The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A scholar of race relations says he’s now less optimistic

Harvard professor Randall Kennedy cites the election of Donald Trump as the main reason some of his own positions have changed: “The fealty he elicits reveals and reinforces ugly racial attitudes that are considerably more prevalent, deep-seated, and influential than I had recognized.” (Photo by Katye Martens Brier for The Washington Post)

“Say It Loud!: On Race, Law, History, and Culture” is Randall Kennedy’s latest contribution to his sophisticated body of work documenting the race problem in the United States. First a note of caution for readers familiar with James Brown’s influential song: Despite its title, “Say It Loud” isn’t a book about Black pride. Indeed, in a chapter devoted to the topic, Kennedy tells us that, strictly speaking, Brown’s memorable proclamation — “I’m Black and I’m proud” — is problematic because we should not feel pride in something we inherit. Just as it is inappropriate for the rich to feel pride in their inherited wealth, so too is it inappropriate for anyone to feel pride in their inherited race. Personal achievement, he posits, is the correct token for pride.

Kennedy’s book, consisting of 29 chapters of new and previously published work, is saturated with arguments of this kind. One of the leading authorities on race relations in the United States, Kennedy has a knack for making others’ seemingly sophisticated ideas look immature. And that skill is on full display here.

Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School, is at his best when paving a middle road between left- and right-wing political positions that nonextremists could comfortably accept. He recognizes the persistent racial injustice in America and criticizes a conservative Supreme Court for crippling some of our social advancements. Yet he does not follow liberals in their calls to abolish the police, denounce all memorializations of past racists on campuses or penalize instructors who enunciate “nigger” for pedagogical purposes, as he wrote in a Washington Post piece in May. He correctly notes that there is a “double sidedness of policing” — Black people in this country are paradoxically both over- and under-policed.

And Kennedy doesn’t have much tolerance for hagiography of any sort: He thinks we wrongly praise revolutionaries such as Nat Turner and Stokely Carmichael, and he eschews treating Supreme Court justices as if they are deep legal thinkers who deserve special deference. (“Prior to his nomination to the Supreme Court,” Kennedy asserts, “Judge Anthony Kennedy would not have been considered a plausible candidate for a professorship at any of the most elite law schools.”) With his wit, sharpness and compelling prose, Kennedy provides another book that readers will surely appreciate, whether or not they are persuaded by his arguments.

What readers could overlook, however, is the much-appreciated attempt of “Say It Loud” to get things right. Rather than doubling down on his well-known earlier positions, Kennedy humbly acknowledges his changed opinions after thinking about our messy social relationships for many decades. His tone in his opening chapter on optimism and pessimism in African American racial thought, for instance, is a bit less roaring than the 2014 essay in which he confidently expressed his conviction that a “clear-eyed assessment” favored Black optimism. Citing Americans’ support for Donald Trump’s presidential bid as the primary reason for his change of heart, Kennedy now writes: “The fealty he elicits reveals and reinforces ugly racial attitudes that are considerably more prevalent, deep-seated, and influential than I had recognized, even after decades of studying the race question. I am thus no longer a confident optimist.” The more modest goal now, says Kennedy, is not the racial egalitarianism he hoped for but what he calls “racial decency” — a less-ambitious aim that seeks to keep society “free from newly imposed racial humiliations even if the scars of past racial wrongs remain evident.”

Kennedy shows similar backpedaling when discussing his complicated relationship with Derrick Bell, a former Harvard Law professor and pioneer of critical race theory, whom Kennedy considered a mentor, friend and — perhaps most notably — adversary. Describing Bell, who died in 2011, as “prescient,” he concedes that Bellian pessimism would have better anticipated the conservative backlash after Barack Obama’s presidency than Kennedy’s own optimism. And he repents for failing to support Black academics who were strong candidates for an academic spot at his law school and for failing to repudiate a controversial Harvard Law School policy: “Derrick Bell did. I wish that I had.”

Kennedy also now declares that he was wrong in his prior reluctance to call Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas a sellout. “If Thomas is not a sellout,” Kennedy writes, “then the term has no utility.”

It is remarkable to see Kennedy’s changed opinion on matters of race — but it’s not surprising. The deflated optimism on display in “Say It Loud” has, unfortunately, become somewhat of a commiseration for many Black leaders who spend decades trying to avoid succumbing to racial pessimism because they would like to see a better America. Recall, for example, the minister Henry McNeal Turner, who pointed to the American flag and declared to newly freed people in 1866 that “we can claim the protection of the Stars and Stripes.” By 1906, Turner had switched gears: “I used to love what I thought was the grand old flag, and sing with ecstasy about the Stars and Stripes, but to the Negro in this country the American flag is a dirty and contemptible rag. Not a star in it can the colored man claim.” Or consider the Black psychologist Kenneth Clark, who provided pivotal testimony about the harmful effects of segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education. Years after the opinion, he wrote in his remorseful memoir: “Reluctantly, I am forced to face the likely possibility that the United States will never rid itself of racism and reach true integration. . . . I am forced to recognize that my life has, in fact, been a series of glorious defeats.”

These shifts reflect the failure of this country to live up to its promise to Black Americans. Kennedy’s pragmatic acceptance of decent compromises, then, conveys the toll of a career persuasively advocating for a racial promised land.

Still, reading Kennedy’s takes on disparate issues across 29 chapters makes the reader wonder whether there is coherency to his positions. In one chapter, Kennedy endorses what he calls a “shoe-on-the-other-foot test,” proposing that if a practice is objectionable if implemented by a White person, there should be a strong presumption that the practice is objectionable if implemented by a Black person. Yet in another chapter he condemns the “myopic formalism” of Chief Justice John Roberts (who notoriously declared, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race”) — a view that fails to appreciate when racial distinctions are appropriate.

Or recall Kennedy’s claim that race is something “inherited” and therefore not something in which one should feel pride. In other chapters, though, race appears to have a more volitional hue, and people are “black by choice with a recognized right of resignation.”

In one of the more head-scratching moments of “Say It Loud,” Kennedy urges us to consider, when deciding whether to continue to memorialize those whose views we now condemn, that “people sometimes change.” Discussing Woodrow Wilson’s remembrance in particular, Kennedy charitably speculates that “perhaps by dint of some miraculous feat of time travel he would apologize now for his racist acts.” Fair enough. But the “people sometimes change” view is severely diminished by his criticism — in the paragraph right before, no less — of professor Cornel West’s solidarity with people who call for commemorative renaming, because West accepted Princeton’s James Madison Medal (named after another person with repugnant views) in 1996. I find it hard to make sense of Kennedy’s willingness to bring out the “Back to the Future” props to give Wilson a pass while calling out West for not publicly condemning Princeton’s practices more than two decades ago.

But a central thesis of the book appears to be that the volatility of our race relations calls for seemingly contradictory solutions. Kennedy proudly tells his readers that he will embrace ambiguity: “I luxuriate in the messiness. I savor the paradox and irony.” Still, by taking delight in such clutter, Kennedy gives himself a pass to compose a suite of seemingly paradoxical positions. And for those who come to this book looking for principles for Black empowerment, or even a consistent proposal for tackling the most fundamental social issues of our time, that pronouncement is — well, to quote another classic song from the Godfather of Soul — “Out of Sight.”

Say It Loud!

On Race, Law, History, and Culture

By Randall Kennedy

510 pp. $30