The Bonds of Race

Who is, and isn’t, a sellout?

Oberlin College’s first black student, William Hannibal Thomas, became an advocate for racial equality in the last decades of the 19th century, only to suddenly shift gears and write a book, much praised by Southern racists, arguing that “the negro represents an intrinsically inferior type of humanity.” More than half a century later, a man named William O’Neal joined the Black Panther Party, became an FBI informant, and provided the tip that led authorities to kill Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton. Randall Kennedy, a distinguished law professor at Harvard, published a book called Nigger, and testified, as an expert witness in a case dealing with a white person’s attack on a black man, that the term could carry nonracial connotations. 

Should any of these actions by black people be judged traitorous by other black people? And if so, which ones? This is the theme that Kennedy, whose own actions were denounced as “more harmful than the crimes of common felons,” addresses in his thoughtful and moving new book Sellout.

All groups develop mechanisms for patrolling their borders, and one way of doing so is to label as sellouts those who challenge the group’s definition of itself. The charge can be applied to Jews who marry gentiles, Democrats who vote with Republicans, and novelists who appear on Oprah. Perhaps because they have had such a long history of oppression, African-Americans throw the term around quite a bit. In recent years, the charge has been leveled not only against Oprah, but Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Bill Cosby, Shelby Steele, Michael Jackson, and Michael Jordan.

Although he was accused of being one, Kennedy defends the idea of labeling a person who betrays a cause, or, for that matter, a race, as a sellout. Sometimes it is necessary for a group, in the interests of cohesion, to defend itself in a less than pleasant way, even to the point of coercion. One reason the much-praised Montgomery bus boycott was successful was because those African-Americans tempted to break it were threatened with physical harassment. Compared to that, William Hannibal Thomas made truly harmful comments about his own race and was met not with violence, but with calls for ostracism, two reasons that Kennedy concludes it was justified to call him a sellout.

Kennedy, however, also believes that “choice is always an element of racial citizenship.” Just as one’s citizenship in black America can be revoked by the group, one must also have the right to resign from the group. There is always, as a result, a fine line to walk between group solidarity and individual integrity. In the absence of fixed rules, judging whether someone is or is not a sellout depends on the circumstances of a particular case.  Randall Kennedy the author of Sellout does not believe that Randall Kennedy the author of Nigger was a sellout.

What, then, are we to make of the most widely discussed case of all, that of Clarence Thomas? The charges of betrayal made against Thomas were many and mean. He disgraced his race by marrying a white woman. He relied upon affirmative action to get ahead and then pulled up the ladder after him. His conservative political views condemn others of his race to lives of poverty and desperation. He does the white man’s bidding. He impugned the honesty of an innocent black woman named Anita Hill. KRS-One, aka Lawrence Krisna Parker, put it this way:

The white man ain’t the devil, I promise.
You want to see the devil, take a look at Clarence Thomas.

In an analysis so fair that one wishes he, rather than Thomas, were on the U.S. Supreme Court, Kennedy argues that it is perfectly reasonable to criticize Thomas’ views, especially on affirmative action, but not to charge him with selling out. Thomas, Kennedy argues, is a “race man,” or “a black person who seeks self-consciously to advance, by his own lights, the interests of African-Americans.” So, unlike William Hannibal Thomas, he is not a turncoat. A careful analysis of his opinions shows that he does no one’s bidding, certainly not, as is frequently charged, that of Antonin Scalia. Other judges, including former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, manifested little or no interest in the cause of racial justice, yet were not subject to the abuse heaped on Thomas. Kennedy finds much fault with the man, including the pedestrian quality of his opinions and a jurisprudence “riddled by inconsistencies, evasions, and arbitrariness.” But the only appropriate way to render one’s objections is “by careful study and serious rebuttal.”

Count me unpersuaded. If we follow Kennedy’s advice and judge each case on its merits, Clarence Thomas’ critics may have engaged in rhetorical overkill, but they were right to accuse Thomas of selling out. To understand why, we have to rely on the one aspect of the phenomenon to which Kennedy pays insufficient attention: its psychology. For the more responsible of Thomas’ critics, the issue was not what Clarence Thomas thought but why he thought the way he did. Thomas not only allied himself with a party and a movement that had never shown much support for racial equality, but he did so in a way bound to make enemies of those who made the struggle for racial justice their main priority.

Any group, but especially a group viewed as stigmatized by others, does not just rely on the threat of coercion to police itself. It also uses guilt, reinforcement, catharsis, and a variety of other psychological mechanisms to reinforce belonging. Because membership in the group plays such an important role in constructing an individual’s identity, any decision to reject the group will be weighted with emotional significance. It takes unusual courage to break with such a group. But it also leaves scars.

Clarence Thomas did not leave what might be called the Civil Rights establishment quietly. There was—it seems there had to be—ritualistic condemnation and charges of betrayal, the kind of emotional turbulence associated with Whittaker Chambers leaving the Communist Party or Ayaan Hirsi Ali denouncing Islam. Clarence Thomas was, and is, an angry man. He took on the Civil Rights establishment, he believes, and the whole world is against him. 

Unlike Kennedy, I believe it to be fair to accuse someone who was put on the Supreme Court because of his race, but who then votes against policies designed to help others of his race get a leg up, of being a sellout. Actions in these matters count more than words, and whatever words Thomas might express in support of the cause of racial justice, his actions will result in greater racial inequality. But the real problem with Thomas is not just that he sold out. It is that he lashed out. As Kennedy rightly points out, Thomas did not merely disagree with university officials who claimed that affirmative action helps achieve the educational goal of diversity; he charged them with willful deceit and hypocrisy. The whole process of being a race man yet dissing his race left Thomas too volatile to be gracious, let alone be an effective judge. We might want such a person to be the hero of a novel or the subject of a major motion picture. We should not want such a man on the U.S. Supreme Court.

To compound the problem, Thomas then sold out again—this time in reverse. Having broken with his race, he charged his critics with trying to lynch him. His conservative supporters were delighted, for his emotional outburst all but guaranteed his confirmation. They failed to realize that in appealing to the most primal of racial emotions, Thomas had sold them out as well. People about to be lynched are not in the best position to argue, as conservatives are wont to do, that race should no longer matter.

The Thomas case, far from serving as an example of illegitimate charges of selling out, should have led Kennedy to reformulate his ideas about race in general. Kennedy is right that we should view race as an option. But he pays insufficient attention to the fact that some options are much more difficult to exercise than others. Just because someone should be free to resign from his or her race does not guarantee that the person who does so will leave all traces of race behind. The great irony of l’affaire Thomas was that it took the appointment of a man who sold out his race to prove just how tightly the ties of race still bind.