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Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal Hardcover – January 8, 2008

4.1 out of 5 stars 11 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

The latest book club pick from Oprah
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1 edition (January 8, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375425438
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375425431
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #940,881 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By P. Heyward on January 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Kennedy has, once again, addressed the issues facing African-Americans. While reading this book, one can't help but wonder to whom blacks should be true - black America? - their country? - their family? - themselves? - do they have to be loyal to their own race?
It is especially interesting to read Kennedy's views regarding just what it is that makes someone black (i.e., the one drop theory). And, if one is called a sellout, does that mean he/she is a sellout? The easy answer is no but it isn't that simple.
This is a fascinating read - a real page-turner.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Randall Kennedy's Sellout is a short, but very thorough and unbiased, examination of an idea: that to be appropriately black, one needs to accede to certain cultural norms, and that if one ventures outside those norms, one is a 'sellout.' Most of us balk at this idea and consider it limiting and stifling. Kennedy, who has been on the receiving end of this charge at times, takes the idea very seriously. In this book, he examines the history and 'logic' of the idea of the 'sellout,' not because he endorses it but because it arose for seemingly sensible reasons.

The two most meaty chapters explore the idea of the sellout in American history and in contemporary American culture. Kennedy documents the idea of the sellout having its deepest origins in the times of slavery, when slaves who were planning uprisings were snitched on by other slaves who might, afterward, be rewarded for their loyalty to the slave owner. Later, he discusses events like the Birmingham bus boycott of 1955, which involved a degree of community policing to ensure that social pressure ensured that blacks did not 'defect' from the group and ride the buses. Kennedy also goes over how fiction authors have explored the idea of the sellout (and 'passing' as a form of selling out) and how there is a kind of ambivalence to the idea of passing in the black community (on one hand, successful passing mocks the color line, but passing is still seen as a type of defection from the group).

Through all of this, what impresses me most aside from Kennedy's thorough knowledge of the subject is his unbiased handling of it. Kennedy is not advocating for a position, but exploring a topic and its history and presence in contemporary life.
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Format: Hardcover
I've never read anything by Professor Kennedy before, which was my loss. Sellout is a terrific book. Calmly and rationally, Kennedy tries to explain how one determines whether a person, e.g. Clarence Thomas, is disloyal to his race. His chapter on Thomas was the best of the book. While no fan of Thomas' jurisprudence, Kennedy concludes that many of the left-wing attacks on him are unfair. Kennedy himself recounts the vicious attacks made on him by racial demagogues for dissenting from racial orthodoxy. There's an especially funny story where this woman hysterically accuses him of being married to a white woman. (Kennedy had written a book defending interracial marriage). A black man next to her says no, Professor Kennedy's wife is black. The hysterical woman said no way. Finally, the black man says "Look, my daughter is his wife." End of argument, I would say.

One small complaint: I did not agree with him on the subject of affirmative action. Notwithstanding this, I highly recommend Sellout, for liberals and conservatives alike.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was surprised to see a full-page opinion editorial in a large Atlanta, Ga newspaper regarding law professor Randall Kennedy's book, "Sellout". The general idea of the book suggests that there is an unspoken rule within the African-American community to maintain the "negro" character at all times or risk being labeled a traitor (sellout). Of course, I bought the book so I could get a better understanding of the other issues. After reading about ¾ of the book, I came away with a few points to remember and perhaps discuss with some of my friends.

First, there seems to be an implication that there are self-appointed "super delegates" who set the rules for claiming African-American identity. For those who set aside or fail to accept the "blackness" label, they are ridiculed, ousted, or undermined at every opportunity. Second, obvious black role models are scrutinized to the point of unacceptability regardless of their real success. Third, is it not ironic that lawyers, journalists, and educators dominate the discussion about behavior when this is an area more suitable for psychologists and scientists? Lastly, the book cites some everyday situations during the slavery period. A critical look at some behavior patterns of today may reveal a connection to that time. Some would even argue that the replication is required to perpetuate "victimhood."
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Once again, Mr. Kennedy has been willing to examine a racial topic in which he'll probably be vilified by some for even having the "audacity" to broach the subject. Staying true to form, the author avoids angry or sarcastic polemics in an effort to present a thoughtful and informative book. Pressures to conform to a specific mindset are inherent in any social group. Insecure individuals will invariably gravitate to superficiality and demonizing people that disagree with them (Race, religion, political ideology, whatever.) The author's chapter on the dynamics revolving around the controversial Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, was especially illuminating. As a middle-aged Caucasian male parenting two young African-American boys, I have found all four of Mr. Kennedy's works to be indispensable. You'll be a better person for reading this book.
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