Kennedy, Randall 1954–
Randall Kennedy 1954–
Randall Kennedy is known as a scholar who is unafraid of tackling difficult racial issues. He has written for academic and popular journals, published several books, and served on the editorial boards of the magazines American Prospect and the Nation. Kennedy has written extensively on interracial marriages and adoptions, and on the relationship between race and crime. His views have won acclaim, but they have also courted controversy. “One of the things they [critics] find disconcerting is that I ask questions,” Kennedy told Lawrence Donegan in the London Observer. “I actually question the premise of my own thinking and push my own conclusions hard. I thought that was what intellectuals were supposed to do.” Despite the firestorm created by his published work, Donegan noted that Kennedy’s “colleagues variously describe him as brilliant, well-read and personable.”
Kennedy was born on September 10, 1954, in Columbia, South Carolina, and grew up in prosperous circumstances. He earned a bachelor of arts degree from Princeton in 1977, and completed graduate work at Oxford in 1979. After receiving a law degree from Yale in 1982, he consecutively served as a law clerk for United States Court of Appeals Judge Skelly Wright in 1982-83 and for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1983-84. In 1984 he joined the faculty at Harvard Law School, teaching courses on race relations law and freedom of expression. Derrick Bell wrote in New Politics that “Randall Kennedy, because of a range of writings in law review journals and lay publications, has become a much-sought-after expert on race whose views are solicited on television talk shows, in important periodicals, and at scholarly conferences.”
Kennedy first came to prominence as a legal-academic scholar when he began addressing affirmative action. In 1997 Kennedy published Race, Crime, and the Law, which received a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award in 1998. “This book is a brave, honest, forceful intervention in that debate,” wrote William A. Galston and David Wasserman in the Wilson Quarterly. The same article noted, “With restrained passion, he documents the myriad ways in which our legal system has betrayed the principle of fair and equal treatment for African Americans.” While Kennedy argues in the book that African Americans have suffered at the hands of the criminal justice system, he also notes that blacks have committed the majority of the crimes that people are most afraid of (robbery, rape, murder, aggravated assault). He likewise points out that the need to protect black communities from crime has often been neglected. Galston and Wasserman wrote, “Too often, says Kennedy, black leaders show more concern for black perpetrators of crime than for their black victims.”
In 2002 more controversy erupted when Kennedy published Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. “The power of ‘Nigger,’” noted Charles Taylor in Salon, “is that Kennedy writes fully of the word, neither condemning its every use nor fantasizing that it can ever become solely a means of empowerment.” In this slim volume Kennedy explores the history of the controversial word, noting that the
Born on September 10, 1954, in Columbia, SC; married Yvedt Matory; children: William Henry, Education: Princeton University, BA, 1977; Oxford University, graduate studies, 1977-79; Yale University, JD, 1982.
Career: Law professor and author. Admitted to Washington, DC, bar, 1983. U.S. Court of Appeals, law clerk to Hon. Skelly Wright, 1982-83; U.S. Supreme Court, law clerk to Hon. Thurgood Marshall, 1983-84; Harvard University, assistant professor of law, 1984-85, associate professor, 1985-89, professor. 1989-.
Awards: National Achievement scholarship, 1973-77; Rhodes scholarship, 1977-79; Earl Warren Legal Training scholarship, 1979-82.
Address: Office —Law School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138.
meaning varies according to the person using it and the context of its use. “I’m not saying that any particular instance of using the N-word is any more horrifying and menacing than any other such word,” he told Daniel Smith in Atlantic Online. “I am saying that from a broad sociological view, the word is associated with more havoc in American society than other racial slurs.”
In Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption, published in 2003, Kennedy attempts to bring greater understanding to the racial issues that continue to trouble American society. “His premise is based on common sense,” wrote Emily Bernard in Black Issues Book Reviews. “Until Americans confront racial bias in the most intimate arenas of their lives, we will continue to live with racism and its consequences.” Unlike a number of black intellectuals, Kennedy has supported interracial adoption. “Parenting is a mysterious thing,” he told Lise Funderburg in Essence. “People will learn what they need to learn in order to help their child along. I’m willing to assume that with respect to all parents, including White people who want to adopt Black kids.” Kennedy also explores interracial marriages throughout American history as well as their presence in literature and film. “There is something hopeful in Kennedy’s historical accounts,” noted Bernard. “In spite of the law … some individuals managed to maintain honorable and nuanced relationships with people they were legally forbidden to approach as equals.”
Kennedy’s views have proved controversial even among other black intellectuals. Darcus Howe noted of Nigger in the New Statesman, “Had a white person used the word, rejection would have been immediate. Now white society can always point to Kennedy and say that a negro advanced the view that ‘nigger’ is acceptable.” Many black scholars have labeled his work conservative, and worry that books like Race, Crime, and the Law provide political cover for traditional academics. “Over the years,” wrote Bell, “Professor Kennedy has become the impartial, black intellectual, commenting on our still benighted condition and as ready to criticize as commend.” When asked by Kate Tuttle of Africana how he felt about the controversy over Nigger, Kennedy replied: “What’s the worst that happens? That someone writes a very long diatribe in the New Yorker excoriating me…. I’m not facing firing squads, I’m not facing exile, I’m not facing jail.”
Through numerous appearances on the lecture circuit, Kennedy continued to promote debate on hot-button racial issues in the public arena. “If you are socially isolated,” he told Regan Good in the New York Times, “you are more vulnerable to stereotypes and myths, you won’t have the opportunity to have conversations with someone who has a different social background than you.” While many critics have attempted to use Kennedy’s work to advance their own agendas, he has retained his academic independence. “Against black pessimists,” wrote Galston and Wasserman, “[Kennedy] argues that substantial progress has been made toward the ideal of color-blind justice. Against complacent whites, he argues that there is still a long way to go.” The relationship between white and black America, Kennedy noted, remains one of America’s most perplexing problems. “Obviously there are all sorts of ethnic, racial conflicts in American society,” Kennedy told Smith, “but there’s one that is deeper than all the others and that’s white/black racial conflict.”
Race, Crime, and the Law, Vintage Books, 1997.
Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Pantheon, 2002.
Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption, Pantheon, 2003.
Essence, January 1998, p. 64.
New Politics, Summer 1998.
New York Times, February 9, 2003, p. 19.
Observer (London, England), January 20, 2002, p. 16.
Statesman, January 28, 2002, p. 27.
Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1997, p. 100.
“N-Word,” Salon, www.salon.com (May 3, 2003).
“Randall Kennedy,” Africana, www.africana.com (May 3, 2003).
“Randall Kennedy,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (May 3, 2003).
“That Word,” Atlantic Online, www.theatlantic.com (May 3, 2003).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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