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Interview de Randall Kennedy

Interview réalisée à l'Hotel Carlton de Lyon, le 28 janvier 2010     

Clifford Armion: I would like to start with something you said yesterday at the Villa Gillet. You said that President Obama would like the colour of his skin to be considered as purely incidental. However, he quite recently addressed a black congregation in a church where Martin Luther King had preached. Don't you think it is quite paradoxical that most of his speeches should involve allusions to slavery, to segregation, to the Civil Rights Movement, when he pretends to be above race distinction?

Randall Kennedy: I don't think that most of his speeches are about racial issues. For instance, the speech that you're talking about was to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. On that occasion, because it is specifically aimed at commemorating one of the great Civil Rights champions, he will focus on the race question in America, but that's not representative of his usual approach.

C.A.: Do you think that a white president would have done that?

R.K.: Oh yes, absolutely. For instance, Bill Clinton was known for going on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Bill Clinton went to a black church and talked about the history of segregation and slavery and what the United States was attempting to do to overcome its past. George Bush did the same thing. That is thoroughly conventional. That Barack Obama does it is not a break from what other presidents do. What is different is that he is black, and that's a break, but that on that particular occasion he would focus on the history of segregation is not a new thing, not a surprising thing.

C.A.: You also talked about affirmative action yesterday. Would you say that the election of Barack Obama is in itself an example of affirmative action, in the sense that it could be considered as an expression of the guilt America still feels regarding slavery, segregation, discrimination? At least from the outside, from France, from Europe, the election of Barack Obama looks like an act of redemption.

R.K.: Yes and no. I think that a considerable amount of the support Barack Obama received derived from the feelings that you alluded to. Especially for the white Americans who supported Barack Obama. They liked him. They liked his policies. They thought he was fully capable of carrying out the duties of president of the United States, because after all, these are important duties and no one is going to lower their standards for this job, or at least no sensible person, because of feelings of guilt. I think there were many people who liked him, who respected him, who liked the policies that he envisioned, but there was an extra feeling of goodness in casting a vote for him because it was a way of seeking social redemption and in many cases, I'm sure, seeking personal redemption. I'm sure there were many people who were really happy to be able to vote for a black person as president of the United States. So, in a certain way, is there an aspect of positive discrimination going on in the election of Barack Obama? Yes, to some extent. I said yes and no. The no part is that there were some people of course who were less inclined to vote for him because of the colour of his skin. Maybe they didn't like his opponent, maybe they liked his policies, but they found it very difficult to vote for a black person. So as I said, it's yes and no.

C.A.: Do you think this feeling would have been so prominent if that election had taken place twenty years later? Some of the people who voted for him had actually grown up under a segregated society.

R.K.: There were many Americans who I'm quite sure, thinking about their own biographies, were amazed that they were in the position of voting for a black person. I'm sure that there were people who were segregationists who voted for Barack Obama. There's no question that that happened. There were people who had been white supremacists in their lives who voted for Barack Obama and who felt good about doing this, who felt good about themselves, who felt good about their country and the fact that things had turned in such a way that it was possible.

C.A.: Talking about affirmative action, you said yesterday that you considered colour-blindness and a colour-blind society as a dangerous notion.

R.K.: I think that the slogan 'colour-blindness' can be an imprisoning slogan that doesn't allow us to think what we really want. There are some people who say: I want a colour-blind society. I would push them on to say that they want not a colour-blind society but a just society. I think you could have a colour-blind just society: that's possible. But on the other hand you could also have an unjust colour-blind society. I think what we want is a just society, and the question is: what does that entail? How do we get to it? I don't think that taking a position that would never want to be attentive to the colour of people's skin is something tenable. There are instances in which we will want to be attentive to people's skin. For instance, let's imagine that you are investigating a white supremacist terrorist organisation and that you, the government, are seeking to infiltrate that organisation. When you determine what agent you are going to use for the purpose of infiltrating the organisation, are you going to be blind to the colour of his skin, are you going to turn to me to infiltrate a white supremacist group? No, you're not! I think there is nothing necessarily wrong in colour-blindness. There are people who say they want a colour-blind society and who have good intentions. The sort of society that they envision is a good society but I think that we can't be captured by slogans that needlessly confine the actions that we're willing to take in order to create a just society.

CA: So would you say that on the other hand affirmative action is a good way to promote equality?

R.K.: It can be, but again, one has to be careful. Some affirmative action programs are absolutely stupid. For instance, let's suppose you had an airline, Air France, and let's suppose there have been very few or no pilots of colour in Air France. Let's suppose that you want to bring in pilots of colour to Air France. In your efforts to do that, would you bring in people no matter what they knew, no matter how much experience they had? Would you turn to a pilot of colour who has only flown a plane two times and say: here, I'm going to give you this 747, fly from Paris to New York with five hundred people. For purposes of affirmative action, would you do that? No, of course you wouldn't do that. It would be a recipe for disaster. You have to take into account the degree of preparation that people have. Can this person carry out the duty that is demanded, can this person fly these people from Paris to New York safely? Does this person have the experience to do it? You have to take these great practical things into consideration. If you have an affirmative action plan that does not do that, it's stupid. I'm not in favour of stupid affirmative action, I'm in favour of intelligent affirmative action.

