Rencontre avec Randall Kennedy
Transcript of the meeting
Q1: The genesis of a passion
Q2: Racial discrimination
Q3: Art and law
Q4: Martin Luther King Jr vs Thurgood Marshall
Q5: Racial issues in the US: a taboo?
Q6: Democrats vs Republicans
Q7: Racism: an incurable illness?
Q8: Obama's election
Q9: Racism in France
Student: You were born in September 1954, that is to say four months after the Brown versus Board of Education case, and you were nine when Martin Luther King made his speech in Washington. Was that what motivated your interest in the question of race relations?
Randall Kennedy: No, but the dates that you mention are obviously important dates in my own life, and they’re also important dates in the history of race relations in the United States. 1954 is one of the landmark dates in the history of race relations because of course on 17 September 1954, Brown v. Board of Education was decided, along with a companion case that people often don’t : Brown v. Board of Education and Bolling v. Sharpe, those were two cases that were decided on 17 September 1954. The other date that you mention, I guess it was in August 1963, that’s right, I was ninne years old. I did not go to that march. My mother was pregnant with my little sister, and my father went to the march, my brother went to the march, but they wanted somebody to be with my mother, so I had to stay behind, but I remember very clearly the march, I remember very clearly watching on television as Martin Luther King Jr gave his great “I have a dream” speech.
The thing that made me interested in race relations law… Actually when I went to law school, that was not my major interest, but at my law school there had been a gentleman who had taught a course on race relations law for a long time and he had left the school and the course had not been taught, and one of the higher-ups, one of the authorities came to me and asked me would I be interested in maybe pursuing this as a course and I did it, and I liked it, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Randall Kennedy: Yes! As your colleague mentionned I was born in 1954. I’m from Columbia South Carolina. Columbia South Carolina is in what is called in the United States the “Deep South”. South Carolina was one of the confederate states, that is one of the states that seceded from the United States. In fact the Civil War began in South Carolina, and my parents were refugees from racial oppression in South Carolina. I left - they left with me when I was quite young (I was three or four years old), but I used to go back to South Carolina quite often, and I used to spend Summers there and I very vividly remember in 1963, in 1964 when I would go back to South Carolina: the public parks were all closed because Court had ordered that those parks be desegregated. Prior to then, you had certain parks that were set aside for White citizens, parks that were set aside for Blacks, and the Court system said “you can’t do that anymore”. Instead of allowing people to go to whatever park they wanted to go to, the authorities in South Carolina closed all the parks - I remember that very well. I also remember going to movie - films in South Carolina. The one that’s most vivid in my mind is going to see the movie “The Nutty Professor”. I went to see “The Nutty Professor” with a cousin of mine and we went to the big theater where the White people went to the front of the theater, colored people went to the side of the theater. The White people sat on the first floor, the Black people sat on the balcony, but you know it’s a funny thing - I saw all of this through the eyes of a nine year old (or you know an eight, nine, ten year old), and I did not at that point experience it as a type of oppression. In fact I thought it was a benefit being in the balcony because when the lights would go down the youngster would throw candy, and so the Black youngsters were in a much better position because we were up top and would throw candy at the people below, and it was much more difficult for people below to throw candy on us.
But when I grew older I did see the ugly side of racial oppression. For instance when my father would drive us to the South, my mother would always pack sandwiches and beverages, sodas, so we wouldn’t have to stop, because if we would have to stop, we would suffer racial oppression, it was just very uncomfortable. So we would take all. Whatever we were going to eat or whatever we were going to drink, we would just have to keep it in the car so we wouln’t have to interact with… White people, frankly!
So growing up I saw racial oppression. My father would often be pulled over when we would drive in the Deep South because the car that my father would have would have a Washington DC licence plate on it, and there would be police officers who would pull us over (he wasn’t doing anything wrong but they would pull us over!) and the officer would say “I see you have a Washington DC licence plate!”, and my father would say “Yes, Sir, that’s true!”, and the officer would say “Well, we do things differently down here. You do know that, right!” and my father would say “Yes, Sir!” and the police officier would let us go. But it created a lot of nervousness and I was very aware that Black people were being oppressed. The racial oppresion in the United States was most obvious in the Deep South, with signs up, “colored people go to the bathroom over here”, “White people go to the bathroom over here” but throughout the United States, in the North, in the West, all through the United States there has been racial oppression.
