Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal

There are all sorts of uncomplimentary terms one black person can use to brand another, but “sellout” has a peculiar quality of cutting to the quick of a psyche. “Uncle Tom”, while hardly nice, doesn’t quite elevate to the level of a stinging epithet. Many black people won’t answer to “nigger” or any of its variants, but if it’s coming from another black person, it’s more likely to spark righteous indignation than a physical beatdown.

“Sellout”, however, is personal. In any circumstance, it implies not only a mindset at variance with accepted group norms, but active engagement against those norms. To be labeled a sellout is to be outed and damned as the worst kind of enemy — one from within the ranks, someone who presumably chose to not just deviate from the straight and narrow, but also plant land mines in the path.

Such accusations carry an extra sting in the black world, because going against the perceived grain of an already aggrieved community is seen to only make matters worse. If the accused don’t see their actions as traitorous, feelings of guilt and indecision may result. Further, the people tossing around the “sellout” charge are free to do so without having to answer to some higher authority; it’s not as though there’s a tribunal somewhere that renders official judgment on who sold out whom (although many works of fiction, satire, and agitprop have centered around similar notions). And its reach is widespread: notable figures from Diana Ross to Barack Obama have been slapped with the s-word at some point or another, for any number of real or imagined offenses.

Leave it to the erstwhile Randall Kennedy to give rigorous consideration to this passionate intra-racial dynamic. The esteemed Harvard law professor has taken on something of a brand identity for scholarly-yet-accessible-to-the-layperson explorations of issues hotly debated both, to borrow from Chuck D, by the bourgeois and on the boulevard. The current volume shares its tone, approach and even packaging with Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption (2003) and Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2002).

As in the previous works, Kennedy meticulously picks apart the dynamic in question, avoiding the broad strokes of either-or proclamations in favor of carefully parsed distinctions. And as with those earlier books, those looking for clear, unambiguous rules to live by will come away disappointed.

Sellout is, on one level, a triumph of research. Kennedy locates several examples from 19th Century black politics and literature of the concept, from slaves who ratted out others planning escapes to the case of William Hannibal Thomas, a fervent advocate of Reconstruction who went on to write an anti-Black screed that was championed by leading white supremacists. He goes on to cite 20th Century examples of out-and-out treachery (black informants spying against Black Panthers and civil rights advocates) and back-and-forth character assassination (against Marcus Garvey and W.E.B DuBois). Kennedy uses these cases to outline the general parameters of sellout behavior, but cautions that there may have been extenuating circumstances that convinced the central character that his actions actually supported the race’s greater good.

As Kennedy brings the discussion into the present day, he looks at the dilemma faced by, among others, black policemen, black conservatives, blacks who excel in multiracial environments, and blacks who marry whites: in following where their interests and inclinations lead, are they remaining true to the race? While he continues to span the black globe to flesh out his laundry list, he gives little consideration to how this predilection to castigate alleged ideological outliers affects black people as a whole — or, for that matter, the outliers themselves.

Instead, Kennedy picks a debate with two of his academic colleagues, Stephen L. Carter and Glenn Loury. He rejects their assertions that the notion of racial sellouts stifles individuals whose alternative views might be useful to a broader debate of the issues, and thus robs the community of its full diversity. “…Solidarity always poses a problem of balance between collective unity and individual freedom,” Kennedy writes. He clearly falls on the “collective unity” side of that equation: “If a group exists, there must be some conduct in which a member can engage that is appropriately labeled ‘betrayal’.” His distinction lies in rejecting blanket condemnations by self-styled thought police (he references John Blake’s moniker “Soul Patrol”).

If you’re going to label someone a sellout, Kennedy urges that you have your facts in order, make a reasoned, responsible accusation, and that you be accountable for your charges. He’s not campaigning to eliminate the charge of selling out, but urging in his most professorial voice that it be deployed with reason and not demagoguery.

Kennedy practices what he preaches in his discussion of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, possibly the black person most vilified by other black people in our time. He revisits Thomas’ career in the public eye, from the contentious confirmation hearings and the face-off against Anita Hill’s sexual harassment accusations (it’s hard to fathom, given how much black folk hate him now, that many blacks thought Hill was trying to do damage to a brotha on the verge of a major accomplishment — thus, they saw her as the sellout), to his key decisions and opinions from the bench, all squarely within the conservative worldview.

Rather than rejecting him out of hand, Kennedy goes into full law-professor mode to analyze Thomas’ reasoning and thought processes. He finds his work to be “riddled by inconsistencies, evasions, and arbitrariness,” but sees no evidence that Thomas is deliberately trying to impede black progress. A person’s intent is the crux of the sellout matter for Kennedy, not whether they mean well but are simply on the “wrong” side of the fence. Here, he has no love for Justice Thomas’ opinions but does not ascribe any malicious intent to them.

Kennedy asserts that the widespread black condemnation of Thomas and his legal opinions has prevented us from considering his work with critical seriousness and depth. Indeed, it may be viscerally enjoyable to swipe at Thomas as a “handkerchief head” or portray him as a lawn jockey (Emerge magazine’s November 1996 cover art), but such wisecracking glosses over the fact that the Justice is no joke, and that he’ll be weighing in on all matters of American jurisprudence for many years to come. It’s better for all concerned to understand his thought processes scientifically instead of dismissing him with a sneer, and Kennedy’s treatise is solid and fair. But given the fact that dismissing Clarence Thomas with a sneer is all but de rigueur in the ‘hood and has been for years, good luck with that.

In essence, Kennedy would have us regard the notion of selling out without any of the emotional, hot-button messiness that we tend to bring to such discussions — in short, the very red-blooded passion that prompted the book in the first place. He states his case dispassionately, like a true professor of law (“Words should matter. To denounce someone as a sellout should matter.”), but at the end of the day, he acknowledges that it really is personal. In the epilogue, he acknowledges that he has been accused of selling out on numerous occasions (even to the point of being assumed to have a white wife!), and speaks of the agony many of his black students have faced in pondering the proper balance between professional achievement and “giving back” to the community.

That’s the only time in the book where we get any sense of what it’s like to be branded a sellout, and also the only time where there’s any sense that the charge isn’t likely to be recast as primarily an intellectual exercise anytime soon. Kennedy nobly tries to elevate the playing field for this discussion, but his own example proves that, for all his erudition and analysis, such a higher-minded pursuit might well be an uphill task.

RATING 7 / 10
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