Randall Kennedy: A Change is Gonna Come

A conversation with law professor Randall Kennedy the other night began with his new book Sellout: the Politics of Racial Betrayal . It turned quickly to Barack Obama and ended with a Sam Cooke lyric: “A Change is Gonna Come.”

The dread of “sellouts” in black America is the holdover anxiety of a people with (as the paranoids say) real enemies — from slavery time but also in modern memory when the FBI inflitrated the civil rights movement and the Black Panther Party with paid informants, as the FBI had also planted spies in Marcus Garvey’s movement. Randy Kennedy’s plea — fired in part by his own unhappy experience with a book titled Nigger — is for some expansion of the boundaries in the discourse of changing times. And then along comes Barack Obama in the presidential campaign, smashing categories and changing definitions — of “race men,” among other things — until our heads spin, including Randy Kennedy’s.

Related Content


  • jordon

    I can’t speak for racist whites, suspicious blacks, or old people, but as a 20-something progressive I don’t support Barack Obama because he favors an expansion of the military, a perpetual presence of non-combat troops in Iraq, an health care system that is not single payer.

    This is not to say that I do not find Obama’s multi-culti heritage seductive. If he were saying the same thing John Edwards is (alas, was) saying, I would be a fervent Obama supporter. But for a guy who, as Kennedy accurately points out, has a demonstrated record of fighting for progressive causes, he has certainly watered down his positions since his arrival on the national stage.

    Now, you can argue that he’s just pandering to the masses, that when he comes to office he’ll be the true-blue progressive he was when he was slumming it on the South Side of Chicago. Fair enough. But what that requires of all of us, to borrow an Obama coinage, is an audacity of hope. But I need a little more proof than that, sorry. So for now, I’m not drinking the Obama kool-aid. Like any candidates, he’s gotta earn my vote.

  • Drapetomaniac

    The reason, Professor Kennedy, that Black folks are suspicious of Black men who make white people comfortable is because it usually means when the chips are down, the Black folks get shafted. “Hope and change” are not policy positions, they’re focus group treats designed to get votes. There is strong potential for Mr. Obama to be used AGAINST BLACK PEOPLE. “See, what do they need better schools for, we have a black president, it’s their own fault if they can’t make it.” 1 in 10 black men have Bachelors degrees. If you listen to the way white people talk about Obama it’s not hard to see why they’re so comfortable with him: he lets them off the hook. I mean, racism, it’s so passe right? The Supreme Court just said that race doesn’t really matter in public school assignment. So, for a Black man to pretend that he doesn’t STILL live in one of the most racist countries in the world strikes many thinking Black folks as suspicious at best. Read Derrick Bell’s “Rules of Racial Standing” Professor Kennedy’s comments fit right in line with them and this is not a good thing.

  • So, jordon, which candidate are you inclined towards at the moment? and why?

  • jordon

    I like this line by Drapetomatic: “Hope and change” are not policy positions, they’re focus group treats designed to get votes.

    Here’s another way to put it: Hope floats. So does bullshit.

    flow, with Edwards out, I’m not sure. If I were required to vote for Obama or Clinton, I would choose Obama based on his former record organizing poor people in Chicago, his early opposition to the war, and his near absence of a record in the Senate. (Hasn’t been there long enough to disappoint me.) I also like his positions on technology–for network neutrality, open networks, etc. And, I admit, it would be kind of a cool symbol to have a black guy named Barack Obama as our President.

    However, this is still a free country, and I’m not one of those people who feels that if you don’t vote you can’t gripe. If neither candidate is speaking to your interests, why should you hold your nose and vote for one? So hopefully Obama will begin to talk more about income inequality, corporatization, strengthening unions, curtailing executive power, and adopting more humble foreign policy. Really, if he just stops with the “hope” nonsense and adopts a modicum of Edwards’s substance, I could stand voting for him. But if he’s content to ride the coattails of history into the White House, I will probably sit out this round.

