Randall Kennedy Says It Loud

For over three decades, Randall Kennedy, the Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School, has made one bold intervention after another in the most pressing social issues of the day. Not only has he written at length on such subjects as interracial marriage, affirmative action, and crime and policing, but his work has touched off controversies regarding his nuanced defense of the “politics of Black respectability,” his thinking on racial nomenclature and the variety of ways for describing the collective identity of Black Americans, and his critiques of “anti-racism gone awry” on college campuses.

Given these views, Kennedy has been criticized on both the left and the right. And yet he remains a singular figure: He argues for a political system that would entail a radical redistribution of wealth and opportunity in the United States; he believes that America’s racial hierarchy must be dismantled; and he has proved to be one of the sharpest and most outspoken critics of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The Nation spoke with Randall Kennedy about his new book, Say It Loud! On Race, Law, History, and Culture, his philosophy and intellectual influences, and much more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: Why did you title this collection of essays after a James Brown hit?

Randall Kennedy: I thought that the title was catchy and might prompt prospective readers to give my book a second look.

DSJ: The range of thinkers and topics discussed in Say It Loud! is truly impressive. The book offers a panoramic window into your critical thinking on such topics as Black Lives Matter, critical race theory, and anti-racism on college campuses, as well as showcasing your assessments of the life and legacy of such Black leaders as Thurgood Marshall, Malcom X, Frederick Douglass, and many others. Given the diversity of concerns in the book, I wonder if you can say something here at the outset about the basis of your political and legal thought and how it holds the book together. For instance, you mention that you are a left-liberal of sorts and have described yourself in the past as a racial optimist—although in the book you state that Donald Trump’s presidency lessened your optimism. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

RK: I insist that our government must ensure to everyone a decent standard of living—a dignified floor that entitles everyone to freedom from homelessness, joblessness, hunger, and serious and rampant criminality. The government should also entitle all to access to excellent medical care and schooling that is not contingent on the bank account of one’s family. If providing that high floor entails raising taxes dramatically, then so be it. After that high floor is attained, however, I do not mind if there are inequalities in income.

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