Kennedy Mulls Meaning of Being Branded a 'Sellout'

After his book, which contained the N-word in its title, was used in a hate crimes trial, Harvard professor Randall Kennedy was labeled a "sellout" among his peers. It inspired the author to write his latest book, Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, which examines the charges of being disloyal, or exploiting one's own ethnic group.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

A few years ago, Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy stunned many readers when he published a book with the N word in the title. Professor Kennedy said his intention was to dissect the historical, political and societal value of the word. And that analysis got all the more attention when it was used as part of a hate crimes trial. But it raised the ire of some who call Professor Kennedy a sellout - somebody who would say anything to profit from the black community.

Professor Kennedy's new book is entitled - perhaps not coincidentally -"Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal." In it, he looks at the concept, its application against targets as wide ranging as abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. As one who has been the target of the term himself, his defense of it in some circumstances may be surprising.

His book came out yesterday. To discuss this idea, he joins me now from member station WBUR in Boston. Professor Kennedy, welcome.

Professor RANDALL KENNEDY (Author, "Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal"): Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Are you just trying to push people's buttons?

Prof. KENNEDY: Yes, to a certain extent. If they're interesting buttons and productive discussion will arise from pushing certain buttons, sure.

MARTIN: What got you interested in this?

Prof. KENNEDY: Well, a lot - very important subject. The very first line of the book is the specter of the sellout haunts the African-American imagination. And I think that's very true.

We're in the middle of presidential campaign, and one of the most important people in that campaign, of course, is Barack Obama. And Barack Obama has had to deal with doubts about his loyalty to blackness throughout his campaign. And I don't think this is accidental. I don't think it's a big surprise.

Any successful black person will have to face suspicion within his or her own community about his or her loyalty to other blacks. And this arises high and low throughout the black community. And so I think it's an important subject.

MARTIN: Why is that?

Prof. KENNEDY: Well, in part, because every group behaves this way. I mean, the United States of America behaves this way. Every group is worried about maintaining solidarity, so every group is on the lookout for free riders. See, for instance, the Internal Revenue Service getting at people who don't pay their societal dues. Well, you know, black people get at the black people who are deemed not to be paying their racial dues. My book is concerned with the way in which this operates with respect to blacks.

MARTIN: I was intrigued to read of the fact that Frederick Douglass, for example, was regarded as a sellout, was criticized when he married a white woman. His second wife was white. And I didn't realize that had caused such an outcry, particularly among African-Americans, given that, you know, he'd done so much to advance the cause of black freedom.

Prof. KENNEDY: It caused a tremendous uproar. And, of course, it's happened subsequently in the late 1940s, when Walter White, who was the executive director of the NAACP, when he married a white woman, that caused an uproar as well.

MARTIN: Have the standards changed for what makes somebody a sellout in the -kind of the popular conversation?

Prof. KENNEDY: Yeah, I think it's changed. Ironically, I think that the anxiety about sellouts maybe has grown even more intense of late with the opening up of the society.

I mean, there was a time not so long ago when black people, regardless of their wealth, had to live among other black people or had to socialize with other black people. Segregation, in a sense, helped create and maintain black solidarity.

Well, with the melting of segregation, with the opening up of society, people can, you know, live where they want, if their bank accounts can sustain it. They can have many sorts of friends or intimate associations. And so, to the extent that people can live away from the black community more now, those who are concerned about black solidarity are even more concerned than they used to be.

MARTIN: It's probably not surprising, given that your whole mission here is to challenge conventional thinking on issues like the N word and, in this book, sellout. So it's probably not surprising that you'd defend behavior and people that other people commonly refer to as sellouts.

There's one hypothetical you give, where you give a theoretical example of the slave who tells the master of an upcoming slave rebellion. And you say, well, this may look like a betrayal. You go on to explain that perhaps there are other factors that lead to that decision, like, for example, that the plans were deficient, that the rebellion would not only fail, but could result in, you know, terrible consequences for everybody.

But, go ahead. I mean, I'm just intrigued by this. Because isn't it reasonable to say that that is the definition of a sellout? Somebody who's making a judgment as an individual against the interest of a whole, taking it upon himself to do something that has consequences for the whole group without their permission and without their consensus?

