Law professor-author Randall Kennedy

The Harvard law professor and author of The Persistence of the Color Line explains why he believes that the nation’s first Black president is not going to be a transformative president when it comes to race.

Randall Kennedy is a legal-academic scholar who focuses his research on the intersection of racial conflict and legal institutions in American life. A Harvard Law School professor and best-selling and award-winning author, he has a reputation for being unafraid of tackling difficult racial issues. In his latest text, The Persistence of the Color Line, he analyzes the complex relationship between the first Black president and his African American constituency. Kennedy is a Rhodes Scholar and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.


Tavis: Randall Kennedy is a distinguished professor of law at the Harvard law school and a noted author of books like “Race Crime and the Law” and “Sellout.” His latest is “The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency.” He joins us tonight form Boston. Professor Kennedy, an honor to have you back on this program, sir.

Professor Randall Kennedy: Thanks so much for having me.

Tavis: Let me start with asking why it is that you specifically were drawn to this subject matter.

Kennedy: Well, I study race relations in American law, in American culture, in American politics, and the election of the first Black president was a natural for anybody drawn to this subject.

Tavis: For those who’ve not had a chance yet to read the text, as Ed Koch used to say when he was mayor of New York City, “How’m I doing,” how’s the president doing along the color line? How’s he doing?

Kennedy: Well, listen, the biggest accomplishment, in racial terms, for Barack Obama was being elected. He had to overcome his Blackness to be elected. He climbed the Mt. Everest of American politics, becoming an historic first.

In other policy areas he has certainly not pushed a racial agenda. He likes to stay away from the race question, and so I don’t think he’s going to be a transformative president when it comes to racial policy.

Tavis: Let me go back to what you said a moment ago – your sense, Professor Kennedy, of how he scaled that mountain of race to get to the top. Just assess for me his strategy, his methodology, his process for overcoming that to become president. Your assessment of how he did it along the color line.

Kennedy: Well, it was a very complicated dance. On the one hand he had to invigorate his base, his Black base. Remember that early on in the election campaign, most politically active, vocal Black elected officials were not in his camp. They were supporters, for the most part, of Hillary Clinton. It was only when he showed that he had a realistic chance of winning the nomination and a realistic chance of winning the presidency in a general election, it was only then that Black people really broke forum.

He had to do various things in order to solidify his Black base. There were Blacks from the outset who were a little bit skeptical of him. They knew that he had been raised in predominately white settings, and so there was a little bit of skepticism. He had to allay those anxieties, and he allayed those anxieties in various ways.

He always spoke very movingly of his feelings of gratitude for the greats of the civil rights revolution. He displayed a knowledge and a comfort with Black history, Black culture, Black rhythms, Black colloquialisms. He had his wife, very distinguished Black woman, Michelle Robinson Obama, at his side.

So in various ways, he spoke to Black people and allayed what anxieties some Blacks had. At the same time he spoke to whites in a very particular way. He convinced them that he was a non-angry Black man, that he harbored no racial resentments, that he wasn’t seeking any sort of reparations or anything like that.

He emphasized at various points that he had been raised by a white mother, that he knew white people very intimately. So he went to various constituencies and allayed various racial anxieties, and he did that very successfully – successfully enough to capture the White House.

Tavis: Let me ask you – you’ve said a lot there and there are two things in particular I want to go back and get. One, when you suggested earlier that it wasn’t until – and I’m paraphrasing what you said earlier, I can’t quote you example – but when you suggested earlier that it wasn’t until he had shown that he really could run the race, that there was a chance that he could get the nomination, it wasn’t until then that Black folks started, to use your term, to break for Barack Obama.

The truth of the matter is that Blacks didn’t start to break for Barack Obama – and you basically said this, but I want to get more specific – the truth is that with specificity they didn’t break for him until after the white folk voted for him in Iowa. Hillary was still ahead of him two or three to one in most polls, as you know, until the overwhelming number of white voters in Iowa gave him that victory and then said it’s okay.

I raise that with specificity ask what it says about Black folk along that color line that they didn’t break for Barack Obama until white folk essentially – my word, not yours – gave them permission?