Randall Kennedy: The people you mention were important. Strange Fruit was an important song memorializing lynching, and that was important, but was it as important as the National Association for the Advancement of colored People (the NAACP)? No! There’s no organization in American history - certainly in the twentieth century, that was more important than the NAACP. For instance you mentioned Brown v. Board of Education: the lawyers that brought that case were lawyers that worked for the NAACP. The NAACP was begun in 1909, it still exists, it still is an important organization, but there’s been no organization in American history more important in advancing racial justice than the NAACP.
I have the great good fortune of working for the most famous lawyer who worked for the NAACP, the great Thurgood Marshall, and there are other people who worked for the NAACP. To get back to your question, was I aware when I was growing up of racial injustice. I have a very clear memory: in 1963, in fact on the evening of 11 June 1963: there was a very great man in Jackson, Mississipi, his name was Medgar Evers. That night, the evening of June 1963, Medgard was killed, he was shot to death in front of his home. He was the executive director of the NAACP in Mississipi. He was a young man, he was in his thirties when he was killed and he had been a veteran, he had fought in World War II for the United States of America, and he was burried in a cemetery in the United States that is called Arlington National Cemetery, if you’re a veteran you have a right to be burried in Arlington National Cemetery and that’s where he was burried and his body was transported from Jackson, Mississipi to Washington DC and my parents went to pay their respects. He was at a funeral home in downtown Washington DC and I went with my parents and the whole way to the funeral home my parents argued as to whether I should be allowed in the funeral home to actually see Medgar Evers’ body. My father wanted me to go into the funeral home, my mother did not. My mother won the argument, so I stayed in the car while they went to pay their respect, but I remember that very clearly, very clearly. There were people throughout the 1960s who suffered a great deal because of their Civil Rights activism and I was very aware of that.
Randall Kennedy: Actually, yes! I think that people. I think Martin Luther King Jr was a great person and he has become not only in the United States but around the world the symbolic leader of the Civil Rights Movement. So when people say “Civil Rights Movement” they immedialtely think of Martin Luther King Jr and he was great. But it should be known that he didn’t do it alone. There were people who came before him, there were people who came after him, and during his life there were a number of Civil Rights leaders and people don’t know enough about them. So for instance, I mentioned the importance of the NAACP, well there was another group, a fabulous organization, a wonderful organization, a deeply important organization: “The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee”. This was an organization of college students - mainly college students - and one of the people who helped institute the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was a wonderful woman by the name of Ella Baker. People don’t mention Ella Baker much anymore but she was a very important figure. One of the reasons why people don’t mention Ella Baker or don’t mention Modjeska Simkins, or don’t mention Medgar Evers’ wife or don’t mention some of the other women who were very important in the Civil Rights Revolution was because of - frankly - sexism! Women were very important in the Civil Rights Revolution, but because women have been marginalized, because women have been oppressed, the women that were so important in the Civil Rights Revolution have not gotten their due, and that’s still the case. In the United States, when people talk about the Civil Rights Revolution, everybody thinks Martin Luther King or Thurgood Marshall and they were great, but there were others and particularly women who were very important. They often were in the background, but with social movements, it’s often people who are in the background who show up day by day by day, who make thinks happen. And the Black American women in particular; and not just Black American women! People ought to know that it wasn’t just Black people who were important in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and of the 1960s. There were White people who struggled right alongside of Black people. There were White people who were killed alongside of Black people in the struggle for racial justice.
Randall Kennedy: Well, it’s not taboo but it is the case that people get used to certain ideas and certain ways of talking about ideas. I try to see things in a new way, I try to voice ideas sometimes using different terminologies and I try to be very frank in what I think and sometimes people don’t like that. Sometimes people get used to a certain sort of terminology, a certain way of seeing things, and don’t like seeing things in a different way, and… I do! So I have my say, I’m very fortunate. You’re all students, right? Well I’m a student too, it’s just I’m a paid student! And essentially, I’m a professional student, and I get to view things in a different way, I get to write, I get to test ideas with people just like you and I talk and I get reactions from people, and think, and think and play around with ideas and do that and I like it and sometimes some people don’t like it.
Student: In your latest book, you explain that for the Democrats, affirmative action is a way to explain a certain guilt for the white community. Does it mean that Republicans don’t have any problem with the history of their country?
Randall Kennedy: It’s a good question! And the answer... No. The answer to your question is that unfortunately, unfortunately, many Republicans - not all, not all, but many - most! - are very complacent about the history of the United States. Many Republicans view the United States as being always right. Many people in the Republican Party in particular view the United States as a country that is always virtuous, always right, always better than any other country. In fact, many critics, many Republican critics of the current president of the United States, Barack Obama, are angry at the current president of the United States because he does not (in their view) praise the United States enough. There’s a term in America called “American exceptionalism”, and the Republican Party think American exceptionalism is a good thing. But what they mean by “American exceptionalism” is the doctrine which says that America is an exceptional country. America is God’s country. Their perception is that America should lead the world, and that America is the beacon for liberty and freedom and justice and can do nothing wrong. I think that is profoundly mistaken. I think the United States of America has done many good things, I think it has contributed many good things to the world. On the other hand, the history of the United States is a history that is soaked in all sorts of injustices. The United States is a huge country, right? Well, look on a map: it’s a huge country! So where does that land come from? Was it just found? Was it empty? Of course not! It was taken from the Native Americans. You know, slavery was an important part of American History! The United States is a country that has a very violent history, an extremely violent history.
You asked the question. It’s a classic question in America, “Why is there no socialist party in the United States?” There is virtually no socialist party. I mean, there is a teeny tiny socialist party. Why is there no socialism? Why is there no workers’ movement in the United States? Well, because workers’ movements in the United States have been violently repressed, suppressed. During World War I, the leader of the socialist party, Victor Eugene Debs was put in prison because he voiced objections to the United States being in World War I. He ran for president actually while he was in prison. He got a couple million votes! My point is that there’s good about the history of the United States, but there’s a lot that is bad about the history of the United States, and there’s a lot of people in the United States who want to deny the bad. And as a political party, this denial is most prevalent, it’s strongest in the Republican Party, and in my view that’s a very bad thing.
Randall Kennedy: Yes, I think it is an illness that can be cured. You’re right, at one point in that book For Discrimination I said that Affirmative Action was like any other medicine, it can be toxic if you take too much of it, but like a good medicine it can be helpful. On your question of do I think that racism in America can be cured, the answer is yes - I think. Now in the history of the United States, in talk about racism, there is not a talk about racism. People have written many many books about racism in America, many speeches. You can divide talk about racism in America into two big camps. One camp is what I call the “optimistic camp”. The other camp is the “pessimistic camp”. Let me say a few words on the pessimistic camp first, because actually it’s the most interesting of the two.
The pessimistic camp is the camp that believes that racism in America is incurable, that there will always be racism in America, there will never be racial equality in America. Someone else earlier mentioned Martin Luther King Jr, the Civil Rights Movement, so you’re familiar with the song “We shall overcome!”. “We shall overcome!” was an important song that was sang in demonstrations in the 1950s, well in the 1960s. There’s some people in America that believe that we shall not overcome, that America is so thoroughly racist that no matter what, racism will always be an important force in American life. And there’s many important and impressive people who believe that. Have you ever heard of Thomas Jefferson? (Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president of the United States). Thomas Jefferson believed that racism in the United States was incurable. He thought that Blacks and Whites would never be able to live together on an equal basis in the United States. Another person who had a very similar belief was Abraham Lincoln (you’ve all heard of Abraham Lincoln? Abraham Lincoln was the president of the United States during the Civil War, he was the sixteenth president of the United States). He, too, believed that racism was so deep that it was incurable. In fact, throughout Lincoln’s life, he thought that the only way that Blacks and Whites could figure out a decent future was for Black people to leave the United States, and maybe go to Africa or Central America. Other people have had this belief (have you ever heard this name “Malcom X”?). Malcom X was a pessimist. He did not think that Blacks and Whites would be able to get along in the United States. So there’s a long tradition of pessimism with respect to race. That’s one tradition. That’s not the tradition I put myself in.
