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Shades of gray 

Randall Kennedy ponders racial betrayal

Randall Kennedy is no stranger to contesting liberal orthodoxies on race. As the Harvard law professor notes in the epilogue to Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, he has been called a sellout on countless occasions. He constantly stirs the pot with his books; the author of Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption and Race, Crime, and the Law struck a nerve with 2002's Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.

"I argued that the infamous N-word, like all words, takes its meaning from the context in which it is used," Kennedy writes in Sellout. "... While I expressed opposition to racist uses of the word by anyone regardless of race, I also defended justifiable uses of the word by anyone, regardless of race ... For these views ... I became the target of some rough verbal blows."

Sellout probably will guarantee more attacks, for Kennedy calls for a far more rigorous examination and definition of the notion of racial betrayal. This can come in the form of questioning the authenticity of, say, Barack Obama or Condoleezza Rice, or in the charge that someone is supposedly working actively against his own people, with Clarence Thomas the most obvious suspect.

As exhaustively researched as it is spare (checking in at 240 pages), Sellout provides a remarkably complex and balanced perspective on the history of the term, its contemporary applications, and the ways in which blacks both exemplify and vilify one another as sellouts -- along the way attempting to construct more precise criteria of defining just who qualifies as a sellout. While his definition of the word might seem elusive in these pages, it belies his overarching focus on the anxiety over the concept of racial betrayal and how it is used to polarize African-Americans.

Kennedy focuses the discussion on the dynamic tension between group and individual identity, noting that the advancement of blacks in mainstream America creates dual challenges of personal fulfillment and obligation to help those left behind. While space prevents a thorough version of Kennedy's definition of what constitutes a sellout, he specifically calls out African-Americans who dislike or even hate other African-Americans; join African-American "uplift organizations" with the express purpose of working against their goals; blacks who, despite saying otherwise, still see some of their peers as inferior (and who should be subservient) to whites.

While in his most provocative chapter he capably suggests that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is not, despite what many blacks believe, a sellout, Kennedy seems unwilling to provide specific contemporary examples of sellouts -- the notion being that, if Thomas isn't a sellout, who possibly could be? He offers scenarios instead of naming names.

Like a shrewd defense attorney, Kennedy argues against the conventional (and itself racist) assumption that Thomas is a flunky for the conservative side of the court, led by Antonin Scalia, instead offering plenty of ways in which Thomas (for better or worse) thinks, acts and writes clearly in his own voice. Mainly, Kennedy posits, because Thomas passionately believes in helping the black race and is sensitive to how he is perceived in the black community, the notion that his opinions might be "wrong" -- particularly on affirmative action, which Thomas both benefited from and is a critic of -- doesn't qualify him as a sellout.

This flies in the face of a more predictable and, as Kennedy insists, counterproductive form of race orthodoxy supported by black liberals, two of whom are cited by Kennedy: playwright Pearl Cleage and U.S. Rep. John Lewis. "[Thomas] is an enemy of our race in particular, and people of any race in general," Cleage is quoted at the beginning of the chapter, taken from her 1993 book Deals with the Devil: And Other Reasons to Riot. "[T]he fact that Thomas is a brother should make us hold him to an even higher standard, not provide him with a way to weasel out of taking responsibility for being a traitor." Lewis was no less critical in his assessment of Thomas, with Kennedy recalling Lewis' plea to his House colleagues: "What you have is a nominee who wants to destroy the bridge that brought him over troubled waters."

Kennedy doesn't believe the case against Thomas has been effectively built: "If one attributes to a judge an unarticulated belief or goal ... it is essential to explain why the proffered explanation for a decision -- say the aim to stymie blacks -- is a more realistic explanation for the decision than the one that the judge proffers -- in this case, the believe that affirmative action itself stymies blacks. Regarding Justice Thomas, this has not been done."

Despite its brevity, Sellout can indeed feel more academic than it should. Kennedy, a scholar who can look with an unblemished lucidity at both sides of an argument, transcends what he acknowledges has become a personal issue for him to advance a debate for all of us.

Sellout: The Politics Of Racial Betrayal by Randall Kennedy

Pantheon, 240 pages, $22

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