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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Selling Out

I had the good fortune to attend a "City Arts & Lectures" event last night.  Randy Kennedy was "conversing" with Chris Edley about Sellout, Kennedy's new book about people (presumably minorities or other non-white-hetero-males) that become enemies of their own people.  His general theme was to set a very high bar for who earns the title (we were told Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly aren't sellouts but that Terry Dolan was) because the word itself ostracizes controversial people from the "group" unnecessarily.  I couldn't quite figure out if white heterosexual people could ever be sellouts under Kennedy's theory -- or why we should be so careful about calling people sellouts.  He also seemed more comfortable calling relevant gays (who pass or cover) sellouts than similarly-situated (passing or covering) blacks without sufficient justification in my view.  The obsession with the word struck me as odd too: it is just a word and it can sometimes stigmatize just as we want it to.  His example of black law students at Harvard who feel (in his view inappropriate) sellout shame about taking jobs at firms rather than at the NAACP struck me as especially weird: plenty of white people feel the same shame about going to law school in the first place -- or about taking the firm job over the public interest job.  I don't think that the shame is especially racialized; it is ideological -- and there should be room for ideological selling out, even for blacks.  But I just heard the talk and haven't read the book.

The event was nevertheless interesting for several reasons.  First, the audience was extremely smart.  Perhaps that was to be expected from such a cultural event in such an educated city.  But it was nevertheless impressive to be surrounded by such engaged citizens from all walks of life, who cut to the very core of Kennedy's idea. 

Second, white questioners almost universally prefaced their questions with some apologetics and some identity exposure.  Gays stated their orientation; white liberals stated theirs.  Even a black questioner prefaced her remarks with the identifier, "As you can tell, I'm a black woman."  To be sure, it was relevant to her very interesting question (about people's differential reactions when she says she will vote for Hillary and when she says she will vote for Obama: in the former case, she is accused of abandoning her race but she is rarely accused in the latter case of abandoning her gender).  But I was nevertheless interested in how identity-conscious  each member of the audience seemed to be.  Again, maybe that is to be expected from a talk about race.  But I suspect that if two white people were the ones at the front of the room talking about race, the (largely white) audience might not have reacted quite the same way.

Third, the event felt for me a bit too much like a campaign event for Barack Obama.  Again, perhaps this was to be expected in a race  talk by law professors so close to a primary election in which the first viable black candidate might become the Democratic nominee.  Nevertheless, the fixation on Obama's run annoyed me a bit (and made me feel that our hosts might have been selling out in quite a different way). 

Finally, Kennedy said something that I'm not sure was right.  He suggested that even if Obama loses in 2008 (after securing the nomination), something quite dramatic and historic will have transpired in the racial history of our nation.  Of course that is a plausible story to tell about a potential failed Obama run.  But my thoughts drifted quickly to Geraldine Ferraro.  Was that a dramatic and historic moment in the gendered history of our nation?  That is one way to look at it.  But hardly the obvious way.  Kennedy here again showed his general optimism and his willingness to give all (black and white alike) the benefit of the doubt.  His generosity is admirable.

Posted by Ethan Leib on January 17, 2008 at 02:50 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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might distinguish the case of Ferraro from Obama in terms of cultural significance is the fact that Obama is seen as being a serious contender who has an excellent chance of winning the general election rather than a point merely made as a part of a losing campaign.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) | Jan 18, 2008 8:15:57 PM

Haven't read Kennedy's book but from the description here something seems puzzling about the way he uses the term "sellout". I've always understood it to mean that you betray a strongly held personal belief in exchange for some material goal (usually, money). So we often say bands sell out when they sign to a big label and then water down their work in order to make it commercially palatable (usually at the behest of executives who demand this of them). By this measure, then, even if one were to believe Clarence Thomas betrayed his race, that wouldn't make him a sellout because his motivation wasn't necessarily financial or inconsistent with his own personal beliefs (i.e., could simply have been sincere belief in the ideals he espoused).

So Kennedy's notion of betraying one's race or sexual orientation seems overly broad. Taking a high-paying job isn't inconsistent with these identities, though taking a high-paying job at a law firm that engages in antidiscrimination defense or lobbies against gay rights might be. The narrower definition of sellout (exchanging your ideals for a buck) certainly could include white heterosexuals as well. I can think of many such people who took conservative, lucrative career paths instead of pursuing their real dreams of being artists or crusaders for causes (though is one a "sellout" if one sells out because of necessity, say to support one's family? that seems rough).

Finally, isn't the major difference between Ferraro and Obama who did the selection? Ferraro's nomination really reflected Mondale's (and perhaps the Dem party elite's) preference, while Obama's would reflect a huge swath of the electorate--much more a reflection on the country's state of mind.

In any event, seems like a really interesting event. I look forward to checking out the book.

Posted by: Dave | Jan 18, 2008 2:04:08 PM

I think that if Obama lost, the key question would be how he lost. Did he lose the way Harold Ford lost in Tennessee? (Dirty racial politics.) Or did he lose the way every WASP vs. WASP race was lost? (Dirty non-identity-based politics.) The latter would obviously be the true watershed. The former might finally break my patience with the country.

"I couldn't quite figure out ... why we should be so careful about calling people sellouts."

Because it's not clear there's any such thing as selling out in the first place? Who exactly are "your own people"? No group is homogenous, as much as identity politics might want to make it so.

This response also makes it clearer why it's easier for gay people to sell out than people identified by their race. While it's not clear what it means to sell out black people, or to sell out Asians, it's very clear what it means to sell out gays: fight against gay rights, argue against gay marriage, etc.

This arises because those very basic rights the gay community argues for have already been recognized to be race-neutral. Racial "sellouts" (like Clarence Thomas) haven't argued for a repeal of Loving v. Virginia.

Posted by: Jason | Jan 17, 2008 8:22:36 PM

Kennedy's generosity of spirit has been made evident elsewhere too:

One thing that might distinguish the case of Ferraro from Obama in terms of cultural significance is that winning the nomination for POTUS will seem more substantial than winning the nomination for VPOTUS. But time will tell. Perhaps we'll just shrug our shoulders.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jan 17, 2008 3:33:08 PM

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