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Scholar Randall Kennedy's reflections on race, culture and law in America

People raise their fists during a demonstration near the George Floyd Memorial in Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 18, 2021 after the shooting death of Daunte Wright. (Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images)
People raise their fists during a demonstration near the George Floyd Memorial in Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 18, 2021 after the shooting death of Daunte Wright. (Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images)

For decades, scholar Randall Kennedy has been writing about race, culture and the law.

“We are certainly much further from the racial promised land than I had thought that we were,” he says. “The forces of racism are deeper, stronger, more influential than one would like.”

And yet, Kennedy doesn’t think today’s young activists have a winning strategy.

“You need a big tent to advance your political agenda. You need to bring on board people who are not already on your side,” he adds. “Do not needlessly alienate people. If that’s respectability politics, count me in.”

Today, On Point: Randall Kennedy on race, culture and the law across generations.

Guests

Randall Kennedy, law professor at Harvard University. Author of “Say It Loud! On Race, Law, History, and Culture.”

Also Featured

Brittney Cooper, associate professor of women’s gender, sexuality and Africana studies at Rutgers University. Author of “Feminist AF.” (@ProfessorCrunk)

Jenn Jackson, assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University. (@JennMJacksonPhD)

Interview Highlights

On the language Professor Kennedy uses to write about race in American life

“Straightforward language, and the language that doesn’t bow to arbiters of taste that really don’t know much about our history. So I was quite aware that there would be some people who might take offense. For instance, at me using the word Negro. [In] fact, I have an essay in the book about the way in which Black Americans have named and renamed themselves over the course of American history.

“And that essay was prompted by a student who complained about my use of the word Negro. And among the things I said to the student was that I started using the word Negro quite often in 1983, 1984 because of the directive of my boss. Who was my boss? My boss was Mr. Civil Rights, Justice Thurgood Marshall. He used the word Negro. He used the word Negro. W.E.B. Du Bois used the word Negro. Martin Luther King Jr. used the word Negro. Medgar Evers used the word Negro. Rosa Parks used the word Negro. If those folks could use the word Negro, it’s good enough for me.”

On racial optimism and pessimism 

“Sometimes you’re wrong about things, and sometimes you change your mind. And in these essays, I say when I think I’m wrong and I fess up, Yeah, I’ve changed my mind about things. The first essay is an essay about racial optimism and pessimism in American life. And for most of my adult life, I’ve been a pretty confident optimist, and I have actually chided the pessimists. And when I say optimist, I basically have been a believer in the idea that we shall overcome.

“And I’ve been very critical of those who took the position that, no, we shall not overcome. Well, I’ve been chastened. I’m still an optimist, but I’m a shaken optimist. I’m no longer as confident as I used to be. And you know, why is that? That’s largely because of the last few years, most particularly the ascension of Donald Trump, who trafficked in racism, and was very successful in doing so. After all, he made it to the White House. So I’m certainly willing to change in light of new information.”

On the definition of ‘Black respectability politics’ 

“The civil rights movement was very important in my household, so the heroes and heroines of my household were people like Thurgood Marshall, people like Rosa Parks, people like John Lewis, people like James Farmer. And those folks practiced what I refer to as respectability politics.

“And what I mean by that is they were attentive to the way in which they came off to the public. And they were attentive to the way that they came off to the public because they wanted to bring people over to their side. They knew that they are a minority. They are in some places, a despised minority. They needed friends, they needed allies. And so they comported themselves accordingly. That’s all I mean by respectability politics.”

On Rosa Parks as an example of respectability politics

“If you’re waging a struggle against racism in America, you’re going to have to be pragmatic. You can’t be sentimental. You have to be careful and pragmatic. So I said, let’s take a look at what happened in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. One of the great moments in American history. E.D. Nixon, who was the main civil rights leader there, he was the person who actually picked Martin Luther King Jr. to be the spokesperson for the movement. He was looking for somebody to be the standard bearer for the Black people of Montgomery.

“And you’re right, there were a couple of people who were arrested for not giving up a seat. But he said, You know, I can’t use them for various reasons. You know, there’s something in there. They’ve got skeletons in their closet that if they are the standard bearer, the white power structure is going to discredit them in various ways. But then Rosa Parks was arrested and E.D. Nixon said, Hot Dog, now we’ve got our person. And Martin Luther King Jr. said that too in his first speech as a civil rights leader. He said, I’m sorry anybody had to be arrested. But if someone had to be arrested, it’s good that it’s Rosa Parks. Because everybody knows Rosa Parks, and everybody knows how upstanding Rosa Parks is.

“Well, that was respectability politics, and that was a good thing. Now, I’m not going to embrace every instance in which so-called respectability politics has been embraced. Because after all, there were some people who said that it was disreputable to be arrested. There was some people who thought that Bayard Rustin, because he was gay, was disreputable. So we have to be careful in our thinking about respectability politics. Of course, we have to be careful. But the idea of thinking about our words, thinking about our strategies, thinking about the way in which we comport ourselves, that it seems to me is just a straightforward, simple politics 101. Frankly, it should not be controversial.”

On lessons from the Black Lives Matter movement, and why we all have to listen more carefully

“I thought that the Black Lives Matter movement on the whole, I applauded. There were some instances, however, in which you had people who were obviously sympathetic to Black Lives Matter, they were obviously sympathetic. And then they would be talking, and then they would say something like, Yeah, I’m totally down for Black Lives Matter. Because of course, all lives matter. And then they would be booed. Then things would be thrown at them. It was as if you simply said all lives matter, that was verboten. And it seemed to me [a] mistake.

“Listen, what these people are saying is, of course, all lives matter, including Black lives. And to the extent that Black lives have been minimized, that’s a bad thing. Black Lives Matter, punctuation mark. Again, people should not grasp on to marginal rhetorical quote mistakes and be put in the doghouse. What we need to do is listen carefully to people, and actually have a rather generous attitude toward folks. If folks are trying to inch toward racial decency, let them, for goodness sakes.”

Book excerpt from Say It Loud! by Randall Kennedy

Excerpted from Say It Loud! by Randall Kennedy. Copyright © 2021 by Randall Kennedy. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

From The Reading List

The American Prospect:The Right-Wing Attack on Racial Justice Talk – The American Prospect” — “Forces on the political right—Donald Trump and his epigones, Fox News, the Manhattan Institute, The Wall Street Journal, among others—have engaged in a fierce, concerted, and effective effort to vilify dissident thinkers who are trying to deepen, sharpen, and reframe ways in which racial matters are portrayed and discussed.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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