Randall Kennedy is a professor at Harvard Law School, widely regarded as one of the most perceptive and eloquent commentators on racial matters. His two siblings are also lawyers, one of them a federal judge. All three graduated from Princeton; Randall was a Rhodes Scholar.
Their father, Henry Kennedy Sr., grew up in poverty in Louisiana. The achievements of his family sound like an embodiment of the American dream. But he rejected any such notion. What the Kennedys achieved, he said, had been in spite of America, not because of it. His father’s view of the United States, Professor Kennedy writes, “was more unforgiving” than that of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whose “God damn America” so embarrassed his parishioner Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign.
What the senior Mr. Kennedy could not forgive was the contumely he and others suffered because they were black. He saw blacks humiliated and terrorized, without a hint of disapproval from authorities. During the 1960s he drove his family from their home in Washington to his wife’s old home in Columbia, South Carolina. Several times they were stopped by a policeman who told Mr. Kennedy that this was the South and he should take care to behave himself. “Yassuh,” Mr. Kennedy replied, in a way “calculated to provide the maximum safety to himself and his family.”
As we read in “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism,” one of the essays collected in Professor Kennedy’s remarkable new book, The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, such incidents profoundly alienated Kennedy’s father. And his father was not alone in his feelings. “The fact is,” Professor Kennedy says,
that much of what Reverend Wright voiced strikes a chord with many black people: his contempt for American hypocrisy; his anger at American unwillingness to face squarely the two great social crimes that haunt United States history—the removal of the Indians and the enslavement of the Africans….
Wright’s angry words outraged many whites. Obama had to calm that reaction without too greatly disturbing his black base, which knew the cruel history behind the anger. Kennedy traces how he did that. Obama broke with Wright and gave his famous speech, which ended the flap. Kennedy recognizes its political skill but calls the content of the speech “banal.”
Obama’s victory in 2008 brought on a wave of what Kennedy calls “racial euphoria,” the belief that this country had at last solved its racial problem. The election did mark extraordinary progress on the racial issue. Most official segregation had disappeared. Blacks were playing an increasingly prominent part in society. Even a few years earlier the notion that Americans would choose a black president would have been unthinkable. That is why Obama supporters cried on election night.
But such euphoria is possible, Kennedy rightly says, only if one ignores “the breadth, depth, and subtlety of racial divisions” that continue in American life. It hardly needs argument to …