    Then again, there’s always a protest vote for Nader.

    But I want to emphasize that the reason I am so frustrated with Obama is that it’s clear that he has what it takes to be a 21st century progressive. Ironically, as he reaches ever greater heights, he’s underachieving.

  • Drapetomaniac

    This is a reply to Jordon. Do you think he’s underachieving on purpose? I mean, he has the nations’ ear, he could actually *take a risk* and say something meaningful. He’s raised a ton of money, and HE WILL OWE some people after this is all over if he wins. And if he does win, he can’t as Baldwin said, “go for broke.” My white friends all say that he’s got to be “everyones’ president” and this is true. Which-to my mind- means all the progressive stuff is out. The average American cares about poverty in the abstract: some of them wanna help poor people, they just don’t want to sacrifice anything to do it. Cornel West has a nice blurb about Obama on Youtube where he asks three key questions. Obama can’t really answer any of them and that’s about all the analysis I need. I hope, like I think you do, that he’ll start to actually say something soon, but I ain’t holding my breath. If he wins, we’ll be in the very surreal situation of living in a racist country, with a President-of-Color. You can’t make this stuff up.

  • nother

    Pity! Ya’all gonna have to find someone else to pity now (so you can feel better about yourselves), cuz how ya gonna pity a race that boasts the leader of the free world!?

    That is the change afoot, the change that is gonna come.

    “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” – W.E.B Du Bois

    With one fell swoop of swearing-in, there will be an eradication of that double-consciousness. As a society we will still have to come to terms with the symptoms and scabs of its previous prevalence, but the core will be gutted out.

    Randell Kennedy had me thinking of Du Bois when he stressed that Obama has not relinquished his blackness. Some may see it as a paradox that he can be a race man and an American at the same time, but not Du Bois:

    The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit on by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

    Do Bois foresees Barack Obama and the change that he represents.

    “This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius.”

  • jordon

    “If he wins, we’ll be in the very surreal situation of living in a racist country, with a President-of-Color. You can’t make this stuff up.”

    Terrific observation, Drape. Although I would frame it in classist terms and not racist. When you have black folks like Randall Kennedy and Michael Eric Dyson ignoring Obama’s cozy relationship with the liberal elite, this country’s woes transcend mere racial lines (something, by the way, Edwards was trying to tap into).

    Yes, I do think Obama is deliberately watering down his positions. And after a while, that changes you. What started as a compromise becomes normalized, which becomes a character flaw.

    Dismayed, but not surprised, to hear that white folks in your neck of the woods (as in mine) are accepting that to appeal to “everyone” (read: white people) you have to ignore the fundamental flaws of our country.

    I think it’s unfair to place the expectation on Obama that just because he’s black he’s going to be as transformative a figure as MLK. But it’s not unfair to critique his hypocrisy when runs on a platform of “change” but, under scrutiny, his policies reflect anything but.

  • nother

    Martin Luther King, jr.:

    If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.

    -Martin Luther King jr

    I steer my bark with hope in the head, leaving fear astern. My hopes indeed sometimes fail, but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy.

    -Thomas Jefferson (I wonder if TJ got that line from a focus group)

    Once I knew the depth where no hope was, and darkness lay on the face of all things. Then love came and set my soul free. Once I knew only darkness and stillness. Now I know hope and joy.

    – Helen Keller

  • nother

    “If he wins, we’ll be in the very surreal situation of living in a racist country, with a President-of-Color. You can’t make this stuff up.”

    “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

    -Mahatma Gandhi

  • contries are not racist, people are racist.

  • I agree with the comment about classism vs racism. I’ve long wondered if white people gathered up darker skinned people as a servant class to make it easy to distinguish someone from the lower class. Too many of those servant class types infiltrating the ranks in England, you know….

