Race and Betrayal

How to know if you're a sellout.

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It's safe to say that nearly every black person in the United States has, at some point in his or her life, been warned about or accused of "selling out". It is often an accusation that delivers an instant and unique sting. But what exactly is "selling out" in the black community?

Just who is betraying whom? Are Bill Cosby and Oprah sellouts for "attacking" hip-hop culture? Have rap artists "sold out" to predominantly white corporate interests who use them to push their own exploitative ideas of black culture to a predominantly white audience? Are black conservatives like Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and the greatly maligned Clarence Thomas "sellouts" or simply misunderstood? In his new book Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy seeks to define the notion of selling out, and in so doing, constructively shape the often acrimonious discussion about selling out in the black community.

Randall Kennedy is no stranger to this controversy. His bestseller Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word argued that legitimizing the use of that term for all members of society would remove its negative connotations. Those who disagreed with his position accused him of selling out, suggesting that his intent in writing Nigger was to curry favor with the white academic establishment.

Sellout seems to be Kennedy's answer to those criticisms. Rather than respond directly to those who (often unfairly) attacked him, Kennedy seeks to generate criteria for selling out and then, through historical examples and personal anecdotes, subtly suggest why he does not meet them. The result is a book that is intensely personal, incredibly readable and yet still academically weighty.

The core of Kennedy's argument is not that the black community should do away with the idea of selling out, but rather strictly define the behavior to which it applies. More interestingly, he places the burden of proof on the accuser, by suggesting that we impose consequences just as harsh for those who carelessly wield the label as we do for true sellouts.

A good idea, perhaps, but one that is difficult to enforce, in large part because it is extremely difficult to define the community that is being sold out. In his chapters "Who is Black?" and "Passing as Selling Out", Kennedy uses legal history to show just how hard it is to determine who belongs to the black community and just how ridiculous some traditionally accepted definitions of black can be.

He opts for what some might consider a loose definition of racial community membership, writing "I embrace a conception in which choice is always an element of racial citizenship. In my view all Negroes should be voluntary Negroes, blacks by choice, African Americans with a recognized right to resign from the race." It follows then that the sellout is the person who "demonstrates the absence of even a minimal communal allegiance."

The remaining three chapters of the book all provide historical evidence in support of Kennedy's definition of selling out, as well as examples of just how detrimental and unproductive the unconfined term "sellout" can be. Perhaps most interesting is the amount of time Kennedy spends defending the man widely considered the poster child for selling out, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

While making it clear that he does not agree with Thomas's policies or legal opinions, Kennedy criticizes those who attack Thomas's character instead of forming "an informed understanding of [his jurisprudence] that provides a predicate for carefully calibrated criticism." In other words a community does itself no favors by branding those with unpopular opinions as sellouts instead of listening respectfully to what may be valuable criticism.

Allowing for a wide range of opinions within the community, Kennedy seems to suggest, may be more instrumental in advancing the collective cause than requiring a consensus view. Alas, what is more likely is what has happened to Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, Oprah, and even Kennedy himself; those with viewpoints that run counter to the conventional wisdom of a given moment are accused of selling out.

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