Choosing Sides

Reviewed by Peniel E. Joseph
Sunday, January 13, 2008


The Politics of Racial Betrayal

By Randall Kennedy

Pantheon. 228 pp. $22


The Democratic Party's Buried Past

By Bruce Bartlett

Palgrave Macmillan. 268 pp. $26.95

In a 1963 speech Malcolm X distilled black America's long history of social and political struggle into two simple yet enduring composites: House Negroes and Field Negroes. Field Negroes bore the brunt of racial oppression from antebellum slavery to the civil rights era's high tide, while House Negroes craved white approval, shared secrets with racial oppressors and generally aided and abetted white supremacy. They were the race traitors, the sellouts, the Uncle Toms.

"Suspicions regarding racial betrayal continue to be omnipresent," writes Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy in his slim but thought-provoking Sellout, which challenges conventional understanding of what exactly constitutes racial betrayal. American history is filled with instances in which prominent, successful blacks have been categorized as race traitors. While Booker T. Washington is often regarded as the quintessential "sellout" by some critics, prominent figures such as W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey also found their allegiance to black progress under question despite seemingly unassailable records as iconic "race men."

Kennedy seeks to complicate standard discussions of racial betrayal by questioning the underlying assumptions behind such accusations. Were slaves who informed about plans for impending rebellion Uncle Toms or pragmatists unwilling to sacrifice friends and family for insurrections that seemed doomed to failure? What are we to make of civil rights era informers who collaborated with segregationists in opposition to Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists? For Kennedy, blacks who would be considered "sellouts" during the 1960s and '70s for informing on civil rights and Black Power-styled organizations have been at least partially vindicated by historical evidence suggesting that "alongside the noble figures and exemplary deeds of the Second Reconstruction, however, were base criminals and appalling misconduct that warranted governmental intervention." This is a bold and provocative charge, one that merits the support of more than just Hugh Pearson's controversial polemic, The Shadow of the Panther.

The book's longest section addresses the man many would consider the quintessential racial sellout: Clarence Thomas. While taking pains to distance himself from the conservative justice's legal opinions, Kennedy paints a sympathetic portrait of Thomas as an able jurist, keen thinker and, after a fashion, "race man" who cites "a greater number and wider array of black thinkers than any other justice in the history of the Supreme Court." This leads to an appropriate question: If Thomas cannot be considered a sellout, who can? Only those blacks who have purposefully tried to impugn other African Americans.

Kennedy's efforts to place a more rigorous litmus test on accusations of racial treachery are rooted in his politics and his personal experience. The book's epilogue offers his poignant admission that he has often been accused of being a race traitor, something that his penchant for describing blacks as "Negroes" will do nothing to allay. His advice to young black Harvard law students to resist the need to pay "excessive racial dues" illustrates a particular kind of unease, one that wrestles with individual ambitions versus group advancement. Kennedy's book, in effect, serves as a kind of elegy for the state of mind of a particular group of black elites forced by Jim Crow to choose group advancement but now able to follow their personal ambitions.

The subject of a different kind of racial treason animates Bruce Bartlett's Wrong On Race, which condemns the Democratic party for having sold out black Americans from its inception. Bartlett, a former adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, begins with the premise that "virtually every significant racist in American political history was a Democrat" in order to trace how the party has managed to hide its past while shifting much of the blame for racial animus onto contemporary Republicans. Through a sweeping overview that ranges from iconic Democrats such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson to the more obscure demagoguery of the 19th-century South Carolina politician Ben Tillman, Bartlett argues that the Democratic Party is filled with a veritable rogues gallery of anti-black racists. Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt are portrayed as racial reactionaries who, respectively, advocated segregation in the federal workforce and supported the internment of Japanese Americans based on race. Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon are singled out as underappreciated racial egalitarians, while John F. Kennedy is accused of advocating a civil rights perspective "more conservative than Eisenhower's."

Popular wisdom generally attributes the Republican Party's post civil rights success to its appeal to anxious whites, but Bartlett argues that the notion of Nixon's Southern strategy is a "myth" that conflates economic and political transformations with racial ones. It follows that although Ronald Reagan is acknowledged as having a "political tin ear" for black issues, he was hardly some kind of racist. This, of course, ignores Reagan's infamous 1980 "states' rights" speech to a virtually all white audience in Neshoba County, Miss., the site of the tragic murders of three civil rights workers in 1964.

Both Kennedy's account of racial sellouts and Bartlett's chronicle of the Democratic Party's sordid past illustrate contemporary efforts to grapple with racism's legacy. This is a daunting, even thankless, task, especially in light of the nation's unwillingness to come to terms with its history of racial slavery. Black sensitivity to racial betrayal springs directly out of that history, as does the Democratic Party's crudely effective race-baiting, echoes of which infuse the modern day Republican Party's racial pandering. These books offer illuminating evidence that, despite great marks of progress, race's stranglehold on the nation's collective conscious remains as strong as ever -- its hold on the lives of citizens, political institutions and our democracy made no less insidious by the fact that, in the post civil rights-black power era, its staying power is less openly discussed. *

Peniel E. Joseph teaches African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University. He is the author of "Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America."

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