Kennedy: Well, I’d put it a little bit differently. Black folks are like other folks, they like winners. They like to be on the side of the winner. There had been a Republican occupying the White House for eight years, a Republican, by the way, who was very unpopular among Blacks, and there was a real hunger to back somebody who could actually win.

There had been Blacks who had run for the White House largely as symbolic candidates. I think Black people really weren’t so much interested in that anymore. They had supported, to some extent, symbolic candidates. Now they wanted somebody who was going to take the White House.

So I don’t think it was that Black folks were waiting for white folks to give them permission. It was that Black folks wanted somebody who could win, and when Barack Obama triumphed – true triumphed among a predominately white electorate in Iowa, then that was a signal, hey, this guy could win. After all, the electorate in the United States is mainly a white electorate.

Tavis: Right, but to your point now, what does it say then about Black folk, I ask another way, what does that say about Black folk along that color line that you so easily say that they wanted somebody who could win as opposed to wanting somebody who stood by their issues and on their principles, number one, and number two there was no suggestion at that time, just because she hadn’t won Iowa, that Hillary could not win.

So explain for me the winner argument and explain to me choosing a person who could presumably win over somebody who’s standing on your issues, on your principles, and they hadn’t figured that out prior to Iowa. So how’d they all of a sudden figured that out post-Iowa?

Kennedy: I think Black people, did they examine the policies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama side-by-side and then say, hm, this one is better on this one, this one is better on this one?

No, I think that they figured they were both, Clinton and Obama, were sort of centrist, liberal-leaning Democrats. But there was a difference, and the difference is Barack Obama is Black. I think that many Black people thought this would be a wonderful and extraordinary thing, for a Black family to occupy the White House. Not only Black people; a lot of white people thought that too, but particularly Black people.

Tavis: So then what does Randall Kennedy say, given the research he’s done, to Hillary supporters who were disappointed that Black folk were siding with Barack Obama because they were being tribal, they were siding with him out of Black solidarity?

What do you say to those supporters, number one – hold on – and secondly, what do you say to persons on the right who for different reasons offer the same critique of Black voters, that you’re only down with Obama because he’s Black, not because he has been where you need him to be on the issues. It’s about symbolism, not about substance. So your response to both of those constituencies?

Kennedy: A couple of things. First of all, with respect to symbolism versus substance, I think a lot of Black people realistically understand that symbolism can be quite substantive. That you think about American history, you think about the people who sat in for that hamburger. People who were willing to go to jail to sit in a particular place on a bus. You might say, well, that’s symbolic, but there’s a lot mixed up in that symbolism.

With respect to tribalism, no, I think – in part, sure. I think the most interesting thing with respect to tribalism were the actions, actually, of Black conservatives. I know a substantial number of Black conservatives who voted for Barack Obama even though they had to cross party lines to do so, and even though they had to cross ideological lines to do so. They felt pulled by tribal ties.

I think with other Black people, actually, it was different. With other Black people Barack Obama was a liberal. Some people said he was the most liberal member in the Senate. So I think putting race aside, many Black people, on ideological grounds, would have been drawn to Obama anyway. They were particularly drawn to him, however, because he was Black, and was that, by the way, altogether tribal?

For some people it was tribal. I think for other people the position was it would be a great statement to America, it would be a great statement to the world if American democracy was able to push through this great barrier and elevate to the White House a Black person.

Not for tribal reasons but for reasons that everybody could rally around, that reason being this would be a wonderful, vivid way of repudiating our white supremacist past.

Tavis: Your comment now leads me to ask, to your text, the worries that you express openly, the worries that you express openly in this book about this inflated sense of accomplishment that we might have in regard to racial progress. What are your worries along the color line in that regard?

Kennedy: Oh, I have many. One, first of all, though I think it was a singular moment in American history, the election of Barack Obama; we’re too self-congratulatory about that. After all, when people cried on the evening that it was announced that he had won the election, why were they crying?