Prof. KENNEDY: Well, you know, one of the things that makes the idea of the sellout so difficult is determining what's in the interests of a group. So I think the paradigmatic sellout, the one where you would think there would be the most consensus - the idea of the slave who informs on an upcoming slave rebellion or plans for slave rebellion. You know, I thought, well, you know, what about the case of the slave who tells? But not in the order to gain his own freedom. Not in the order to gain, you know, some money, but in order to protect the community. Or to go to real life, in the 1920s, there were blacks who participated in the prosecution of Marcus Garvey. They were later asked, well, why did you do this? And some of them said, well, we did it because we thought Marcus Garvey was leading black people astray. Well, if they were sincere - now, maybe they weren't sincere - but if they were sincere, how do you judge them?

MARTIN: But other groups don't apply that standard to issues like treason, for example, that there are persons who have spied for countries with whom they had a deep sympathy. But…

Prof. KENNEDY: Well, I think it gets very difficult, actually. I do think, for instance, that there is such a thing as a race traitor. And here I disagree with people with whom I'm generally sympathetic. But are there lines which demarcate the interests of a group? Yeah, I think there are certain lines. Let's…

MARTIN: So you're saying somebody might actually be a sellout?

Prof. KENNEDY: Yes, I am. That's right. And so I don't want to jettison the category all together.

MARTIN: Why not?

Prof. KENNEDY: Why not jettison it?

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

Prof. KENNEDY: Because I think you have to have it if you're going to have a group. As soon as you say that there is a community called, let's say, black Americans, you've immediately created a boundary line - who's in that group, who's outside that group. And so it seems to me that any time you have any group, you have created the predicate for a traitor to the group.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're speaking with Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy about his latest book, "Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal."

So who qualifies?

Prof. KENNEDY: Imagine a black person who wants to hurt other black people because they are black.

MARTIN: Wouldn't that be more likely to be an unconscious thing?

Prof. KENNEDY: I think it would be very unlikely. And, in fact, some people who've read my book criticize it and say that I make being a sellout so difficult that I essentially create a null set. There's nobody who's really going to be a sellout. And to that…

MARTIN: The bar is just too high. Nobody can meet it.

Prof. KENNEDY: In a way. And I plead guilty to that. And that doesn't bother me. I think that's actually a good thing. Isn't it a good thing that in, for instance, American public life, I can't think of a prominent black American who, in my view, should be termed a sellout?

MARTIN: You think the intention…

Prof. KENNEDY: (unintelligible)

MARTIN: …you're saying intention is critical. The person has to intend to do harm.

Prof. KENNEDY: Well, I think intention is very important. But even apart from that, the whole question of what's in the interests of a community is so difficult to pin down - the black community is a huge community. There's lots of different conceptions of what's good for that community.

MARTIN: What about for people who are just determinately opposed to what is known to be a black-political consensus? Because there are political consensus, whether everybody agrees with them or not to a hundred percent certainty, because that's certainly not the case. But something like affirmative action. African-Americans generally support it. And if you've got somebody like, let's say, a Ward Connerly who determinately opposes - and doesn't just opposedit -campaigns against it, even though he is himself of color and many people consider has benefited from affirmative action himself in his business dealings. What about him?

Prof. KENNEDY: Let me switch things. The longest chapter in the book is devoted to Clarence Thomas. I disagree - I think people should disagree with Ward Connerly, or should disagree with Clarence Thomas. On the question of a consensus, no, I don't think so. I mean, if you take a look, for instance, at polling data, there's always been an appreciable black presence among those who are against affirmative action. If they're against affirmative action, I think, you know, they're wrong. But I don't think you can just sort of take a look at that particular issue and come to the conclusion that they are engaged in a traitorous activity, vis-a-vis black people.

MARTIN: Well, talk to me about Clarence Thomas, because, as you pointed out, it is the longest chapter in the book. And you raise a rhetorical question in the book, front and center, that if he is not - you say, some would ask, if he is not a sellout, then who is? So, take the question.

Prof. KENNEDY: Yeah. Well, with respect to Clarence Thomas, Clarence Thomas takes positions which, first of all, have appreciable black support - if we're talking about the administration of criminal justice, if we're talking about affirmative action, if we're talking about the place of religion in American life, if we're talking about abortion - there are substantial numbers of black people who are social conservatives who embrace Clarence Thomas' position.

MARTIN: But I think the issue arises from the fact that he is deemed to have benefited from the very policies and attitudes which he criticizes.

Prof. KENNEDY: Yeah. I…

MARTIN: And which he works to eliminate through his position on the court.