    I’m not black, so I certainly can’t claim to see things through that lens, but I wonder why you believe that Obama has abandoned his work work for the oppressed. In Illinois, where he has an impressive legislative record, he worked on and passed bills to make health care more affordable, make it illegal to do racial profiling, require all interrogations and confessions to be on video (to decrease coerced confessions and unfair treatment against minorities.)

    Though he was raised by his white mother, he grew up with darker skin and has felt the impact of that. I don’t think he’s walking away from all the things that go along with racism. As a new senator at the federal level, he hasn’t had time to dive into things, yet. But no one, not one person, thought he would get that ethics reform bill passed. (His first stab at reducing the influence peddling of the rich.) All of congress was blown away with what he accomplished and how he accomplished it.

    He embodies the archetypal Advocate. I don’t think he can be anything else. This is not the area I have concern about. I don’t like that he supports the death penalty. (Though I like that he’s been fighting to have it more fairly meted out.) I’d like to hear him talking about what he would look for in cabinet members. He doesn’t have to name names, but I’d like to hear how he envisions his cabinet and what qualities he wants different members to bring to the table.

    He’s not perfect. No one is. Gandhi led one of the most impressive political movements in human history and there are scandals told of him. Human is okay with me. I don’t have to agree with everything.

    But this country has been parched for leadership. People have been apathetic because they are dying of thirst. And he’s one tall, inspirational drink of water. You can feel your roots more firmly attached and your trunk standing a bit taller when he speaks. Pour me another one. He’s got my vote. (And I’m no 20-something!)

  • Potter

    I have not read the above comments yet but my reaction to Randall Kennedy’s exclamation that “change is afoot” and “something remarkable” is happening is very mixed. I say that because yes of course something remarkable is happening (or could happen) but the fact that Barack Obama is a black candidate who has a serious chance of becoming President speaks not to his race but to who he is as a person.

    The change, acceptance, I think happened or has been happening all along- it’s not a sudden leap. As Kennedy mentioned we have had Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice. We should not forget our present and past Supreme Court justices, US and state representatives and senators, governors and mayors. This has implications: it shows evolution of general attitudes and prejudices.

    So I think it’s not a great awakening. It just does seem so because here we have a person who appears to be a real leader,one who seems to have a certain maturity and wisdom and who is inclusive and embracing. He is arrives on the scene, having been drafted to run if I remember, at a time when we sorely need (as so many feel) to believe or feel good about this country.

    Admittedly-I have been a little reluctant about this Obamamania. How many times we have been disappointed. Too many.

    So he just happens to be a black man or that he IS a black man also makes him who he is- which is more. And as with Deval Patrick our governor here in MA, on the one hand it’s “so what that he’s black” and on the other hand you can’t help but feeling good about it and taking some credit for this point at which we have arrived.

  • Potter

    Drapetomaniac says : If you listen to the way white people talk about Obama it’s not hard to see why they’re so comfortable with him: he lets them off the hook. I mean, racism, it’s so passe right?

    That’s pretty harsh. Looked at another way it’s a way for some white people who may harbor prejudice to begin to overcome that, to transcend their own skin color. In that sense his presidency would be progressive by it’s nature. This remark has the animosity in it that Obama does not have ( or does not show) – what Randall Kennedy also was saying.

    My white friends all say that he’s got to be “everyones’ president” and this is true. Which-to my mind- means all the progressive stuff is out.

    I don’t think so. He has to lead and a true leader works for what he feels is right and at least sets the bar.

    I think this criticism from Jordan and Drapetomaniac is good though. It should not be stifled. Obama’s feet will be held to the fire.

  • Pingback: Barack Obama » in the "Randall Kennedy: A Change is Gonna Come" thread, Potter…()

  • Potter

    Frank Rich, NYTimes has an insightful column today:

    Ask Not What J.F.K. Can Do for Obama

  • Drapetomaniac

    Ok, so let’s clarify something first. Countries *can* be racist if they are fundamentally based on racist tenets. If, you know what racism is: “Any program or practice of discrimination, segregation, persecution, or mistreatment based on membership in a race or ethnic group.” And last time I checked, the effects of policies based on this outlook still affected people in this country.

