Randall Kennedy has a gift for choosing topics: In four years he has covered perhaps the three most crucial issues in intelligent black discourse. First came "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word" (2002), a bestselling exploration of the N-word; then a book on black-white romantic relationships, "Interracial Intimacies" (2003), and now here is "Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal" (Pantheon, 228 pages, $22), on the tarring of certain black thinkers and figures as Uncle Toms taking a buck to work against the interests of their own people.
Mr. Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor, is black, and part of what has driven him to write this book is being called a sellout himself on occasion, especially by people claiming that the title of the N-word book inherently condoned the usage of the word itself. Martin Kilson, Harvard's first tenured black professor, proposed that the goal of the book was "to assist White Americans in feeling comfortable with using the epithet."
That judgment would be impossible for anyone who actually read the book, and, in "Sellout," Mr. Kennedy issues a call to wield that term more thoughtfully. He is dismayed at the "appalling sloppiness" with which so many use the label, and even suggests that "errant accusers should be made to feel the pain of ostracism just as their targets do." I can't help enjoying that scenario myself, as a black thinker who is often called a sellout by people who have never acknowledged my regularly calling attention to programs that help black poor people or, actually, read more than a shard or two of what I have ever written or said.
As Mr. Kennedy probably knows, however, nothing is likely to make people any less sloppy in who they decide is this month's "sellout." No one is concerned with dotting the i's and crossing the t's and examining how the charge holds up to subsequent reality, because the charge is never based on empirical reasoning in the first place. Rather, people hurl the "sellout" epithet based on gut impressions. Many blacks, stirred by the victories of the civil rights movement, equate meaningful black activism with anger, insistence upon cultural separation, and a primary focus on racism. Because so many black teachers, writers, and activists promulgate this notion, and also because the theatrics inherent to this kind of protest are deeply attractive to a certain personality type, there are more than a few blacks who see a black person giving white America any other kind of message as suspicious. To them, it seems reasonable that this black person must be insincere. The theatrical bent gives another nudge, and hence the idea that such black people are working secretly for the Man. Mr. Kennedy is patient enough to devote most of "Sellout" to dignifying this kind of sandbox name-calling with sustained analysis. His main observation is that the views of most black "sellouts" can be legitimately analyzed as founded in the same concern for black uplift as the politically correct liberal orthodoxy. Just as the liberal firebrand considers himself to be doing good in calling on whites to desist in their racism and devote a Marshall Plan-style operation to saving the black poor, the black conservative who argues that poor blacks must learn to fend for themselves because no human beings have ever thrived without learning how to do so can make his argument with great love for his people.
The slaves who informed their masters of plans other slaves were making to rebel, for example, were alarmed at the crushing response from whites that such rebellions would attract, and saw themselves as protecting blacks, not "selling them out." Today's blacks who argue against racial preferences in admissions often bring to bear evidence that these policies harm students more than they help them: They honestly believe that they are the progressives in this case.
Mr. Kennedy also points out another weakness of the "sellout" label. It is most readily leveled on the basis of one position: To oppose racial preferences is to be an Uncle Tom, regardless of one's other views. Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson is generally viewed as quite bien-pensant despite an array of views about the causes of poverty and the significance of racism that are hardly PC. Patterson does, however, espouse the continuation of racial preferences, and this keeps him "in the club." As Mr. Kennedy notes, black America is too "wildly heterogenous" for it to be easy to logically designate a view as "antiblack."
This means that the modern definition of "sellout" is politically incoherent, subjecting whole idiosyncratic constellations of political positions to a single-issue standard. "Contrary views on gay rights, environmental policy, abortion, tax policy, foreign affairs, or church-state relations are acceptable," Mr. Kennedy writes, but affirmative action is "the litmus test." For legions of college town Blue America types, the black professor opposing racial preferences is repulsive, while the black minister disapproving of homosexuality and abortion occasions no comment, or at best, polite "questions" seldom and quietly asked.
Of course, Mr. Kennedy devotes a chapter to Clarence Thomas, a prime demonstration of the unreflective thinking behind accusations of Uncle Tom-ery.
Over the years, Mr. Thomas has provided sensible explanations as to why he sees his views as helping black people rather than hurting them, but accusations that he knows the PC "truth" deep down but spouts a right-wing line just to please whites continue still.
Despite these virtues, it must be said that Mr. Kennedy does not allow his reasoning to take the argument to its inherent finish line. He refrains from condemning the "sellout" term categorically, suggesting instead that "policing the group's boundaries" is a requirement of any community, which will seek "the benefits of appropriate ostracism."
The question is just who it would be logically "appropriate" to ostracize in the black America of 2008. Mr. Kennedy proposes hypothetical cases such as "an African-American member of a black uplift organization who reveals its secrets to anti-black adversaries out of malevolence or merely for purposes of self-promotion." Yet in our America, a person like this would be vanishingly rare. The categories today are so fluid, the issues are so complex, and openly "anti-black" activity is socially proscribed to the point of marginality. Who would the "anti-black" adversaries be, and even if we identified some underground skinhead group as such, of what use would the minutes from an NAACP meeting be to whatever they were doing?
The notion that there are "Uncle Toms" rubbing their hands together and taking money from "the white man" is, in a word, primitive. It resembles the reasoning style of preliterate cultures, which rely on mythical archetypes and unquestioning Manichaean dichotomies as the only way to make sense of the complexities of existence within a prescientific mindset.
Black Americans are surely more intellectually advanced than this, and Mr. Kennedy's book should be taken as what it actually is: a cool, clean case against the use of a backwards epithet that discourages something black America can hardly do without coherent and original thought.
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