Toeing the race line

Gabriel Shapiro

Let’s talk about race.” It is difficult to imagine an invitation that would be more likely to get turned down in most cases. Along with its partners ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation, race is one of the many lines of division along which the American mind has been repeatedly conquered by misguided ideologies and fractious identity politics.

Race has provided Harvard law professor and author Randall Kennedy his share of controversy, both personally and professionally. His 2002 book, “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” has been roundly hailed and vociferously decried by equally vocal critics, and not only for his choice of title but for everything that goes along with that most famous of racial slurs. The book is also full of personal accounts of Kennedy’s own experienced with a heavy word which is often too-lightly thrown.

One of the most frequent criticisms Kennedy is beset by is a claim that runs something like this: If we are foolish and reckless enough to even utter the word, we risk giving license to those who would brandish it against black Americans. Kennedy addressed this line of attack in the Atlantic Monthly in an interview with Daniel Smith. “It’s Kennedy’s opinion that to ignore what’s behind the word nigger is to ‘make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils,’ and that it would do more harm than good to turn away from its history and its destructiveness.”

The willingness to draw the ire of so many by tackling head-on the painful legacy of one of the dirtiest weapons in the lexicon has made Kennedy equal parts hero and villain.

Nowhere was Kennedy more fully lambasted than in the Black Commentator, the online journal that published Kennedy’s Harvard colleague Dr. Martin Kilson. Kilson wrote one of the most vituperative rebukes of Kennedy, calling his book “idiotic” and characterizing Kennedy’s motivation as “to assist white Americans in feeling comfortable using the epithet ‘Nigger.’ “

The idea that this specific usage could ever become comfortable to anyone but the sort of miscreant who likely already employs it is a mysterious one. Kilson goes on at length in his repudiation of Kennedy, all the while acquiescing to the very conditions Kennedy claims to be challenging. There is no easy answer, but there must be dialogue, or not only will easy answers be lost, but so too will any hope of addressing the sorry state of race relations in the United States. It seems that to some, agreeing with or even reading Kennedy is tantamount to espousing racism.

There has been a tendency among some scholars to read Kennedy’s work as too narrowly focused. In a review of “Nigger,” New York Times writer David D. Kirkpatrick included criticism of Kennedy from outspoken Mexican-American anti-hate speech activist and University of Colorado law professor Richard Delgado. “Delgado Ö feared that Mr. Kennedy’s defense of the term’s novel uses would encourage racists. But Mr. Delgado also said that Mr. Kennedy risked slighting other ethnic groups by underestimating the power of other slurs. Calling “nigger” the “paradigmatic” ethnic slur was “parochial,” Mr. Delgado said.”

This sort of knee-jerk response calling for hyper-inclusivity lays an impossible task before anyone who wishes to engage issues of race as it seems to require an accounting for every form the disparate experiences of all who have been the victims of speech acts aimed at hurting them can take.

Kennedy may be intently focused on African-American issues, but that is the price of conducting an exhaustive study. To have tried to track every epithet, every instance of hate speech, every mutation of this theme would have lead to an overwhelming project, likely too large for anyone to tackle.

The exclusion of conversations about other groups in “Nigger” needn’t be read as a diminution of their similar struggles, and Kennedy’s comments allude to a broader connection with issues that face other minority groups, women, GLBT communities and others.

The issues that revolve around hate speech and racism are always thorny at best. One recalls the ACLU and the flight of a great percentage of its Jewish membership over a case involving the defense of the Klan’s right to march. It is a fine line we have to walk between protecting those who require protection and protecting our rights to freedom of speech and the like. It is never pleasant to endure the ignorance and hatred some of the worst of our society are capable of, but it is too high a price to trade our very most basic rights to shut them up. It is worth considering that perhaps the slippery slope we should worry about is not who might start tossing the term “nigger” around casually, but rather once we start putting restrictions on what can and can’t be said, where will it stop?

This is an especially difficult question, given the socially conservative posture and anti-human rights agenda of the present administration. Should we really move toward a position in which people in the government are charged with deciding what you and I can say? This is where the issue turns more toward competing definitions of a democratic society and the objectives thereof. Is the goal the rule of the majority or the representation of the minority? To move toward restrictive hate speech legislation presumes that the main objective of everyone in government is too protect the rights of minorities, a nice dream, but one they’ve proven repeatedly to be false.

Kennedy’s goal appears to be one that is antithetical to the PC rules and codes we find ourselves surrounded by today. These “politically correct” enjoinders aim to rid society of hate by burying it and hiding ugliness from view. While this sanitization of our surroundings might be pleasant, none of us may allow ourselves the delusion that its absence somehow heralds its demise. Kennedy would rather meet his enemy face to face and argue it into submission. This is a lesson for all of us, to not be seduced by the easy fixes, but to fight against that which we disdain, and to never let up.

Kennedy’s latest book “Interracial Intimacies” seems slightly less rage-inducing, as it chronicles the development of interracial relationships from slavery to the present, including several chapters on interracial adoption. At a time when marriage and the strictures thereon are in the headlines nationally and here at home, Kennedy’s insights should prove particularly provocative.

It is worth noting, however, that there is a great deal of resistance to equating the struggle for racial justice and the freedom to inter-marry and the fight for the right of marriage to be extended to homosexuals.

For his part, on the issue of same-sex marriage Kennedy is characteristically unambiguous, saying “it is my own belief that the struggle to secure the right to marry regardless of the genders of the parties involved will be won in the not so distant future. That achievement, I am convinced, will represent a real step up in the moral elevation of American democracy – a step facilitated, in large part, by previous struggles over race relations.”

Both of Kennedy’s books have been extremely popular, which points to one of the all too obvious but often all too downplayed facts of life in America: Race matters. As the United States moves to an increasingly comfortable temporal distance from the era of slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement and other episodes from our racist past, people are lulled into a false calm. They have come to believe that since the worst simply must be behind us, that there is less importance to be placed on issues of race.

But we know that this is not the case, and the belief that we have overcome our racist legacy is the precondition for our arrival in the racist present and the jumping-off point for the equally racist future. Everyone has to deal with race, whether as a minority who has been subjected to racism, a witness to injustice too frightened or complacent to act, or a bigot throwing barbs. Each of these positions is unique, but what is not is the basis of the distinction between them, and that is race.

The United States’ precarious relationship with race is one of the darkest features of our history, and Kennedy starts right in with the early days of racism and race issues. In both of his aforementioned books (there is a third as well, “Race, Crime and the Law”) Kennedy opens with a chronological account of his subject, turning later to specific case studies and more timely discussions. Race will always be a timely discussion, just as justice will always be a timely idea. Kennedy has plenty to say on both, and we are fortunate to have a chance to hear him in person for ourselves.