Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, by Randall
Kennedy, New York: Pantheon. 228 pages,
Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, by John L. Jackson, Jr., New York: Basic Civitas, 274 pages, $26.00
When New York magazine's "race issue" hit newsstands in early August, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama held a formidable, though hardly insurmountable, lead over Republican rival John McCain—49 percent to 41 percent, according to Gallup's daily tracking poll. Despite Obama's advantage, an article titled "The Color-Coded Campaign," by New York political correspondent John Heilemann, wondered why Obama wasn't "doing better" and warned that it was because of an "answer that no one wants to hear."
Contrary to Heilemann's claims of originality, this "answer" has been parsed endlessly on blogs, talk radio, and Sunday chat shows. It goes roughly like this: Almost 50 percent of American voters backed Barack, but this transcendent, inspirational politician hasn't yet reached Vladimir Putin levels of popularity, where Heilemann and New York think he belongs, because too many Americans are racists. Whether or not most voters realize it, Obama's supporters explain, his campaign provides an opportunity for a long-overdue reassessment of American attitudes toward an integrated, multiracial society.
Lacking clear-cut examples of racist campaigning against Obama, the defenders of this position turned to what we might charitably call nonobvious examples. Those Britney Spears ads accusing Obama of vapidity and "celebrity," we were told, transmitted a racial code, because the juxtaposition of the candidate with young white women subconsciously stoked fears of miscegenation. The phallic monument in Berlin where Obama gave his speech? The ad included that icon to play on old stereotypes of black male supersexuality. "Race will be central to this campaign because McCain needs it to be," former New Republic Editor Peter Beinart wrote in The Washington Post. "He simply doesn't have many other cards to play." The media sophisticates, having long been warned about unconscious and subterranean racism, knew the racial attacks would happen, even if they weren't visible to the naked eye.
As television pundits debate the unquantifiable American racial subconscious, the more interesting question of how Obama would lead on the issue of race has received significantly less attention on the O'Reilly-Olbermann circuit. Would the first African-American president herald the beginning of a "post-racial America," as his boosters promise, or would he hew closer to the standard views of the post-Martin Luther King civil rights movement? And if Obama ascends to the White House, what will black Americans make of his complicated racial politics?
Entering the home stretch, both candidates have treated race gingerly, though during the Democratic primaries questions of ethnic identity were far more pointed. A questioner in the July 2007 YouTube presidential debate wondered whether Obama, the half-Kenyan, half-white Harvard law graduate, was "black enough" for African Americans. Was he, as PBS shout fest host John McLaughlin bluntly inquired, "an Oreo"? Writing in the New York Daily News, columnist Stanley Crouch declared, "When black Americans refer to Obama as ‘one of us,' I do not know what they are talking about." The Los Angeles Times wondered if the candidate was "really black," and 60 Minutes inquisitor Steve Croft pushed the candidate to admit that he had grown up identifying as white. It was a common enough question that Obama felt compelled to respond, relating that even his "black activist friends from here to Boston say that you are not black; you are multiracial."
So the first broad discussion of the “race issue” was not whether white Americans would accept Obama as an African-American president but if blacks would. That question has receded into the background since Obama grabbed the party’s nomination—most of his supporters are now distracted by the prospect that he might actually win—but it periodically re-emerges, as in his August back-and-forth with a group of African-American hecklers in St. Petersburg, Florida, who accused him of selling out blacks to be accepted by whites. It’s the latest incarnation of an old idea: that blacks should have a broad unanimity of political opinions, that some opinions and actions are disloyal to the race, that political success is incompatible with political principle.
The history of that idea is engagingly recounted and dissected by Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy in his latest treatise on race in America, Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, one of a passel of recent books on race relations that illustrate how far the national debate has progressed even since the 1990s. Race treason is a concept so prevalent in black culture that Kennedy can open with a quote from Oprah Winfrey, a rich celebrity adept at bridging cultures, who in 2007 instructed an audience of graduating Howard University students that they mustn’t “be a slave to any form of selling out.”
Kennedy explores the views of black critics of affirmative action and race-based college admissions, such as the novelist and Yale law professor Stephen Carter, who “seek to embrace libertarianism on behalf of group advancement.” By rejecting what has become a key plank of the civil rights agenda, are opponents of racial preferences engaging in “racial betrayal”? Kennedy says no, but he also argues that “every group confronts the task of free riding and defection.” Indeed, Kennedy sees “no reason why, in principle, an African American should not be subject to having his citizenship in Black America revoked if he chooses a course of conduct that convincingly demonstrates the absence of even a minimal communal allegiance,” though it is unclear just who would adjudicate a case of racial treason.
Critics like Carter, Kennedy writes, “speak as if ostracism, per se, is wrong” and ignore the “ostracism that is good—ostracism of racists, misogynists, fascists, and purveyors of other hateful ideologies.” The reader can reasonably trust that Kennedy doesn’t mean to compare proponents of race-neutral university admissions (or Carter himself) with fascists. His point is that ostracism is not always wrong but that exiling certain blacks from polite company for holding “inauthentic” views borders on the Stalinist.
Sellout is filled with blacks speaking of other blacks in terms of treason and warfare. Former Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.) thunders that the elevation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court was as if “the collaborator Marshal Petain had been awarded a medal after the liberation of France in World War II, or if in Norway Quisling had been made a high official in the government.” Columnist Carl Rowan unloads on the conservative black economist Thomas Sowell: “Vidkun Quisling, in his collaboration with the Nazis, surely did not do as much damage to the Norwegians as Sowell is doing to the most hopeless of black Americans.” The psychologist Halford Fairchild warns that dating or marrying a white woman is an unforgivable act of betrayal. “We are under siege,” he says. “We are at war. To sleep with the enemy is treason. Racial treason.”
Yet the concept of selling out may be losing its resonance with black voters. Take Newark Mayor Cory Booker. When Booker ran against Newark’s then-incumbent mayor, Sharpe James, in 2002, the Yale—and Oxford—educated son of bourgeois parents was told that his blackness would be a focus of the campaign. “I’m going to out-nigger you in the community,” James hissed. James did just that, winning a fifth straight term. But Booker prevailed in 2006 over James’s handpicked successor, suggesting such tactics may have a limited future. (In April, James was convicted of fraud for embezzling money from programs designed to help Newark’s poor.)
A 2001 report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found significant “generational differences among black elected officials.” The younger ones, the study found, “more strongly support school vouchers, are less positive toward the federal government and more in favor of devolution, are more supportive of the partial privatization of Social Security, [and] are more pro-business.”
In other words, they are more likely to be libertarian in their leanings than older, more traditionally leftist black politicians such as Barbara Lee, Cynthia McKinney, Ron Dellums, and Maxine Waters. (African-American politician Harold Ford Jr., a rising star in the Democratic Party, was a keynote speaker at this year’s Milton Friedman dinner, sponsored by the libertarian Cato Institute.) “Out-niggering” might have delivered the 2002 election to James, but it also coincided with the birth of a new generation of successful black political leaders who focus less on “authenticity” and more on innovative ways of alleviating poverty and fixing inner-city schools.