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Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal [Hardcover]

Randall Kennedy
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Accusations of selling out—of betraying or neglecting the interests of blacks to curry favor with whites—are among the most damaging that African-Americans level at each other, according to Harvard law professor Kennedy. Called a sellout himself after his book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word appeared, Kennedy here explores the charge's potency. He recounts the centuries-long history of sellout rhetoric—sometimes rooted in real betrayals by blacks who echoed white supremacist ideology or informed on slave rebellions or civil rights organizations—and examines its role both in uniting the black community against racism and in stifling debate within the community. A long chapter analyzes conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whom Kennedy acquits of sellout charges, and a fascinating discussion of racial categories and White Negroes—blacks who pass as white—shows how murky the concept of racial loyalty is. Kennedy finds sellout rhetoric to be overblown—often aimed at blacks guilty only of success—but won't entirely repudiate it. African-Americans should be subject to having citizenship in Black America revoked if they repudiate even a minimal communal allegiance (although Kennedy is hard-pressed to think of plausible instances where this might apply). His is a lively, thoughtful, provocative commentary on a centerpiece of black identity politics. (Jan. 8)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Praise for Randall Kennedy

Sellout is brisk and enjoyable, no small feat given the density of its ideas . . . Worth reading for the light it shines on many subtleties of black history.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Thought-provoking . . . [Kennedy offers] illuminating evidence that, despite great marks of progress, race’s stranglehold on the nation’s collective conscious remains as strong as ever.”
The Washington Post

"Provocative . . . Engaging and informative."
—The New York Times

"Kennedy's commitment to racial justice is plain . . . He frequently throws the cold water of common sense upon issues that are too often cloaked in glib histrionics."
—The New Republic

Race, Crime, and the Law
"Admirable, courageous, and meticulously fair and honest."
—The New York Times Book Review

"[Kennedy] is doing the smartest work in the area of race."
—National Law Journal

Interracial Intimacies
"As definitive as it is defiant . . . One of the most important books on race in recent memory."
—The Columbus Dispatch

"We urgently need Kennedy, his courage and convictions . . . For some time [he] has been a member of that small coterie of our most lucid big thinkers about race."
—The Washington Post

About the Author

Randall Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard University. He is a member of the bars of the District of Columbia and the Supreme Court of the United States, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the American Philosophical Association. His book Race, Crime, and the Law won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One: Who Is "Black"?

"How difficult it sometimes is to know where the black begins and the white ends."
—Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (1901)

Soon after declaring his candidacy for the presidency of the United States, Senator Barack Obama was asked on the television program 60 Minutes when he had "decided" that he was black.[1] One of the reasons the interviewer posed this question is that Obama's mother was a white American and his father a black Kenyan. Obama, moreover, had had little contact with his father; he was raised mainly in Hawaii by his mother and her relatives, in settings far afield from conventional black American communities.[2] Against this backdrop, some observers have questioned Obama's racial standing. "Obama isn't black," the journalist Debra J. Dickerson asserts, because "in our political and social reality [black] means those descended from West African slaves." Rather, Dickerson continues, "by virtue of his white American mom and his Kenyan dad . . . [Obama] is an American of African immigrant extraction."[3][4]

Obama responded to the question on 60 Minutes by distancing himself from the idea that he had "decided" to be black. He focused on three other considerations: his appearance, the response of onlookers to his appearance, and his shared experience of those responses with others also perceived to be "black." "[I]f you look African American in this society," he remarked, "you're treated as an African American."[5] In 1940, W. E. B. DuBois quipped that "the black man is a person who must ride 'Jim Crow' in Georgia."[6] Obama updated that view, noting that when he tried to catch taxis, drivers were not confused about his race; they all too often refused to pick him up for racially discriminatory reasons, just as they all too often sped by other "black" men.

Discussion of Obama's racial identity is a highly publicized instance of a feature of American race relations that is often ignored or misunderstood though it has deep historical roots. Many people believe that determining who is "black" is rather easy, a task simplified by the administration of the one-drop rule.[7] Under the one-drop rule, any discernible African ancestry stamps a person as "black." A principal purpose of this doctrine was to address "the problem" of children born of interracial sex who would bear a mixture of physical markers inherited from ancestors situated on different sides of the race line. White supremacists hoped that by definitively categorizing as "African," "black," "Negro," or "colored" anyone whose appearance signaled the presence of an African ancestor, the one-drop rule would protect white bloodlines. It mirrored and stoked Negrophobia by proclaiming that even the tiniest dab of Negro ancestry was sufficiently contaminating to make a person a "nigger." Many white racists have believed what a character exclaims in Thomas Dixon's novel The Leopard's Spots—that "a single drop" of Negro blood "kinks the hair, flattens the nose, thickens the lip, puts out the light of intellect, and lights the fires of brutal passions."[8][9]