    Next, I have no animosity toward Barack Obama, I just think he’s naive. And if you read my posts carefully, I hope I’m wrong about him. I don’t think I am though. Our political process basically ensures that real innovators can’t get the kind of money to run because of who you need to fund you for a presidential race. And as for his Presidency changing the minds of white folks? Anyone who says or thinks this has a lot of reading to do. If having smart Black people in the public eye was enough the country would have changed when Nat King Cole had a TV show right? Or when Cornel West started showing up on the radio every week and giving speeches across the country. Oh no, wait, maybe it would have been when Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize? Or when Duke Ellington only wrote masterpieces during the 20’s? Aahhh, I got it now, when Vivien Thomas, the self educated surgeon basically helped launch the field of cardiac surgery with a high school education. Yeah, maybe that’s the kind of evidence white people need of Black people’s brilliance and humanity to help white people deal with their predjudice. I find Potter’s comment typical, but not disturbing. White people have no interest in “transcending their skin color” it carries so many benefits. What they want, is too feel good about themselves for supporting a (black) candidate who will not likely change the status quo. If anyone thought he would, he would not have made it this far. So, Barack lets them have their cake and eat it too: “look ma, I ain’t racist, and the Black kids still don’t have good schools and we don’t have worry about social justice or inequality either. Ain’t America great!” And this happens because even well meaning “progressive” folks are happy with the moral high ground. And how can they not be. It requires no sacrifice on their part. I wish it weren’t so, but history is with me on this. I want the revolution as much as anyone, but this just seems too easy people. Read the law journal article “Whiteness as Property” and you’ll start to get a sense of the challenge we face, even now.

    Now, if you wanna see a Black man who I think is on to something, have a look at Cory Booker. I don’t think we’re in “post-racial” America yet, but it will take more than people being impressed that a Black man is “so well spoken” to get us there.

  • ok, now i see, all white people are racist pigs and all black people are brilliant humanitarians. a very enlightened perspective, thanks for sharing.

  • rc21

    You didn’t know that? It’s common knowledge. We should all support Obama simply because he is black. That should be enough.

  • Drapetomaniac

    Hi Flow. Now you know that ain’t what I said. Whiteness makes it so that even well meaning white folk have their aims undermined by White Privilege and racism. Privilege is a very hard thing to renounce or put down and the system we have has been created over a long period of time. rc21 has it right above. Black people ain’t all the same, but we still seem shocked and thrilled to meet Black people who speak in complete sentences: that fact is subtle proof of racism. I listed the Black people above in my post because I keep hearing from people that hearing and seeing smart or articulate Black people is some kind of revolutionary thing. It’s galling and it is not new.

    And in the future: I think it would be more helpful if folks would actually respond the actual claims made in my posts as opposed to being mad or sarcastic.

  • rc21

    Unfortunately many people both white and black are supporting Obama simply because he is black. Liberal whites feel this will free them from their white quilt.

    Now they won’t feel so bad about living in their all white suburbs and sending their kids to all white schools, but they really do believe in diversity,just ask them.

    To me the reality is Obama is a chameleon not unlike most pols. He is at his heart a true left winger. so most of the liberals on this site need not worry. The fact that he misses or refuses to vote on many important issues simply reenforces my thoughts that he is hiding his true self from the public.

  • Sutter

    I’ve been trying to ditch my white quilt for some time now. It stains far too easily. I’m hoping to flee into the protection of a classy blue wool blanket.