They were crying because given our history, Blacks had been so tremendously excluded, so brutally excluded. The reason why people were saying to themselves, “Am I dreaming?” is because we’re just so used to white supremacy in America that it was extraordinary, this idea of a Black person actually being elected to the presidency.

In a way, it’s quite sad that it was such an extraordinary thing for a Black person to be elected to the presidency. We have to remember that only twice in American history have Blacks been popularly elected as governors, only three times have Blacks been popularly elected as senators.

So we have this egregious history of racial marginalization, exclusion, when it comes to Black folks and electoral politics. This was a triumph, but it was a triumph against the backdrop of a sordid history. We need to also remember that Barack Obama did not win the majority of the white vote. If it had just been white folks voting Senator McCain and Sarah Palin would be occupying the White House right now.

So it’s true that Barack Obama won decisively in the Electoral College, but the actual election was closer than many people suggest.

Tavis: With that backdrop, that sordid history backdrop that you referenced a moment ago, what does it say about the color line in America, to your earlier point, that for Obama to win the presidency he had to have one way of talking to white folk and one way of talking to Black folk? What’s that say about the racial line in this country?

Kennedy: It says that it’s still here. We are still wrestling with a color line that penetrates every aspect of American life. I don’t care if we’re talking about the movie theater, I don’t care if we’re talking about marriage, friendship, I don’t care if we’re talking about sports, I don’t care if we’re talking about electoral politics.

The race line is there. Barack Obama had to do a very careful dance. Of course, one part of the dance was just to stay away from race. He was trying to stay away from it during the election campaign. He has tried to stay away from it during his presidency.

Tavis: Is that something you celebrate? Is that something that’s wise on his part?

Kennedy: Well, no, I don’t celebrate it. In my view it is a sad aspect of our politics that the president of the United States has to tippy-toe around the race question. Do I condemn him? No, I don’t condemn him. He has to face the discipline of electoral politics. He has to get enough votes to win, and in order to get enough votes to win, yes, he has to distance himself from the race question.

Tavis: But here’s the part, respectfully, that always troubles me about that argument. When people say, one, he has to, no, he doesn’t. Abraham Lincoln went one way, FDR went one way, LBJ went one way. Yes, now, there is a price to pay for that, but stop saying to me that he has to do it. He doesn’t.

He’s chosen to do it, number one, and number two, what does it matter if the person wins? You celebrate the symbolism of it, but where the substance is concerned, where jobs are concerned, where economic opportunity is concerned, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, if what you celebrate symbolically doesn’t give you what you need substantively, who cares that you won?

Kennedy: Okay, couple of things. First, you’re right on the question of choice. You are absolutely right, and it seems to me that a very important question has to be asked here. What is the presidency worth? If you think that the presidency is not worth the compromises that Barack Obama has made in order to win it, win the White House, I understand your point.

On the other hand, the presidency is a very powerful, influential position in which people are making – the president’s making all sorts of decisions that nobody ever hears about. Hundreds of appointments that don’t make it to the front pages, don’t make it to any paper.

Now, if you think that having a person who is closer to your politics than the alternative – again, compared to what? Compared to John McCain, Sarah Palin? If you think that having somebody in the White House is worth the compromises that he has had to make, then you will take the position I take, which is recognizing those compromises, not papering them over.

Let’s recognize them, but let’s also recognize the dilemma that Obama faces. Frankly, I feel for him. I empathize with him; I’m sympathetic to him given the pinch of the dilemma he faces.

Tavis: But here’s the challenge, and I wrote this down from your text because I wanted to get this right. Here’s the challenge, though. You say in your book, “If Obama is given a free pass by progressives, it is almost inevitable that he will fail to be as progressive as might otherwise by possible.”

And I might add to that not just possible, but necessary or needed, given the hell that people of color are catching in this country right now. That’s my own commentary added to your text, Professor Kennedy, not that you need it, but I add that anyway.

Kennedy: I agree.

Tavis: So here’s the question. If you feel for him because he’s in a pinch and you understand that and you’re empathetic and you’re sympathetic but you realize that he might not be as progressive as he otherwise would be, needs to be, ought to be, is demanded to be, how do progressives do that dance with him, lovingly, to push him?