C.A.: Don't you think there is a risk that it should entail further racist feelings among white people?

R.K.: Yes there is. I'm in favour of affirmative action. In the United States I think that it has been useful, but can it also nurture feelings of resentment? Yes it can. One has to be very careful about that. Again, that's why one has to be very careful about how one designs it. You would not want to design it in a way that emphasises the negative features that sometimes come with it. You would not want to design it in a way that would promote people who are unable to do what needs to be done. You would not want to have affirmative action to such an extent that you limit the opportunities available to white people because that would exacerbate the feelings of resentment. Just like with all social policies, what you have to do is minimise the bad and accentuate the good.

C.A.: To what extent is Barack Obama favourable to affirmative action?

R.K.: I think that what I'm saying about affirmative action is very much in line with his thinking. I think that he feels it is a good thing but I think that he also feels that one needs to be careful in the way in which one structures it. I think that he is very attentive to the idea of making it fluid and flexible so that it not only includes people of colour. What about poor white people? There are plenty of poor white people in the United States who need assistance and he'd say: let's assist them too. Let's not forget about people of colour, they have been historically disadvantaged, let's make a special effort to assist the black community, but white people need assistance too and he's very careful about that.

C.A.: You wrote in one of your books, Sellout, that many of your black students at Harvard believe that they have a duty towards the black community. Would you say that a majority of African Americans believe that Barack Obama has a duty towards them?

R.K.: Yes, I believe that a majority of black Americans believe that he has a duty toward them. I also think that that same group recognises that he is president of the United States of America, and the United States of America includes all Americans. I think that they have a complicated feeling about Barack Obama. They do feel that he should have a special feeling toward them and at the same time they recognise that he is president of the United States and that it would be improper for him to act in a way which suggests that he has more loyalty toward them than toward any other group of Americans. It's a complicated feeling that they have toward him. I think in fact that most black Americans want him to comport himself in a way that is consistent with the way most Americans think that a president of the United States should act. Many black Americans would be disappointed in him if he acted with a degree of partiality towards black Americans which made other Americans think that he was acting unfairly. I think black Americans want him to be a successful president of the United States, and in order to be a successful president of the United States, he's going to have to be president for all the people. I think that if he succeeds in doing that, black Americans will applaud and say: we are thoroughly proud of him.

C.A.: Has he already been accused of being a sellout? I suppose he has.

R.K.: Yes, some people say that. He was accused of that during the campaign and he always will be. In the United States, there are some black Americans who feel that America is such a racist country that any black American who is successful would necessarily have had to sell-out. You do have that camp, but it's marginal. I think that many black Americans recognise that change has occurred in the United States. There is more opportunity in the United States now, for all sorts of people, that there has ever been. The most important single person in the United States is a black American that was elected by a voting population that is three quarters white. Black Americans are aware of that. There are some that denigrate Barack Obama and say that he had to be a sellout in order to win the election but that is not representative of the beliefs of the majority of black Americans.

C.A.: Did you get a chance of hearing or reading the text of the State of the Union Address since yesterday evening?

R.K.: I have not. I will see it later today but I have not seen it yet.

C.A.: Then let me quote what Barack Obama said yesterday. At some point in his speech, he said that he promised "a complete and competitive education to everyone". Later on he said that he would "eliminate education programs that don't work". As a teacher, do you believe it is possible to assess education, and on what criteria? Do you think that the word 'competitive' can be applied to education?

R.K.: I must say that I regard with considerable scepticism the statement that you've just read. The fact is that the United States of America is a huge country and education in the United States is mainly a local endeavour. I don't think, as powerful as the president of the United States is, that he is going to be able to influence education in the way that Barack Obama suggests. I don't think that it is possible. Maybe it's not even desirable. I admire and support President Obama tremendously but I take those statements with a big grain of salt.

C.A.: Just one last question. What do you think Barack Obama can bring to the black community now that he has been elected, which is already a huge step forward? What can he do about the problems of the black community now?

R.K: Well, I think that the problems that confront the black community in the United States are to a very large extent the same problems that confront other Americans. There's an unemployment problem in the United States. If there is a general unemployment problem, that problem is going to be even more intense for black Americans. The best thing that he can do, as far as I am concerned, is to work on unemployment. Black America is all across America. I don't think that you can handle one problem apart from all the other problems. Black Americans need jobs, black Americans need health care, black Americans need security, black Americans need peace. These are the things that all Americans need, so I hope that Barack Obama will advance policies that address in a good way all of these huge issues. If he does that, he will be good for black America, he will be good for America, he will be good for the world.



Pour citer ces ressources :

Randall Kennedy / Clifford Armion. 02/2010. "Interview de Randall Kennedy ".
La Clé des Langues (Lyon: ENS LYON/DGESCO). ISSN 2107-7029. Mis à jour le 3 octobre 2013.
Consulté le 13 février 2016.
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En partenariat avec la Villa Gillet

Institution incontournable de la scène culturelle à Lyon, la Villa Gillet rassemble artistes, écrivains et chercheurs du monde entier pour nourrir une réflexion publique autour des questions de notre temps à l'occasion de conférences, débats, tables rondes, et lectures. Accéder au site de la Villa Gillet.

Mise à jour le 3 octobre 2013
Créé le 1 février 2010
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues