Friday, January 19, 2007

Talk of the Town

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.


Anonymous said...

A nice and honest account. But have you considered that your idea of "making progress" isn't shared by Professor Kennedy? Indeed, it may be at odds with his idea of the same.

Frankly, the whole notion of "race betrayal" creeps me out. It's fundamentally illiberal. I would never bow to someone telling me I should think or act a particular way do to my race.

I don't know from your post whether Professor Kennedy was speaking on the "pro" or "con" side of this proposition, but by inference I'm gathering he was "pro." And if so the challenges are even more interesting. It says his notion of "race betrayal" was confrontational and reactionary, and his challengers were trying to develop something more comprehensive to truly embrace. Perhaps the illustration here was useful because it illustrated the shallowness of that proposition.

If you want to care for the poor, why care only for the black poor? That leads to a sectarian mindset and that in turn leads to very bad things. Better to care on the basis of common humanity I think. That's where the civil rights movement always makes its greatest strides.

David Schraub said...

Backwards. Professor Kennedy does believe that there needs to be some enforcement mechanism with regards to racial solidarity (to prevent free-riding), lest group efforts to remedy their oppression never get off the ground. That's self-evidently true--if you want to mobilize, say, Black people to end racism, the collective action problem will be an issue. But Kennedy was also quite forthcoming about the problems and drawbacks when "sellout" is thrown too easily. The angry students were upset because they thought he was too quick to sanction abandoning the community for you-get-yours-I'll-get-mine individualism.

The probligo said...

I have just written on the topic of the blow-up in Britain over the (so-called) reality programme of "Big Brother". Google that through news and you will get plenty of reading.

What that instance has shown up is that "racism" in Britain is far more insidious and perhaps covert than they are prepared to admit.

The reported comments from Blair and Brown show either a total denial of that fact, or the political consequences of admitting its truth are immense...

I hear (and correct me if I am wrong here) that the general audience at this convocation might find "the elimination of racism" a far greater hurdle to overcome than they imagine. I could understand that the idea might be challenging, even create a level of personal discomfort.