Black, White, and Many Shades of Gray

From Harvard Magazine:

KenIn The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, David Remnick relates a story from Obama’s first year at Harvard Law School, when he registered for “Race, Racism, and American Law,” a course taught by Randall Kennedy, now Klein professor of law. “Kennedy had caused some controversy, writing critically in The New Republic and elsewhere about some aspects of affirmative action,” Remnick relates. “At the first class, Obama [J.D. ’91] and [his friend Cassandra] Butts, [J.D. ’91] watched as a predictable debate unfolded between black students who objected to Kennedy’s critique and students on the right, almost all white, who embraced it. Obama feared a semester-long shout-fest. He dropped the course.” Thus Kennedy never taught the future president, although he did instruct Michelle LaVaughn Robinson [subsequently, Obama], J.D. ’88, who also did research for him. A “semester-long shout-fest” may be hyperbolic, but Kennedy admits, “Yes, those classes were very contentious. I structured them that way.” It wasn’t hard: Kennedy, an African American himself, consistently introduced the kinds of racial issues—such as “reverse discrimination” against whites—that explode like hand grenades in an interracial classroom. “Should there be a right to a multiracial jury?” he asks, smiling. “Boom!”

…The interaction of race and legal institutions is Kennedy’s niche; this is how he describes the approach he’s used in his classes and five books: “Here’s this deep, complex, troubling, anxiety-producing subject. Let’s really go at it. Let’s not be afraid of it. Let’s turn it over and take a look at what your opponents have to say. There were people who believed slavery was a positive good, and that segregation was a positive good. Who were they? Let’s really be precise, let’s not just condemn them and laugh at them, but understand them, get in a position where you can state very clearly what their point of view was. You might end up condemning it, but let’s understand it first….I take strong positions, but I also try to be attentive to the complexity of things.”

More here.