Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy was here today. He spoke at our Friday Convocation, on the topic of race betrayal and being a sellout. He also attended discussions held at the Black Students interest house, and the Alumni Guest House.
It was very illuminating, all in all. Unfortunately, two negative events marred the day. Kennedy's convocation address, as previously mentioned, was on race betrayal. And when the floor was opened for questions, that was what the questioners inquired upon. The last questioner, however, felt compelled to ask the ever-so-tiring "isn't affirmative action just reverse racism?"
Now first of all, I was annoyed because I'm quite tired of hearing that question generally. But more importantly, I was pissed off because Professor Kennedy's speech had little to nothing to do with affirmative action. It was scarcely mentioned. And I am sick of Black racial progressives being called to the mat to defend Affirmative Action every time they make a public appearance. It's not as if Professor Kennedy is the public face of affirmative action defenders, either--certainly, he supports it, but it is not like he's made a career based upon it's advocacy. Fortunately, Professor Kennedy's response was beautifully brutal (I've heard the questioner was angry about it, but serves him right), laying out at least four different reasons affirmative action is not racism, and making a wonderful historical anecdote about how the same "reverse racism" claim was made by President Andrew Johnson in vetoing the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Even then, the first response to any measure trying to remove the shackles placed upon African Americans and foster their empowerment was that it would give them "special rights." If that argument could be trotted out with a straight face just a year after slavery's demise, why should we trust its good intentions now?
So that one had a (more or less) happy ending. Unfortunately, the other altercation went less smoothly. At the Alumni Guest House, one of the questioners inquired as to whether Black men of means and influence, like Professor Kennedy, should do more to work in lower-income communities, rather than elite institutions such as Carleton. He recounted how at his poor Houston school, the only speakers who came were men from prison. Just having a Black man show up and say "I'm Black, and I'm a professor at Harvard" could do so much for these students.
Professor Kennedy answered with what was, to my mind, maddening vagueness and refused to endorse even the idea that ideally, folks like him should do more (or much at all) to assist inner-city communities. At this, several other Black students (not the original questioner) took exception. They accused him of showing insufficient commitment to his community, that his presence here was a paean to complacency, and insinuated that his motivation for attending here was that we could pay more money. Things rapidly escalated, with an attending faculty member admonishing the students that they were "guests" here--at which point at least three walked out of the room in disgust, with them and Kennedy trading attacks on the way out.
I've never seen a meeting with an outside speaker at Carleton result in such bitter animosity. And it's really demoralizing. I didn't even really realize how affected I was right away--I was chatting with one of my friends who also attended, and we pretty much had the conversation that could have happened had the discussion not broken down. But once I got back to my dorm room, I immediately was awashed in a wave of depression. You attend these sessions so desperately wanting to make progress--not agreement, just progress. Gaps bridged, if not closed; ideas developed, if not adopted. It is so rare that these conversations begin in the first place, and to watch one die in such a spectacular burst of flames is crushing.
So what do you do? I guess you pick yourself up, and try again. And again, and again, and again.