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The NYT’s Awkward Choice of Randall Kennedy to Address Campus Race Upheavals

Ron Howell Dec 7, 2015

It is ironic that The New York Times would turn to Randall Kennedy for perspective regarding the current upheavals on American campuses, where allegations of racism have been surging in recent weeks.

Kennedy, yes, has been directly affected by the controversy. Harvard University Law School, where he teaches, was stunned two weeks ago (Nov. 19) by the discovery that black tapes had been placed over photos of black professors, including Kennedy.

I have been deeply touched by this and other happenings at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other colleges. Back in the mid-1960s I was in that first cohort of African Americans accepted to Ivy League colleges in significant numbers. In my undergraduate years, between 1966 and 1970, I and black buddies of mine considered ourselves radicals. Some of us even possessed guns, in preparation for the revolution we were sure would happen.

Given my race sensitivities back then, how was it that in my four years at Yale I did not once hear the word nigger hurled by a white person, inflammatorily or otherwise?

Wondering if my memory was failing, I sent an email blast to some surviving black alumni, asking if they had heard the word. All half dozen who replied said no, never. Even before I received the replies, I knew why the n-word is being heard more today than two generations ago.

No one in the academic universe has promoted the use of “nigger” more effectively than Randall Kennedy.

In 2002, after publication of Kennedy’s book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, I wrote an article for Newsday looking at the professor and his declared belief that the growing use of the term was overall a good thing, an indication of a relaxing of inner restrictions. Many disagreed, including Derrick Bell, who in 1971 became the first black tenured professor in Harvard Law School’s history. Bell, who strenuously protested the law school’s failure to grant tenure to other professors of color, was upset about Kennedy’s book and called him the “visiting scholar from Mars.”

Though I tried to be objective I felt that Kennedy was selfishly – for the sake of book sales – opening the door to an onslaught that would cause hurt to many black Americans, who would be called overly sensitive because they continued to associate the word with the ugliness of the slave era of American history.

Kennedy told me that blacks need to lose their “hypersensitivity” about “nigger.” He praised rappers and comedians who used it, saying they are taking the “word away” from racists and turning it “into a different kind of word.”

But why, I would ask, are American Jews not asked to lose intolerance for words such as “kike”? Is the claim that “nigger” invokes violence of the slave era any less valid than a claim that “kike” invokes thoughts of Nazi violence against Jews?

I feel The Times should have disclosed Kennedy’s controversial background as the author of “Nigger” to its countless Op-Ed readers.

I often see in discussions such as these a self-righteousness that is part of what’s sometimes called white privilege. I’ve seen shadows of this also in The Times’ writings about President Woodrow Wilson, who is now acknowledged to have been a staunch racist and segregationist. I was impressed, and entertained, as I read the Times editorial supporting the removal of Wilson’s name from Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs.

I would not argue against the renaming of the School, but I also accept that Woodrow Wilson was a man of his times – just as The New York Times was a paper of its times. Let’s be aware that The New York Times covered the Civil War, Reconstruction, Woodrow Wilson’s “Progressive” Era, World War I, the Depression and World War II without a single black reporter on its staff. And the one they finally hired, George Streator, in 1945, was fired after only four years there. (It’s been written that his firing followed reports he had made up quotes.)

The past is the past and what we should commit ourselves to now is transparent communicating about the complex reality before us, the meaning of our racial history in a present society that is so extraordinarily diverse. What’s magically encouraging about today’s explosion of race tensions is that it’s leading to institutional and personal self-exploration. Nothing conveyed this to me more strongly than The Times’ profile of Yale Dean Jonathan Holloway. Holloway has been going through an intense period of inner examination as he meets with black students and others supporting them.

I disagree with some demands being made across the spectrum of campuses. Insisting that colleges issue warnings about the offensiveness of some Halloween costumes takes reality out of the college experience. Answer them back instead with righteousness, writing about them and perhaps demonstrating outside their frat houses. Also, I feel many protesters have done themselves longer-term harm in cursing at administrators and trying in the case of University of Missouri protesters to chase away journalists.

Despite those misgivings, I emotionally embrace the protesters and assert empathy with them – because half a century ago, using and hearing different words, I walked in their shoes.

Ron Howell worked as a journalist at The New York Daily News, Newsday, Ebony, The Baltimore Evening Sun, ABC News.com among others during a three-decade career in journalism. He is currently a professor of journalism at CUNY-Brooklyn College.

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