Randall Kennedy

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Randall L. Kennedy
Randall Kennedy at The Nexus Institute.jpg
Kennedy speaks at The Nexus Institute in 2016
Born (1954-09-10) September 10, 1954 (age 65)
Alma materPrinceton University
University of Oxford
Yale Law School
OccupationLaw Professor
EmployerHarvard University
Known forThe Supreme Court, Freedom of Expression, Race Relations Law, Civil Rights Legislation
Spouse(s)Yvedt Matory, 1986-2005
WebsiteFaculty page for Randall Kennedy at Harvard University

Randall L. Kennedy (born September 10, 1954) is an American law professor and author at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law and focuses his research on the intersection of racial conflict and legal institutions in American life. He specializes in the areas of contracts, freedom of expression, race relations law, civil rights legislation, and the Supreme Court.[1]

Kennedy has written six books: Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption; Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word; Race, Crime, and the Law; Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal; The Persistence of the Color Line; and For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law. Additionally, Kennedy has published numerous collections of shorter works. Many of his articles can be found in periodicals and newspapers such as: The American Prospect, The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, Georgetown Law Journal, Harvard BlackLetter Journal, and The Boston Globe. His book Race, Crime, and the Law won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

Early life and education[edit]

Randall LeRoy Kennedy was born September 10, 1954, in Columbia, South Carolina, the middle child of Henry Kennedy Sr., a postal worker, and Rachel Kennedy, an elementary school teacher. He has two siblings, Henry H. Kennedy, Jr., a former United States District Court Judge for the District of Columbia, and Angela Kennedy, a lawyer at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. Kennedy has stated that tales of racial oppression and racial resistance were staples of conversation in his household. His father often spoke of watching Thurgood Marshall argue Rice vs. Elmore, the case that invalidated the rule permitting only whites to vote in South Carolina's Democratic primary. Later that decade, fleeing the abuses of Jim Crow, his parents moved from South Carolina to Washington, D.C.[2]

Kennedy attended St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., Princeton University (A.B. cum laude, 1977), the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar (graduate studies, 1977–79), and Yale Law School (J.D., 1982). While at Yale, Kennedy served as an editor for the Yale Law Journal. He served as a law clerk for Judge J. Skelly Wright of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit from 1982–83 and for Justice Thurgood Marshall of the United States Supreme Court from 1983-84.[3] He was admitted to the Washington, D.C. bar in 1983. Additionally, he is a member of the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the American Philosophical Association.

Personal life[edit]

In 1986, Kennedy married Yvedt Matory, a cancer surgeon. They have three children: Henry, Rachel and Thaddeus. Yvedt Matory died on April 15, 2005, of complications arising from melanoma.[4]



In 1984 Kennedy joined the faculty at Harvard Law School, teaching courses on race, relations, law and freedom of expression.

Kennedy first came to prominence as a legal-academic scholar when he began addressing affirmative action. In 1997, Kennedy published Race, Crime, and the Law, which received a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award in 1998. "This book is a brave, honest, forceful intervention in that debate," wrote William A. Galston and David Wasserman in the Wilson Quarterly. The same article noted: "With restrained passion, he documents the myriad ways in which our legal system has betrayed the principle of fair and equal treatment for African Americans." While Kennedy argues in the book that African Americans have suffered at the hands of the criminal justice system, he also notes that blacks have committed a "notably large proportion" of the crimes that people are most afraid of (robbery, rape, murder, aggravated assault). He likewise points out that the need to protect black communities from crime has often been neglected. Galston and Wasserman wrote, "Too often, says Kennedy, black leaders show more concern for black perpetrators of crime than for their black victims."[5]


Kennedy is known as a scholar who is unafraid of tackling socially difficult issues, such as racism. He has written for academic and popular journals, published several books, and served on the editorial boards of the magazines American Prospect and The Nation. Kennedy has written extensively on interracial marriages and adoptions, and on the relationship between race and crime. His views have won acclaim but they have also courted controversy. "One of the things they [critics] find disconcerting is that I ask questions," Kennedy told Lawrence Donegan in the London Observer. "I actually question the premise of my own thinking and push my own conclusions hard. I thought that was what intellectuals were supposed to do." Despite the firestorm created by his published work, Donegan noted that Kennedy's "colleagues variously describe him as brilliant, well-read and personable."[6]

In 2002 more controversy erupted when Kennedy published Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. "The power of 'Nigger,'" noted Charles Taylor in Salon, "is that Kennedy writes fully of the word, neither condemning its every use nor fantasizing that it can ever become solely a means of empowerment."[7] In this slim volume Kennedy explores the history of the controversial word, noting that the meaning varies according to the person using it and the context of its use. "I'm not saying that any particular instance of using the N-word is any more horrifying and menacing than any other such word," he told Daniel Smith in The Atlantic. "I am saying that from a broad sociological view, the word is associated with more havoc in American society than other racial slurs."[8]

In Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption, published in 2003, Kennedy attempts to bring greater understanding to the racial issues that continue to trouble American society. "His premise is based on common sense," wrote Emily Bernard in Black Issues Book Review.[9] "Until Americans confront racial bias in the most intimate arenas of their lives, we will continue to live with racism and its consequences." Unlike a number of black intellectuals, Kennedy has supported interracial adoption. "Parenting is a mysterious thing," he told Lise Funderburg in Essence. "People will learn what they need to learn in order to help their child along. I'm willing to assume that with respect to all parents, including White people who want to adopt Black kids."[10] Kennedy also explores interracial marriages throughout American history as well as their presence in literature and film. "There is something hopeful in Kennedy's historical accounts," noted Bernard. "In spite of the law ... some individuals managed to maintain honorable and nuanced relationships with people they were legally forbidden to approach as equals."[11]

Kennedy's views have proved controversial even among other black intellectuals. Darcus Howe noted of Nigger in New Statesman, "Had a white person used the word, rejection would have been immediate. Now white society can always point to Kennedy and say that a negro advanced the view that 'nigger' is acceptable."[12] Many black scholars have labeled his work conservative, and worry that books like Race, Crime, and the Law provide political cover for traditional academics. "Over the years," wrote Derrick Bell, "Professor Kennedy has become the impartial, black intellectual, commenting on our still benighted condition and as ready to criticize as commend."[13] When asked by Kate Tuttle of Africana how he felt about the controversy over Nigger, Kennedy replied: "What's the worst that happens? That someone writes a very long diatribe in The New Yorker excoriating me.... I'm not facing firing squads, I'm not facing exile, I'm not facing jail."[14]

Current activities[edit]

Through numerous appearances on the lecture circuit, Kennedy continues to promote debate on hot-button racial issues in the public arena. "If you are socially isolated," he told Regan Goode in The New York Times, "you are more vulnerable to stereotypes and myths, you won't have the opportunity to have conversations with someone who has a different social background than you."[15] While many critics have attempted to use Kennedy's work to advance their own agendas, he has retained his academic independence. "Against black pessimists," wrote Galston and Wasserman, "[Kennedy] argues that substantial progress has been made toward the ideal of color-blind justice. Against complacent whites, he argues that there is still a long way to go."[16] The relationship between white and black America, Kennedy noted, remains one of America's most perplexing problems. "Obviously there are all sorts of ethnic, racial conflicts in American society," Kennedy told Smith, "but there's one that is deeper than all the others and that's white/black racial conflict."[17]

Kennedy currently serves as a trustee of Princeton University.


  • National Achievement scholarship, 1973–77;
  • Rhodes scholarship, 1977–79;
  • Earl Warren Legal Training scholarship, 1979-82.


  • 1997. Race, Crime, and the Law, Vintage Books. ISBN 9780307814654, OCLC 679475445
  • 2002. Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Pantheon. ISBN 9780375421723, OCLC 185738019
  • 2003. Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption, Pantheon. ISBN 9780375702648, OCLC 778810744
  • 2008. Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, Pantheon. ISBN 9780375425431, OCLC 836658912
  • 2011. The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, Pantheon. ISBN 9780307455550, OCLC 918483570
  • 2013. For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law, Pantheon. ISBN 9780307949363, OCLC 951161004
  • Marshall, Thurgood; Tushnet, Mark V. (Editor); and Kennedy, Randall (Foreword by). (2001). Thurgood Marshall: His Speeches, Writings, Arguments, Opinions and Reminiscences. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated -- Lawrence Hill Books. ISBN 9781556523861.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)


  1. ^ Randall Kennedy. Department of African American Studies Faculty Page
  2. ^ Randall Kennedy: "How will blacks react if Obama loses?" Dallas Morning News.
  3. ^ Biographical sketch of Randall Kennedy.Civil War Literature Archived 2008-12-20 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ "Yvedt Love Matory". Washington Post. Retrieved 2019-08-07.
  5. ^ William Galston and David Wasserman. Review of Randall Kennedy’s Race, Crime, and the Law. Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1997, p. 100. Archived 2009-03-21 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Lawrence Donegan, "The battle of the N-word", The Guardian, 20 January 2002.
  7. ^ Taylor, Charles (2002-01-22). "The N word". Salon.com. Retrieved 2013-07-12.
  8. ^ Daniel Smith, "That Word: Interview of Randall Kennedy". The Atlantic, January 17, 2002.
  9. ^ Bernard, Emily, "Interracial Intimacies" (Book Review), Black Issues Book Review, March 1, 2003. Archived January 16, 1999, at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ Lise Funderburg, "The Essence Dialogue: Who Should Adopt Our Children? Interview with Randall Kennedy", Essence Magazine, January 1998.
  11. ^ Bernard. Ibid Archived 1999-01-16 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Darcus Howe, "The prof says it's OK to use 'nigger'. But he's brown, not black", New Statesman, 28 January 2002.
  13. ^ Bell. Ibid
  14. ^ Tuttle, Kathleen. Interview with Randall Kennedy. Africana, 28 January 2002.
  15. ^ Regan Goode. The Way We Live Now: Questions for Randall Kennedy; Color Dynamics. The New York Times. 2-9-03. [1]
  16. ^ Galston and Wasserman. Ibid Archived 2009-03-21 at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ Smith. Ibid

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]