  • i’m back from the polling booth, having cast my vote for obama.

    please accept my apology, Drapetomaniac, i thought i detected a bit of sarcasm in your post and responded in kind.

    i have no issue with the substance or “actual claims” of your post. however, the language you elect to employ in articulating your position undermines your argument because it ignores the complexity of the issue. To make statements or assertions that begin “white people…” or “black people…” is to refer to an abstraction, a product of imagination, there is simply no homogeneous group that can be accurately, definitively characterized as such. To make the statement that this is a racist country, is yet another oversimplification. Racism exists, but it is the product of cultural conditioning, of inheritance, it is psychological, a function of paradigm, and can be transcended, uprooted. It exists in the “hearts and minds” of individuals. Racism may manifest institutionally, but only as a function of the influence of individuals upon the system that produced the institution.

    You assert that you “want the revolution” as much as anybody, and that “history is with me on this”. I suggest you give some consideration to the nature of change as viewed through the lens of chaos theory. change is characterized by radical, fundamental shifts in complex systems. the approach to such “tipping points” is characterized by gradual progress followed by radical departure. i’m suspect of the value of “history” in evaluating where we are currently with respect to the prospects, the potential for radical transformation.

    i respect your position and your perspective, and i appreciate the justifications you have present in support of your view point.

  • I cast my vote for Obama today and it had nothing to do with the color of his skin. It has to do with appreciating his policy agenda and the way he gets things done.

  • Drapetomaniac

    Interesting flow, very interesting. So if I’m wrong, and it’s actually individuals that are racist what about concepts like institutionalized racism? Is this a real thing to you? There is a large body of work (Charles Mills’ book “The Racial Conract” is a good place to start) that supports the theory that racism need not be animated by individual people. Indeed this is the problem with a reductive view of racism. It’s not just people calling somebody “nigger”, but the education system that put your grandparents out after the 8th grade which impacts the lives of people living today. As for ignoring the complexity of the issue I’m not sure what you mean. What I do know is that there is often a break down in conversations about race because people come from different points of view that are often animated by what they think they know as opposed to what they actually know. As for change, I don’t think a president can do all that much really. I mean, we’re pleased that Obama can talk because many bright people avoid politics. And I just don’t believe the hype. I’d love to be wrong, anybody in my position would be.

    And, this is a racist country, founded on it, built by it and sustained in many ways by it. This don’t mean that everyone here hates dark people. You can’t found a nation on genocide and slavery and not have that show up few places you know. Our education system doesn’t help. Many people leave college with the notion that if you like Michael Jordan, you can’t be racist. It’s ridiculous know? Talking in generalities helps one sketch the broad outlines. And sure there is a group called white people, they’re the ones who get the cabs I can’t. But let’s be real here. If Obama becomes the president Frederick Douglass would have been if this were a just nation back then, I’ll happily vote for him during his 2nd term.

  • yes we can, drapetomaniac, yes we can

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fZHou18Cdk&feature=related

  • rahbuhbuh

    interesting bit on presidential future and race from james kunstler:

    “But the world is heading into a stressful situation [vanishing fossil fuels, us recession, global warming] that could provoke another wave of worldwide conflict… So, from my point of view, the further America removes itself explicitly from a collective racialist mentality, the better off we would be. But there is a catch: if perhaps Mr. Obama wins the Democratic Party’s nomination, and goes on to win the White House, and the nation enters the socioeconomic convulsions, and Mr. Obama is overwhelmed by its overwhelming problems… would he be singled out for blame? Surely there will be a lot of finger-pointing and scapegoating. Would Barack Obama become a tragic figure? The answer may be that anyone who occupies that office during the next term could end up a tragic figure.”

  • Pingback: Barack Obama » in the "Randall Kennedy: A Change is Gonna Come" thread, rahbuhbuh…()

  • Pingback: Barack Obama » in the "Randall Kennedy: A Change is Gonna Come" thread, Barack…()

  • rc21

    Apparently Obama is also quite adept at lifting speeches from other pols.

    I have to give the guy credit, he seems to be able to fool the masses with ease.

    I wonder if the MSM will finally challenge him?

  • Sei una persona molto intelligente! 🙂