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A conversation with the Harvard law professor about his new essay collection, the state or racial politics, campus activism, and much more.
January 6, 2022
For over three decades, Randall Kennedy, the Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School, has made one bold intervention after another in the most pressing social issues of the day. Not only has he written at length on such subjects as interracial marriage, affirmative action, and crime and policing, but his work has touched off controversies regarding his nuanced defense of the “politics of Black respectability,” his thinking on racial nomenclature and the variety of ways for describing the collective identity of Black Americans, and his critiques of “anti-racism gone awry” on college campuses.
Given these views, Kennedy has been criticized on both the left and the right. And yet he remains a singular figure: He argues for a political system that would entail a radical redistribution of wealth and opportunity in the United States; he believes that America’s racial hierarchy must be dismantled; and he has proved to be one of the sharpest and most outspoken critics of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The Nation spoke with Randall Kennedy about his new book, Say It Loud! On Race, Law, History, and Culture, his philosophy and intellectual influences, and much more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: Why did you title this collection of essays after a James Brown hit?
Randall Kennedy: I thought that the title was catchy and might prompt prospective readers to give my book a second look.
DSJ: The range of thinkers and topics discussed in Say It Loud! is truly impressive. The book offers a panoramic window into your critical thinking on such topics as Black Lives Matter, critical race theory, and anti-racism on college campuses, as well as showcasing your assessments of the life and legacy of such Black leaders as Thurgood Marshall, Malcom X, Frederick Douglass, and many others. Given the diversity of concerns in the book, I wonder if you can say something here at the outset about the basis of your political and legal thought and how it holds the book together. For instance, you mention that you are a left-liberal of sorts and have described yourself in the past as a racial optimist—although in the book you state that Donald Trump’s presidency lessened your optimism. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
RK: I insist that our government must ensure to everyone a decent standard of living—a dignified floor that entitles everyone to freedom from homelessness, joblessness, hunger, and serious and rampant criminality. The government should also entitle all to access to excellent medical care and schooling that is not contingent on the bank account of one’s family. If providing that high floor entails raising taxes dramatically, then so be it. After that high floor is attained, however, I do not mind if there are inequalities in income.
In terms of racial politics, I am a proponent of the strategies and goals that were most memorably exemplified and voiced by Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis. I am an integrationist-minded anti-racist who believes in coalition politics, militant but disciplined nonviolent dissent, and the creation of a society in which there are no deprivations that stem from racial identification and ascription.
I was encouraged to put together a collection of essays because some of the intellectuals I have most admired have been essayists: Samuel Johnson, I.F. Stone, Dwight Macdonald, W.E.B. Du Bois, Irving Howe, George Orwell, Ralph Ellison.
DSJ: One of the essays in this collection received significant attention when it first appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education last year. In “The Princeton Ultimatum: Antiracism Gone Awry,” you argue that a letter signed by 350 faculty members and graduate students claiming that anti-Black racism at Princeton University is rampant does not make a convincing case for its claims. The evidence they offered principally concerned the fact that only 7 percent of the Princeton faculty consisted of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous persons. But you state that this number doesn’t reflect racial unfairness in hiring but instead exposes a “pipeline problem.” By “pipeline problem,” do you mean that, due to socioeconomic barriers, there are not enough candidates qualified to teach at Princeton? Or does this problem simply speak to how few minority candidates there are, regardless of qualification?
RK: I was simply pointing out that the racial oppression imposed upon Blacks has deprived them of key resources, thus handicapping them in competitions for highly valued positions in academia and other domains. A few lifetimes ago, it was a felony in many places to teach literacy to Blacks. More recently, Blacks were expressly barred from obtaining advanced training in the sciences and other fields in many of our country’s colleges and universities. We are still grappling with the consequences of those atrocities. Given those terrible and far-reaching deprivations and their analogues in other social spheres, we should not be at all surprised about the dearth of Blacks in the academic pipelines for higher education.
I am not discounting the danger of ongoing racial discrimination against Black academics. We certainly need to be on guard to the possibility that whites are getting the nod over equally or better qualified or promising Black candidates on account of subtle sentiments—“familiarity,” “comfort”—that are difficult to identify and expose. In the institutions with which I am most familiar, however, there is more discrimination in favor of Blacks at the point of hiring than discrimination against them. That is why I have no compunction at all in urging skilled, ambitious Blacks to pursue careers in academia: Opportunity beckons.