I voice another tradition. There’s an optimistic tradition. That’s a tradition that believes that though racism is deeply embedded in American life, we shall overcome. And in the history of America, there are two people in particular, that I think have been particularly, especially eloquent in voicing this optimistic tradition. In the nineteenth century, the great voice of the optimistic tradition was a man by the name of Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass was a slave, he ran away from slavery and he became an abolitionist, and he believed that racism would be overcome in the United States In the twentieth century the great voice of optimism was Martin Luther King Jr. In fact his “I have a dream” speech, August 1963, would be the single best example of his belief, and I would put myself in that tradition. Over the past fifty years - remember, I was born in 1954 - so in my lifetime, I’ve come from a point in which in South Carolina when I was born, Blacks and Whites lived in completely different universes. And Blacks were repressed. When I was born in 1954, the idea of a Black president of the United States would have been virtually inconceivable. But, you know, it’s 2013, Obama is a Black American and he is president of the United States, so the United States have changed a good bit, and I think that with intelligent, persistent, collective action it can change even more.
Student: As you know, we are working on race relations in the US in class, and our question is: “Was Obama’s 2008 election the embodiment of the American Dream for the Black American community?” Do you think that it’s possible to answer such a question?
Randall Kennedy: The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was an extraordinary moment in the history of the United States. For all Americans. I knew people who did not vote for Barack Obama but who nonetheless cried joyfully when he won, because they recognized that this was an extraordinary moment even though they did not vote for him. They were happy that he had won. Was it the fulfillment of the American Dream for Black Americans? No, it wasn’t the fulfillment of the American Dream, because frankly, the United States is still beset, it still suffers from racism in lots of different ways. The place where racism is most visible in American life is in the relationship between Black Americans and the administration of criminal justice. Black Americans and the police. For instance, in the United States, the percentage of Black people who are in prison in the United States is much greater than the Whites, and part of that has to do - not all, but part has to do - with an ongoing problem of racism in the United States. Have any of you gone to the United States? When you go to any city in the United States, you get off at an airport and let’s suppose you get to a taxi cab. You ask any taxi cab driver in any city in the United States “Where is the Black section of town?”, they could tell you! They could say, well, it’s either here, or here, or here, because in the United States, now, there’s still a lot of racial separation. So the United States still suffers from the effects of past discrimination and racial prejudice today, but nonetheless the election of a Black American as president of the United States changed the perspectives of many Black Americans. There were some Black Americans who lived in the United States, were citizens of the United States, but they did not in a deep way view the United States as their country, and I think for many Black Americans, that changed with the election of Barack Obama. So was it the fulfillment of the American Dream, well it wasn’t the fulfillment of the American Dream but it certainly was an event that made many Black Americans think that at some point they might be able to embrace the American Dream.
Student: You may have heard about French justice minister Christiane Taubira. She is black and was recently the object of various racist attacks, like being compared to a monkey for example. What’s your vision of French racism and do you think that this could happen now in the USA?
Randall Kennedy: Good question! It does happen in the United States. I just was talking about the election of Barack Obama. From the moment that Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, one feature of American culture was that in cartoons, and in demonstrations, Barack Obama and his family were portrayed as monkeys and as apes. The idea of African being monkeys and apes has a long history in Western culture, and in fact people have written books about the association of Africans and apes, and so, could this happen in the United States, the answer is yes. It has happened! Not just grafittis, not just people in demonstrations showing Barack Obama as a monkey: in newspapers Barack Obama has been portrayed as a monkey, as an ape, so yes that can happen in the United States!
With respect to the minister of justice, I’ve heard that she had been the target of racial insult, and did that surprise me? No, it did not surprise me, I’m not thoroughly familiar with French culture and French politics, but am I aware of racism in French culture, in French politics, yes! I’m very aware of the riots a few years ago in Paris, I’m aware of certain racial tension, racial discord, racial conflict in France.
Cette ressource a été publiée dans le cadre de la deuxième saison du festival "Mode d'emploi", organisé par la Villa Gillet, qui s'est déroulé du 12 au 24 novembre 2013.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Randall Kennedy, Kédem Ferré, "Rencontre avec Randall Kennedy", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), janvier 2014. Consulté le 01/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-americain/immigration-et-minorites/rencontre-avec-randall-kennedy