Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal

Randall Kennedy, Author . Pantheon $22 (228p) ISBN 978-0-375-42543-1

Accusations of “selling out”—of betraying or neglecting the interests of blacks to curry favor with whites—are among the most damaging that African-Americans level at each other, according to Harvard law professor Kennedy. Called a sellout himself after his book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word appeared, Kennedy here explores the charge’s potency. He recounts the centuries-long history of sellout rhetoric—sometimes rooted in real betrayals by blacks who echoed white supremacist ideology or informed on slave rebellions or civil rights organizations—and examines its role both in uniting the black community against racism and in stifling debate within the community. A long chapter analyzes conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whom Kennedy acquits of sellout charges, and a fascinating discussion of racial categories and “White Negroes”—blacks who pass as white—shows how murky the concept of racial loyalty is. Kennedy finds sellout rhetoric to be overblown—often aimed at blacks guilty only of success—but won’t entirely repudiate it. African-Americans should “be subject to having citizenship in Black America revoked” if they repudiate “even a minimal communal allegiance” (although Kennedy is hard-pressed to think of plausible instances where this might apply). His is a lively, thoughtful, provocative commentary on a centerpiece of black identity politics. (Jan. 8)

Reviewed on: 11/12/2007
Release date: 01/01/2008
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