Many champions of black advancement, however, have also become devotees of the one-drop rule (bereft, of course, of its white supermacist intentions). In her richly detailed defense of the doctrine, Professor Christine B. Hickman writes:

The Devil fashioned [the one-drop rule] out of racism, malice, greed, lust and ignorance, but in so doing he also accomplished good: His rule created the African-American race as we know it today, and while this race had its origins in the peoples of three continents and its members can look very different from one another, over the centuries the Devil's one-drop rule united this race as a people in the fight against slavery, segregation and racial injustice.[10]

The one-drop rule helped to funnel into one racial camp people who might otherwise have been splintered. It is because of the one-drop rule that some of the most significant leaders among African Americans are considered "black" or "Negro" despite their "white" ancestry; here I think immediately of Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois. Long denounced as a method for protecting whites against the taint of Negro blood, the one-drop rule is now embraced by some devotees of black unity as a way of reinforcing solidarity and discouraging exit by "blacks" who might otherwise prefer to reinvent themselves racially.

Despite its evident significance, however, the one-drop rule has never been an unchallenged guide to racial definition.[11] For a long period, several states formally defined as "white" individuals with known "black" ancestors. Until early in the twentieth century, several states, including Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, statutorily decreed that an individual was considered white so long as he or she did not have more than one-eighth Negro "blood." In Virginia, until 1910, a person could be deemed white as long as he or she did not have more than twenty-four percent Negro blood. Not until 1924 did the Old Dominion adopt the one-drop rule.[12] True, in many places, the mere appearance of being a Negro was sufficient to trigger mistreatment, regardless of one's genealogy or the words of some arcane statute purporting to define racial status. Still, the assigning of racial identity by white authorities has occasioned far more controversy than is generally realized.

Just as some "whites" have adopted rules of racial identification at variance with the one-drop rule, so, too, have some "blacks." Light-skinned descendants of interracial unions have at various times attempted to set themselves apart from those with darker hues. They have labeled themselves differently, for example, eschewing "black" or "Negro" in favor of "FMC"—"free men of color"—or similar formulations. They have created social organizations that resolutely excluded those deemed to be "too dark"—those darker than a light-brown paper bag or those in whose wrists one cannot discern blue veins.[13] They have insisted upon marrying people who were as light as, or preferably lighter than, themselves. The one-drop rule lumps all "colored" people together regardless of the extent to which they are partially white in appearance or ancestry. But some light-skinned people of color have rejected that formula and insisted upon distinguishing themselves from "real" Negroes.[14] Consider the case of William Ellison, who was born into slavery in 1790 in South Carolina. Allowed to purchase his freedom (by a white man who may well have been his biological father), Ellison amassed a sizable fortune, bought and sold slaves, contributed funds to pro-slavery vigilantes, aided the Confederacy, and then, after the Civil War, supported the opponents of Reconstruction. Today many people would describe Ellison as "black" despite his obvious multiraciality. Yet Ellison "did not consider himself a black man but a man of color, a mulatto, a man neither black nor white, a brown man."[15]

Between 1850 and 1920, the United States Census demarcated a category for the "mulatto." Enumerators were initially given virtually no guidance;[16] they used their own judgment, mainly based on appearance, to determine who was "black" as opposed to "mulatto." In 1870, census officials noted that the "mulatto" category included "quadroons, octoroons and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood."[17] In 1890, officials supplemented the "white," "black," and "mulatto" categories with two new classifications that had previously been subsumed within the definition for mulatto. They admonished enumerators to:

"[b]e particularly careful to distinguish between blacks, mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons. The word "black" should be used to describe those persons who have three-fourths or more black blood; "mulatto," those persons who have three-eighths to five-eighths black blood; "quadroon," those persons who have one-fourth black blood; and "octoroon," those persons who have one-eighth or any trace of black blood."[18]

At no point were enumerators provided with a methodology for extracting this information or discerning these differences.

The idea of the mulatto has been a gathering point for a wide variety of racial prejudices, fears, myths, and speculations.[19] For one thing, throughout American history there has been a tendency on the part of whites and blacks to favor mulattoes and other mixed-race colored people over plain "blacks." This tendency has been fueled, in large part, by the logic of white supremacy: since whiteness has been perceived to be superior to blackness, lighter complexions have been accorded more prestige than darker ones. Hence the saying: "If you're black, go back; if you're brown, stick around; if you're white, you're alright."[20][21]

The baleful efflorescence of racist sentiments in the post-World War I era prompted the Census Bureau to simplify its stratification of the American pigmentocracy. After 1920, the Bureau ceased enumerating mulattoes. It adopted the one-drop rule, declaring that persons of "mixed blood" would be "classified according to the nonwhite racial strain . . . [A person] of mixed white . . . and Negro . . . is classified as . . . a Negro . . . regardless of the amount of white blood [he carries]."[22] Under the new regime, writes Professor Joel Williamson, "all Negroes did look alike. On the one side, there were simply Negroes, and on the other the melting pot was busy making everyone...
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