Black, White, and Many Shades of Gray

Black, White, and Many Shades of Gray

Harvard Magazine
May-June 2013

Craig Lambert

Randall Kennedy probes the “variousness” of charged racial issues.

In The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, David Remnick relates a story from Obama’s first year at Harvard Law School, when he registered for “Race, Racism, and American Law,” a course taught by Randall Kennedy, now Klein professor of law. “Kennedy had caused some controversy, writing critically in The New Republic and elsewhere about some aspects of affirmative action,” Remnick relates. “At the first class, Obama [J.D. ’91] and [his friend Cassandra] Butts, [J.D. ’91] watched as a predictable debate unfolded between black students who objected to Kennedy’s critique and students on the right, almost all white, who embraced it. Obama feared a semester-long shout-fest. He dropped the course.” Thus Kennedy never taught the future president, although he did instruct Michelle LaVaughn Robinson [subsequently, Obama], J.D. ’88, who also did research for him.

A “semester-long shout-fest” may be hyperbolic, but Kennedy admits, “Yes, those classes were very contentious. I structured them that way.” It wasn’t hard: Kennedy, an African American himself, consistently introduced the kinds of racial issues—such as “reverse discrimination” against whites—that explode like hand grenades in an interracial classroom. “Should there be a right to a multiracial jury?” he asks, smiling. “Boom!”

Kennedy is “the kind of professor who thrives on iconoclasm, defying the embedded expectations of his students,” according to one of them, Brad Berenson, J.D. ’91, a member of the White House Counsel’s Office under George W. Bush and now a vice president of litigation and legal policy at General Electric. “Whether this comes from Randy’s convictions, or from playing devil’s advocate, it makes him hard to pin down or characterize. He’s a great example of the inquiring mind of an academic, someone who is willing to question dogmas and encourage his students to do the same.”…

… Two major themes run through Kennedy’s work. The title of his 2011 book on racial politics and the Obama presidency, The Persistence of the Color Line, summarizes the first. “The race question has been a deep issue in American life since the beginning and it continues to be a deep, volatile issue,” he says. “I’ve been most concerned about showing racial conflict as it affects the legal system, but you can also analyze how it manifests itself in literature, movies, patterns of dating and marriage, or housing.”

The second theme is that much commentary on race “can be boiled down to two schools of thought: optimistic and pessimistic. The pessimistic school believes that ‘We shall not overcome’—racial animus and prejudice are so deeply embedded that they will never go away. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Malcolm X fell into the pessimistic camp. The optimists, in contrast, feel that, notwithstanding the depth and horror of oppression, there are resources in American society that, deployed intelligently, will allow us to overcome. I put myself in that camp, along with Frederick Douglass, the great [nineteenth-century abolitionist] Wendell Phillips [A.B. 1831, LL.B. 1833], and Martin Luther King. I hope I don’t turn away from the horror, but also hope I try to be attentive to the real fact of change in American life.” …

Read the entire article here.

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