September 13, 2013
The following is excerpted from an article that appeared in the May-June 2013 issue of Harvard Magazine.
Black, White, and Many Shades of Gray: Randall Kennedy probes the "variousness" of charged racial issues
By Craig Lambert/Harvard Magazine deputy editor
In "The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama," David Remnick relates a story from Obama's first year at Harvard Law School, when he registered for "Race, Racism, and American Law," a course taught by Randall Kennedy, now Klein professor of law. "Kennedy had caused some controversy, writing critically in The New Republic and elsewhere about some aspects of affirmative action," Remnick relates. "At the first class, Obama [J.D. '91] and [his friend Cassandra] Butts, [J.D. '91] watched as a predictable debate unfolded between black students who objected to Kennedy's critique and students on the right, almost all white, who embraced it. Obama feared a semester-long shout-fest. He dropped the course." Thus Kennedy never taught the future president, although he did instruct Michelle LaVaughn Robinson [subsequently, Obama], J.D. '88, who also did research for him.
A "semester-long shout-fest" may be hyperbolic, but Kennedy admits, "Yes, those classes were very contentious. I structured them that way." It wasn't hard: Kennedy, an African American himself, consistently introduced the kinds of racial issues—such as "reverse discrimination" against whites—that explode like hand grenades in an interracial classroom. "Should there be a right to a multiracial jury?" he asks, smiling. "Boom!"
Kennedy is "the kind of professor who thrives on iconoclasm, defying the embedded expectations of his students," according to one of them, Brad Berenson, J.D. '91, a member of the White House Counsel's Office under George W. Bush and now a vice president of litigation and legal policy at General Electric. "Whether this comes from Randy's convictions, or from playing devil's advocate, it makes him hard to pin down or characterize. He's a great example of the inquiring mind of an academic, someone who is willing to question dogmas and encourage his students to do the same."
The interaction of race and legal institutions is Kennedy's niche; this is how he describes the approach he's used in his classes and five books: "Here's this deep, complex, troubling, anxiety-producing subject. Let's really go at it. Let's not be afraid of it. Let's turn it over and take a look at what your opponents have to say. There were people who believed slavery was a positive good, and that segregation was a positive good. Who were they? Let's really be precise, let's not just condemn them and laugh at them, but understand them, get in a position where you can state very clearly what their point of view was. You might end up condemning it, but let's understand it first….I take strong positions, but I also try to be attentive to the complexity of things."
(Boston Globe, September 11, 2013)
One can only hope that Randall Kennedy gets to discuss “For Discrimination” with Stephen Colbert. The Comedy Central host claims adamantly to be “colorblind.” He does not see race. In his comedy persona, Colbert dramatizes all the obfuscations and hypocrisies of the colorblind stance.
Likewise, in this meticulously argued book, Kennedy implores us to forget the idea of the “colorblind” Constitution, which he maintains is a historically inaccurate interpretation. Kennedy sees such terms as “colorblind” and even “diversity” as misleading sops to a conservative anti-affirmative action bias. Affirmative action is, at its core, says Kennedy, about race. It is discrimination, he says — “positive” discrimination, meant to correct a long history of racial inequity. Affirmative action needs to be seen for what it is, he says, and as a social program it needs to be maintained.
(Radio Boston, September 3, 2013)
In his new book, “For Discrimination,” Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy charts the history of affirmative action and unpacks the myriad arguments for and against policies that use race as a factor in allocating jobs, resources and spots on university campuses. And he finds that the end of affirmative action is an elusive dream.
(Excerpt reprinted with permission on Salon.com, September 3, 2013)
Affirmative action helped me attend Yale Law and teach at Harvard. I do not feel belittled by this.
(The Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2013)
A scholar deftly presents the case against affirmative action—and explains why he supports it anyway.
(Washington Post, August 30, 2013)
What Harvard law professor and prolific author Randall Kennedy brings to [the debate on affirmative action] is his sharp mind, accessible prose and level-headed reasoning.
(Los Angeles Times, August 29, 2013)
'For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law' by Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy offers a clear-eyed take on American's battle over affirmative action and diversity.