Prof. KENNEDY: Yeah. And I don't think that's a good argument at all. Yes, he benefited from affirmative action. By the way, he denies it, but I think that that's just laughable. He obviously has benefited from affirmative action. But I don't think that's any reason - just because he's benefited from it doesn't disable him or ought not be viewed as disabling him from criticizing it. All white people in the United States have benefited from a white supremacy. But does that mean that a white person should be viewed badly because they turn against a white supremacist policy? Just because you've benefited from something shouldn't disable you from repudiating it. So I don't think that's a good argument.

Clarence Thomas takes socially conservative positions. And if you don't agree with those positions, it seems to me that you should say why they are wrong. But it's not right, it seems to me, to call Clarence Thomas a race traitor. For one thing, he very much views himself as a race man. It's sort of ironic because, you know, half the time he's talking about the color-blind constitution, the color-blind constitution, the color-blind constitution. But then in the other part of his speeches, he talks about, you know, as a black man, I think my policies are good for black people.

MARTIN: He values his membership in the group, even if others don't.

Prof. KENNEDY: He does. He does. He definitely values his membership. And, in fact, his anger at the organizations and people who have attempted to put him out is almost evidence of the extent to which he really - he wants to be viewed as a race man.

MARTIN: So if you want to be in, you can't be out?

Prof. KENNEDY: Well, no. I mean, you've asked a good question. I mean, intention cannot be all. But I would say with respect to Clarence Thomas, it's not only that he intends to benefit black people. That's one aspect of why I would say he should not be viewed as a sellout. But the second thing is the whole question of what's in the best interest of black people is very controversial.

MARTIN: What…

Prof. KENNEDY: And against that backdrop, I don't think that there is enough of a consensus to allow us to say that, gosh, if you're against this policy, then, you know, that's going too far.

MARTIN: It's that old argument, like, when did you all get together to vote on this?

Prof. KENNEDY: In a way.

MARTIN: What committee appoint - who appointed you to the committee?

Prof. KENNEDY: Well, that's one difference between the United States of America and a group like black Americans. The United States does have a system in which, you know, there's a Congress and there are bills and the president, you know, signs a bill and it then becomes a law. There is no authoritative black Sanhedrin. And I'm glad.

MARTIN: But by that standard, then, why not just discard the term and say, look, you're not qualified to use it? There's nobody who's been appointed to the committee.

Prof. KENNEDY: And I'm very sympathetic to that. The only hang up for me is really a theoretical one. And that is if you're going to have a group, that means that there must be some sort of boundary line which defines that group. And as soon as you have a boundary line that defines that group, you have something that's beyond the boundary. Beyond the (unintelligible).

MARTIN: But you can't think of anybody who applies. You can't think of anybody African-American who applies, at least, that I could see in the book. However…

Prof. KENNEDY: Well, I - no, I gave an example. Or at least I hypothesize. What about a black person who infiltrates the NAACP on behalf of the Ku Klux Klan? And, of course, there have been such people in, you know, in American life. In the 1960s, there were black Americans, for instance, who infiltrated black groups on behalf of, for instance, the segregationist Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. There's certainly…

MARTIN: Was that voluntary? Or was it under duress?

Prof. KENNEDY: Oh, no. It was voluntary. It was voluntary. They wanted to make money.

MARTIN: Talk to me about how you came to engage this particular question so deeply. You've talked about some of your meetings with black law students and how this term weighs on them.

Prof. KENNEDY: Yeah. There were two autobiographical points here. One is being on the receiving end of the sellout indictment, as you indicated in your introduction.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. KENNEDY: Yes, I have been called a sellout. I've been called a sellout for a variety of reasons.

MARTIN: Among other things - some of which aren't NPR-worthy. But…

Prof. KENNEDY: Right. But a second reason did have to do with my work. I'm a law professor at Harvard law school. And over the past - I've been there 24 years now - and over the past two decades, I've, over and over, seen black law students weighed down by an angst or sometimes a guilt regarding their elite status, regarding their success, instead of feeling good about what they're doing as newly minted lawyers. I've come into contact with many black law students who feel burdened, who feel guilty. I think that this worry about, you know, giving back, paying back, has become actually dysfunctional. There are lots of different ways of contributing to the world, and I think people ought to not worry so much about that collective burden, but should seek to maximize their individual talents. And I think if they do that and they're decent people, things will pan out in the end.

MARTIN: Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy is the author of "Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal." His book came out yesterday, and he joined us from member station WBUR in Boston.

Professor Kennedy, thank you so much.

Prof. KENNEDY: Thanks so much for having me on.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Let's talk more tomorrow.

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