Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I just finished reading “Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal” by Randall Kennedy (2008). As an exploration of some of the most dangerous waters that African Americans are forced to navigate, this book is extremely well-researched and fascinating. I especially recommend the book to anyone interested in gaining deeper insight into one of the non-school factors that undoubtedly influences the mindset of African-American students.

The chapters are as follows:
  • Chapter One: Who is “Black”?
  • Chapter Two: The Idea of Sellout in Black American History
  • Chapter Three: The Idea of Sellout in Contemporary Black America
  • Chapter Four: The Case of Clarence Thomas
  • Chapter Five: Passing as Selling Out

Here are a few excerpts from the book.

In the Preface:
“The specter of the “sellout” haunts the African-American imagination. A long-oppressed minority situated in the midst of a dominant white majority, blacks fear that whites will fear and corrupt acquiescent Negroes who, from positions of privilege, will neglect struggles for group elevation…African Americans fear that whites will promote black free riders and defectors who sap solidarity and discourage effective strategies for resisting subordination. Every social group – from the union to the organized crime family to the nation-state – confronts the challenge of exacting loyalty to the collective in the face of self-interest, hardship, or even danger.” [This makes me wonder about the power of the race loyalty which black youth expect from one another. It makes things socially dangerous for individuals who might want to be different, kind of like an "ultra-strength" peer pressure.]
In Chapter Three:
“Angst over complacency, collaboration, and defection continues to occupy a salient place in the Afro-American mind and soul. One hears it in ceaselessly repeated phrases such as “Don’t forget where you come from” and Stay black.” One sees it in the often obsessive attentiveness with which many blacks scrutinize other blacks for evidence of “passing,” “acting white,” or otherwise showing what is denounced as an inadequate commitment of black solidarity…These efforts, according to journalist John Blake, have given rise to “the Soul Patrol… thought police who enforce conformity.” Soul Patrols, he contends, are constituted by “the legions of black people who impose their definition of blackness on other black people.” Obnoxiously intrusive, they aren’t content with choosing your friends, he complains. “They want to tell you how to think, where to live, whom to love, how to do your job.”

“Acting white” is a derogatory term meant to stigmatize blacks who are said to betray the expectations of their own racial group by assimilating the expectations of white society. This use of the term has itself been harshly criticized, since it disparages as “white” such socially useful traits as studiousness, academic ambitiousness, attentiveness to proper grammar, and respect for other conventional protocols. That there exists among certain groups of blacks peer pressure to avoid “acting white” is clear. Controversial, however, is the extent of the stigmatization for “acting white.” The contentious literature on the “acting white” phenomenon is large.” [This reminds me of the time at a school music concert when a frustrated white parent asked a black parent who was sitting nearby to stop talking so loudly with her son. The black parent indirectly responded by loudly telling her son, “Now sit there and be quiet like a good little white boy.” The exchange was loaded with explosive racial issues, and it even feels dangerous to mention it here. Of course it's just another day in Oakland where simmering racial hostility creates a tense atmosphere that prevents important things from being talked about.]

“Homogenizing Black America’s ideological diversity also tends to obscure the tragic dilemmas with which black people have grappled and which they continue to face. Was it commendable to defiantly confront slaveholders even at the cost of certain death? Or was a strategy of mere survival superior?...Was it in the best interest of blacks for antislavery activists to purchase runaway slaves and then emancipate them? Or did the interest of blacks demand an unyielding insistence that any and all transactions in slave markets be condemned as immoral?...Was it in the best interest of blacks to serve in the armed forces…even as the government segregated them and placed them under the guardianship of racist white officers? Or was the interest of blacks best advanced by making black participation conditional on equal treatment? Is racial integration the best goal or strategy for blacks? Or is inward-looking institution-building a preferable alternative?”

“When Bill Cosby criticized blacks who he felt were hurting themselves and the community,” Keith Boykin asks, “Was that an act of loyalty or disloyalty? And when Michael Eric Dyson then criticized Bill Cosby for criticizing his community, was that an act of loyalty or disloyalty?” [Does the lack of unified viewpoint, along with the desire for solidarity, somehow lead to a tolerance for harmful criminal behavior in the Black community? Which commonly heard statement is most true: “We’re angry because we don’t get enough help from the police” or “We HATE the police and we refuse to help or talk to them”?]
In Chapter Four:
“…it was feelings of racial loyalty that constituted the main basis for the remarkable uptick in black support that Thomas received during the Anita Hill phase of his confirmation hearings. A protocol of racial loyalty dictated that only in the most dire of emergencies – for example, an immediate need for self-defense – could a “good brother” or “good sister” properly inform upon a fellow black. Because Hill was deemed to have violated this protocol, many blacks initially saw her as the sellout—an impression that provided Thomas with a small but essential edge in his desperate struggle to win confirmation.” [Does racial loyalty somehow factor into the problematic “No Snitching?” custom in high crime, inner-city communities?]
Anyway, I’ll definitely be checking out some of the other books written by Randall Kennedy:
  • Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption (2003)
  • Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2002)
  • Race, Crime, and the Law (1997)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank god for the Arthur Ashes and Tiger Woods of this world who refuse to be defined by color. I guess they must be sellouts because they play "white" sports. Basketball was once "thought" of as a "white" sport. It was invented by, James Naismith, a white man. SO, all NBAers who are of color are sellouts.

I tell you,,,,,small minds,,,,small minds.