September 24, 2013

Reviewing Randall Kennedy

Harvard law professor and author Randall L. Kennedy
The journey, and contentious detour, of taking on three consecutive books by one author.

By Gerald Early

I was a bit nonplussed when an editor at The Washington Post asked me earlier in the summer to review Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy’s new book, For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law. I had reviewed two other Kennedy books—Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2002) and Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal (2008).  I gave Nigger an unfavorable review. I thought the book a bit superficial but even more I did not much care for the subject or the controversy about the use of the word, if you will. It seemed uninteresting, unimportant, and, in some respects, a bit degrading. I gave Sellout a more positive review, in part, because I felt uneasy about giving an author two bad reviews in a row. But I also liked Sellout; I thought the subject timely and timeless about the nature of political allegiance, an act of commitment fraught with dangerous implications of all sort for a member of a minority group, where trust and distrust are no mere minor concerns.  Clearly, Kennedy found the subject resonated with him personally and so did I.

         At first, I was inclined to pass on For Discrimination. In part, affirmative action did not interest me greatly. I remember some years ago mentioning the subject of affirmative action to my barber, a former professional boxer.  He had never heard of it. I had to explain to him what it was. After getting a bit of background, he simply shrugged. “You shouldn’t get a job because of your race,” he said. But it never occurred to him that the two professions he pursued, boxing and barbering, did not need or require affirmative action. He spent his entire adult life never being given any special preference because of his race or even thinking that he needed it or wanted it. He felt he was where he was in life because of whatever merit he showed and that merit was obvious in the nature of his performance in the ring or behind the barber’s chair. I thought to myself at that moment, God, how lucky you are not to have be someone’s or something’s symbol of a diverse society, someone’s or something’s expression of good intentions and desirable results. That moment taught me a lot about affirmative action, good and bad. I was certainly embarrassed to find myself outed to him as a member of the elite.  He seemed proud of my status but I felt all the shabbier, fraudulent, in comparison to him. Did he think I was where I was because Washington University needed some minority window dressing for its faculty? He certainly did not earn a fight against the redoubtable James Toney because the matchmaker felt Toney should fight an ethnically wide range of opponents. He got the fight because the matchmaker felt my barber would be competitive enough to please an audience.  It was then that I lost interest in affirmative action. I did not turn against it—a minority group like African Americans needs every political tool, every bit of social leverage, it can find or create.  Affirmative Action was one such tool, one such bit of leverage.  I simply lost interest in doing any heavy lifting in its name.

I thought to myself at that moment, God, how lucky you are not to have be someone’s or something’s symbol of a diverse society, someone’s or something’s expression of good intentions and desirable results. That moment taught me a lot about affirmative action, good and bad.

         Aside from my lack of interest in the subject, I felt that Kennedy probably deserved a reviewer with a legal background, a law scholar. I decided to review the book because I was curious about what it said and I liked Kennedy as a writer. Moreover, when I was series editor for the short-lived Best African American Fiction and Best African American Essays, Kennedy served as editor of the Best African American Essays 2010 volume. I got to know him a bit through our working together and admired how hard he worked. I also admired his honesty. I thought I owed him the review, not necessarily a positive review but a competent one. I also felt I had something to offer that a legal scholar did not, that it might be, on the whole, profitable for readers to have perspectives from someone who was not a legal scholar.


         In response to NRO’s Ed Whelan’s assertion that a particular phrase I used in the review about the common conservative belief that blacks are inherently dysfunctional was “ugly and outrageous” puzzles me greatly. The phrase, in its full context, reads:

         “Moreover, even if the common conservative belief that blacks are inherently dysfunctional is true, how would that fact make them immune to being wronged or damaged? Here, the conservatives seem simply to be retreading 'the prostitute cannot be raped' argument as a defense for the hatred that affirmative action is meant to defang.”

         I worked over this sentence several times during the revision process. In its original conception, where it was worded very differently, the editor found it confusing and poorly argued. I tried to be extremely careful in my usage as I worked over recasting the sentence. I purposely did not use the phrase “innately inferior” or “innately dysfunctional” because I did not want to wrongly ascribe to conservatives the idea that they believe that blacks are biologically inferior nor did I want to accuse them of racism. But many conservatives—including Dinesh D’Souza, John Derbyshire (who comes very close to believing in the biological inferiority of blacks which is why National Review fired him), Charles Murray (who is a self-described libertarian), Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Heather McDonald, among others—clearly believe that blacks are culturally inferior—single parenthood run rampant, low marriage rates, lack of initiative, an overweening sense of entitlement, a tendency toward criminality bred by a lack of constructive communal impulses, an aggressive anti-intellectualism that borders on a sort of militant know-nothingness bolstered by Afrocentric factoids, an unusual susceptibility to racial demagoguery,  an unsettling belief in the authenticity of their own anti-bourgeois stereotypes. Of this general characterization of black culture by conservatives, there can really be no debate. It is black people’s culture that makes them dysfunctional.  It is their blind, stupidly prideful clinging to this dysfunctional culture that causes all their problems, including their delusional belief in liberalism, militant leftist thought, and black cultural nationalism.  Too many black people refuse to imitate the habits of successful people of other races. So, in summarizing the conservative position, black people have a culture that works against their best interests and is, indeed, often self-destructive. Blacks, with the exception of black conservatives who have “moved off the liberal plantation”, to use a favorite conservative phrase, as a result of their cultural dementia do not understand what is in their political best interests, because, if they did, they would not be liberals or leftists or believe that liberalism or statism has done them any good.  (What surprises me here is that conservatives don’t make more use that they do of the huge success blacks have had in music and sports, two largely free-market, highly competitive enterprises.) Therefore, because of their obsessive ties to their pathological culture, they are inherently dysfunctional, not innately inferior. This is not a view about black people biologically but rather a view about their group character and their group psychology. That is what my sentence meant in describing the conservative position. I think Whelan’s cry about “ugly and outrageous” seems a bit of an overreaction. At worst, the statement might be tendentious but I don’t even think that that holds up as a particularly trenchant criticism. If I wanted to be tendentious, I would have written something like “conservatives believe that blacks are bad and stupid children.” 

         I made this observation in the review about conservatives, not to condemn them but merely to describe them. I did not say that their view of black culture was necessarily invalid. Indeed, there are a fair number of black people who would not describe themselves as conservative who hold aspects of the same view. I did wish to suggest that such an argument takes whites off the hook for being responsible for black underachievement because it argues that it is, in essence, black people’s fault that they underachieve. (This position has a history going back to Reconstruction that essentially argues that blacks are their own worst enemy.) Liberal interventions will, therefore, not avail much of anything without addressing the issue of character and psychology in far more aggressive ways than liberals are willing to do. For the conservative, liberal reform is all about how such reform makes the liberals feel about themselves. Conservative reform, from the conservative perspective, is about how the object of the reform has actually been reformed.  This last I thought too was a standard conservative position.  It is funny that the few emails I received about the review praised it for being so even-handed in presenting the conservative and liberal positions about affirmative action. I guess for Whelan I was surely not evenhanded enough when I accused conservatives of believing something they surely must believe if their political position is going to make any sense at all.

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