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Affirmative fractions

Sellout The Politics of Racial Betrayal; Randall Kennedy; Pantheon: 222 pp., $22

January 20, 2008|Erin Aubry Kaplan | Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to The Times' Opinion pages.

HARVARD University law professor Randall Kennedy closes his new book "Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal" with a confession he should have made in the beginning: He himself has been accused of selling out. That's not surprising, given that among the many definitions of a black sellout he offers is having an Ivy League pedigree like his. But the incidents he details at the end of "Sellout" -- among them testifying in defense of a white man accused of beating a black man he called "nigger" -- are what prompted him to write the book. Why does he bury his lead?

The answer is that Kennedy wants to keep himself above the fray. He is a lawyer's lawyer who clearly believes that everything can and should be delineated by logic and argument. He wants to strip emotion and popular mythology from concepts like "sellout" and present historical and cultural machinations so we can judge their validity on our own.

But that's possible only to a degree. Emotion underlies American racial politics. Slavery and all the social turmoil it has fomented -- from Jim Crow to the ongoing consternation among black people about "selling out" -- has rested on subjective but very powerful views of blacks as incompetent and inferior. The purpose of laws that were made to undo obvious racial injustice was to change hearts and minds, not simply to mount better and more logical arguments.

Kennedy knows this, but he wants a reconciliation of emotion and rationality in matters of race, something America has never achieved. Ironically, he's going on faith and ideals here, not logic -- yet despite this quixotic mission, "Sellout" is worth reading for the light it shines on many subtleties of black history. (Marcus Garvey, for example, thought of W.E.B. Du Bois, the most progressive and influential black public intellectual of his era, as a total sellout.) Indeed, the book is brisk and enjoyable, no small feat given the density of its ideas and Kennedy's penchant for long footnotes that often take up more space on the page than text.

Still, the somewhat sticky question is: What are Kennedy's motives? Is he trying to show us what he believes is a more enlightened point of view? Is he sick of living with the burden of race and looking to lay it down? Is he answering his own accusers? These are but a few questions he leaves hanging, even as he exhaustively addresses others.

Kennedy may deplore the emotionality and intellectual shorthand of a phrase like "sellout," but he uses it to great effect -- the book's title is sexy, explosive, an entire drama in a single word. It implies struggle, violation, deceit; the subtitle, "The Politics of Racial Betrayal," is more accurate but hardly as compelling.

The same could be said of Kennedy's most infamous book, "Nigger: The Strange History of a Troublesome Word." Here, as there, he wants to get our attention first -- that is, to push our buttons -- in order to draw us into an examination of the issues such charged language often obscures.

And yet, in some ways, he has it backward. It's not terminology that's the problem but the racial crises that keep the terminology current. Accusations of selling out are often specious, as Kennedy shows us, but that doesn't change the fact that they matter to black people because overall racial progress has stalled and so much is still at stake. It is, therefore, terribly important what positions black public figures like Jesse Jackson and Clarence Thomas take or don't take on a whole range of issues, from affirmative action to family values. This is the unfair -- but critical -- burden of blackness that Kennedy acknowledges but doesn't especially like. In the end, his argument is much more about emotion than he's willing to admit.

Kennedy's indignation comes through most clearly when he discusses black identity. More than once, he claims that such identity should be a matter of choice, of individuality rather than community. This puts him on the side of multiracialists who argue that anyone who is, say, one-quarter black and three-quarters white should have the right to identify as white.

For Kennedy, however, what's at issue here is more than simple math; he argues that black identity is as much defined by ideology as it is by genetics and should, therefore, be considered optional. The resulting "racial citizenship" should be granted only to those who want it, an arrangement Kennedy says would go a long way toward reducing intraracial strife.

"In my view," Kennedy explains, "all Negroes should be voluntary Negroes, blacks by choice, African Americans with a recognized right to resign from the race. . . . By the same token, I see no reason why, in principle, an African American should not be subject to having his citizenship revoked if he chooses a course of conduct that convincingly demonstrates the absence of even a minimal communal allegiance."

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