Kennedy: Progressives need to be vocal and criticize him when he warrants criticism. I think that the landscape has to be changed by progressives. If progressives push things to the left more, Obama will follow and move left. He is an electoral politician who will do the calculus that other electoral politicians do. If we push it to the left, he will come behind us.

Will he be a pioneer? No. Will he be out in front? No. But he will come behind blockers. We’ve got to block, open up some more territory, he will run behind that.

Tavis: I’d like to believe that, and in my heart of hearts I do believe that, but the evidence doesn’t bear that out, which is why labor, beaten back by this White House up until the last few days, Trumka and others in the AFL-CIO, in the larger labor movement, have been relatively quiet.

So maybe your argument is that we haven’t pushed – that progressives, that is, haven’t pushed enough, but if he keeps compromising and he keeps capitulating, even though progressives are saying something else to him and saying it more loudly and more vocally now than ever before, the evidence runs counter to your argument, professor, that he will run behind blockers even when they’re there.

Kennedy: No, I don’t think so. I think that the evidence – take a look at other areas. I think for instance gay activists were doing the right thing by voicing, and voicing loudly, their discomfort with Obama’s policy, their demand that he push harder on the gay liberation front. I think that was a good thing and I think he acted accordingly.

Again, Obama is A, an electoral politician who will act like other electoral politicians act.

Tavis: But you’re making my point, though. Why will he do it – and I agree with you, I totally agree – but why will he do it for gays and lesbians, why will he do it for the Jewish lobby, why will he do it for Wall Street, the CBC and other Black progressives and others who are pushing him, when he knows that Black folk are catching hell he takes a bus tour to talk about jobs.

You know the numbers. I know the numbers. He didn’t talk to a single Negro on that whole three-day bus tour – I’m being somewhat funny here, but he didn’t go into Black neighborhoods. So if he does it for gays and lesbians, does it for Jews, does it for et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, we’re back to that color line, why not for Black folk who are catching the most hell?

Kennedy: Two things – first, I notice that in the past few days the White House has indicated that President Obama’s going to give a big speech in I think it’s Detroit. I can’t help but think that the timing and the placement has something to do with the criticism that has been lodged by Representative Waters, by yourself, by Professor West, by others on the left in general, but the Black left in particular.

So I think, actually, he’s going to – you’ve got to make noise. You’ve got to make noise, but you have to make noise, again, being keenly attentive to the discipline of electoral politics.

It would be a tremendous error for progressives to prompt the president or demand that this president act in ways that would cripple his ability to be reelected. On the one hand you’ve got to push him, you’ve got to change the electoral landscape, but you’ve got to do it in a way that enables him to get the votes that he needs in order to be reelected.

Tavis: I totally agree, and I’ll close on this note – I’m all for that, what you’ve just said now. I’m behind that 100 percent so long as enabling him ultimately leads to an enabling of the persons who have been politically, economically and socially disenfranchised, and quite frankly, I ain’t seen evidence of that just yet.

I’m all for enabling him so long as it leads to enabling other people that are catching the most hell. I don’t see that yet, Randall.

Kennedy: Well, a couple of things. One, again, there are lots of decisions made underneath the radar screen, and we need to do our research on that. We also have to recognize the tremendous force, reactionary force, that Barack Obama and his administration faces.

Tavis: Yeah, and that’s why –

Kennedy: You have to be attentive to that.

Tavis: That’s why your friend and my friend Cornel West is right when he says that we says that we must respect the president, we must protect the president from those kinds of vicious (unintelligible) attacks, but we must also correct the president when he’s wrong. Respect, protect, correct. We’ll leave it on that note.

His name is Randall Kennedy, distinguished professor at Harvard. Always honored to have him on this program. A provocative new book, as you can tell by this conversation, called “The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency.” Professor Kennedy, always, sir, an honor and a delight to have you on this program.

Kennedy: Thanks so much for having me.

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Last modified: September 2, 2011 at 3:11 pm