Randall Kennedy

Randall Kennedy has been a contributing editor of the Prospect since 1995. He is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard University and is completing a book on race relations and the Obama presidency.

Recent Articles

Imagining Malcolm X

Manning Marable's biography of Malcolm X is a significant and poignant cultural event because of its subject, its purpose, and the recent tragic death of its author, the founder of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. Marable worked on this biography for more than two decades, struggling in recent years with a severe illness that in 2010 required a double lung transplant. Only days before the book's publication, Professor Marable passed away. His commitment to scholarship even in the face of sickness and death is inspiring. Although Marable has bequeathed to us a deeply valuable work, it is also deeply flawed. Marable sought to create a realistic portrait of Malcolm X, but his depiction remains mired in the sentimental, reverential perspective that he attempted to transcend. He presents reams of evidence that should demote Malcolm X from the exalted standing he enjoys among many progressives of various stripes. Yet Marable was simply unwilling...

Race Talk in the Obama Era

The paradoxical reticence of America's first black president and how progressives must fill the vacuum

(White House/Pete Souza)
"Race talk" has occupied a contradictory place in Barack Obama's political strategy. On the one hand, Obama has made it newly salient. The speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 that elevated him to political stardom focused on his vision of reconciliation, racial and otherwise: "There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America," Obama declared, "there's the United States of America." The single speech for which he has been most lauded was his "A More Perfect Union" March 2008 address in Philadelphia, delivered to quell the uproar over his relationship with the incendiary Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In that speech, Obama declared that his life story as the child of a black father and white mother "has seared into [his] genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts -- that out of many, we are truly one." He went on to say that "race is an issue that ... this nation cannot afford to ignore." Yet as president,...

The Enduring Relevance of Affirmative Action

When diversity became a positive, race-based preferences overcame the backlash.

President Barack Obama talks with former President Bill Clinton. (White House Photo/Pete Souza)
One of the most notable accomplishments of liberalism over the past 20 years is something that didn't happen: the demise of affirmative action. Contrary to all predictions, affirmative action has survived. This is a triumph not only for race relations but also for the liberal vision of an inclusive society with full opportunity for all. In the early 1990s, the future of policies aimed at assisting racial minorities seemed bleak indeed. In 1989, the Supreme Court invalidated an affirmative-action plan for government contracts in Richmond, Virginia, holding that such programs at the state and local level must be subject to "strict scrutiny" -- the same level of skeptical assessment applied to laws or decisions that had historically disadvantaged racial minorities. That same year, the Court issued decisions that neutered the concept of "disparate impact" as a form of racial discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Disparate impact required employers not only to...

Affirmative Reaction

In racial matters, good news from the Supreme Court is generally no news. Since at least the mid-1970s, the Court has been mostly inhospitable to those seeking to advance progressive racial policies through litigation. That is why civil-rights activists often deliberately keep potentially far-reaching cases away from the High Court. In a revealing episode in 1997, for example, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other organizations, rather than risk an adverse judgment by the justices, pooled hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay the settlement costs demanded by a white schoolteacher who had initiated a reverse-discrimination lawsuit. There was a time when Congress could be a counterweight to the Court's rollbacks. In the early 1980s, when the Supreme Court narrowed its previous interpretation of the 15th Amendment's prohibition against racial discrimination in elections, activists pushed successfully for legislation that partially regained what the justices took away. In the late...

White Parents, Black Children

Gift Children: A Story of Race, Family, and Adoption in a Divided America By J. Douglas Bates. Ticknor & Fields, 270 pages, $21.95 Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother By Jana Wolff. Andrews and McMeel Publishing, 148 pages, $12.95 Loving across the Color Line: A White Adoptive Mother Learns about Race By Sharon E. Rush. Rowman & Littlefield, 190 pages, $23.95 W hites who adopt black children are widely viewed with suspicion. Are they adopting black youngsters to satisfy some neurotic need? Are they more interested in demonstrating political virtue than in pursuing the prosaic tasks of parenthood? Are they so desperate to raise a child that they will accept a black one though they would really prefer a white one? Are they dangerously naive about the realities of racism? Are they racial missionaries seeking to "save" black children from blackness? Are they trying to obtain juvenile slaves? Moreover, as if the suspicions of strangers were not enough to contend with, white...

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