Alas, even when academic gatekeepers do put a thumb on the scale to assist Black candidates, hiring rates at some places remain disappointingly low. Institutions that would very much like to hire an African American for this or that position find themselves facing a situation in which suitable candidates are simply unavailable to them. Some institutions, for a variety of reasons—commendable and deplorable—hire Black candidates that are not suitably skilled. But doing so exacerbates problems that have all too often given affirmative action a bad odor, especially at institutions unable to attract the best Black candidates.
Positive racial discrimination at our colleges and universities has made important contributions that have helped to break down the pervasive anti-Black hierarchy that reigned in higher education in the middle of the 20th century. Now, though, we need to shift to novel strategies that will attain the needed new benefits and avoid some of the heavy burdens of the established affirmative action or diversity programs.
DSJ: In your essay “Race and the Politics of Memorialization,” you say there are very good reasons for continuing the memorialization of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton and that you preferred to keep the name of the Wilson School of Public and International Affairs as is. Can you explain these reasons, especially since you attended Princeton as an undergrad?
RK: There were good reasons to remove Wilson’s name and good reasons to retain it. I can live comfortably with either result, so long as the entire matter is aired out fully. It bears noting that over several decades there was an array of strong, impressive, outspoken Black people at Princeton who were well aware of Wilson’s record, but who did not seem to find his memorialization at the school a matter of major significance. I have in mind Toni Morrison, Anthony Appiah, Valerie Smith (who occupied a chaired professorship named after Wilson), and Cornel West (who was awarded and accepted a prize named after another racial villain, James Madison). Some who demanded the demotion of Wilson acted as if they had made a grand discovery about his racism. They had not. Others who were well aware of Wilson’s racist record had interpreted the school’s memorialization of him in a manner that permitted them to go about their business without feeling the intolerable psychological burdens regarding which some protesters loudly complained. I am glad that dissidents have shaken the complacency that surrounded memorialization at Princeton and lots of other places. I fear, though, that they are driving their point over the proverbial cliff.
DSJ: When it comes to making such arguments, critics like Derrick Bell and others have expressed concern that they can all too easily be weaponized by those on the right, or more stealthily used by white academics and administrators to cover for inherent biases. How do you respond to this criticism, especially given the current moment, when critical race theory has become a term of widespread public debate?
RK: I try to be as careful as I can in the presentation of my ideas. I know, however, that once an idea is out there, others will run with it according to their aims, regardless of my desires. Many people (including me, for a time) criticized Derrick Bell and Ta-Nehisi Coates on the ground that their pessimism would be enervating and thus possibly depress activism. I think now that such a critique is off-base. A commentator should be assessed in terms of the insightfulness of what they say, not in terms of how some people might use what they say.
DSK: One person in your book who receives considerable attention is the historian Eric Foner. How has he influenced your work?
RK: I have been deeply influenced by Eric Foner. We share a common indebtedness to Richard Hofstadter, who was his dissertation adviser and the subject of my college senior thesis. I consider Eric to be an exemplary intellectual: a prolific writer who contributes across a wide range of forums, from magazines to newspapers to books; a legendarily caring teacher; and an engaged participant in the ideological struggles of his lifetime.
Eric has also been a good friend. I feel the same sense of gratitude and admiration toward him that he has expressed in assessing the formidable English historian Eric Hobsbawm.
I do not approach Eric’s work uncritically, however; a critical stance is necessary to take another’s work seriously. It just so happens that the piece on Foner’s work that is included in Say It Loud! is thoroughly laudatory—appropriately so given the subject, Reconstruction, a topic regarding which Foner has displayed singular mastery.
DSJ: In the early 1980s, you clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall, and in the book you offer an insider’s perspective on the man and his legacy. At one point, you raise the question of whether Marshall was properly criticized for waiting too long to retire. You raise this question not only in light of him being replaced by Clarence Thomas but also given Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s decision not to retire during the Obama administration. Why have liberal Supreme Court justices had such a difficult time knowing when to leave the bench?
RK: It is unclear to me why some liberal justices have been so politically irresponsible in deciding when to retire. Justice Ginsburg’s selfishness will forever stain her admirable record. Justice Stephen Breyer’s decision to hang on to his seat is similarly discrediting. Let’s hope that it turns out to be less disastrous.
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