structure of Randall Kennedy’s explication is clear from the titles of his five chapters: 1. “Who is ‘Black?’” 2. “The Idea of the Sellout in Black American History” 3. “The Idea of the Sellout in Contemporary Black America” 4. “The Case of Clarence Thomas” and 5. “Passing as Selling Out.”

As for allegations of selling out, he lists ” … marrying a white person, passing, ‘acting white,’ ‘speaking white,’ ‘thinking white,’ describing oneself as ‘multiracial,’ living in a white neighborhood, serving as a police officer or a prosecutor, working as an attorney for an elite law firm, opposing affirmative action.”

In his treatment of each of these “charges,” Mr. Kennedy stresses, as he does throughout the book, the importance of being both fair and careful. “All too often, in framing their indictments, prosecutors of ‘sellouts’ display alarming sloppiness. I call for more care. I urge that indictments for racial betrayal be drawn more cautiously and taken more seriously. Those originating such charges should be held accountable if allegations are found wanting. Errant accusers should be made to feel the pain of ostracism just as their targets do.”

One of the obvious reasons for recommending this book — which I do, wholeheartedly — is that for the first time ever this nation has an African American as a leading contender for its presidency. However, while Mr. Kennedy treats the question of Barack Obama and the issue of his Blackness fully, the index lists only five references to the junior senator from Illinois.

The author is more concerned with treating as many figures and viewpoints as he can within his relatively limited space. And in that he succeeds admirably. In addition, though his focus is on selling out, he provides a wonderfully detailed, albeit brief, history of racial attitudes in America. (Compilers of Recommended Reading lists take note.)

Just as they can never know what it,s like to be black in America, Caucasians can have little appreciation of the pressures within black communities to conform to the racial dictates of a particular community.

But, in his third chapter, Randall Kennedy does an excellent job of delineating a large number of them. He also, I was pleased to see, does not shy away from including personal examples, such as his account, in the epilgoue, of the time he gave a reading at a bookstore here in Washington from his 2003 book “Interracial Marriages: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption,” and a black woman in the audience kept telling the black man seated next to her, whom she did not know, that she was certain, given his liberal views, Professor Kennedy had a white wife. Finally, fed up, the man said he knew she was wrong because Mr. Kennedy was married to his daughter.

Nowhere is Randall Kennedy more fair than in his chapter on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In pointing out the jurist’s inconsistencies, Kennedy cuts Justice Thomas no slack. Of Justice Thomas’ statement that there’s no moral or constitutional difference between “laws designed to subjugate a race and those that distribute benefits on the basis of race,” Mr. Kennedy writes, “There is no sillier idea than this in all of American law.”

But he follows that with, “For all his deficiencies, however, Justice Thomas is a jurist with his own ideas. They are ideas with which I often disagree. But they are his ideas. Opponents of the justice do their side no favor by minimizing his capabilities or achievements … What I am urging is not condonation of his views but merely an informed understanding of them that provides a predicate for carefully calibrated criticism.”

Lest I give the impression that Randall Kennedy is a cosseted individual safely ensconced behind the ivied walls of Harvard, I should point out that his earlier book “N - - - - r: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” brought him vilification from blacks and whites alike — but especially from fellow African Americans — for stating his belief that there are occasions in which it is acceptable for members of both races to use the word.

Mr. Kennedy is a man who speaks his mind because he believes he has a duty to do so. Essentially, it’s his belief that, like using the N word, calling an African American a sellout is something to be done with great care.

He closes this intriguing little book by relating how, each year, he has to tell the black graduates of Harvard Law School that they needn’t feel guilty for seeking to continue to climb the ladder of what passes for success in present-day America:

“I tell them that there is nothing wrong with such an ambition and that pursuing such a goal does not represent a betrayal of previous struggles for racial justice.” But he also tells them to be careful about “using or being used by the haunting specter of ‘the sellout.’ It is more of a bane than a benefit to black folks, ongoing struggle for advancement.”

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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