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Harvard’s Randall Kennedy set for Dreyfous Lecture March 10

March 04, 2015


Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy is Tulane's 2015 Dreyfous Lecturer.

Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy’s credentials could hardly look more sterling: Princeton University for his undergraduate degree, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England, Yale Law School, clerkships for legendary U.S. Court of Appeals Judge J. Skelly Wright and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Yet Kennedy says he might not have been hired by Harvard (where he taught the future Michelle Obama in the 1980s) if not for affirmative action, a practice he defends. But don’t let that suggest his positions on issues surrounding race in America are predictable. Indeed, even a longtime friend characterized him as an apologist for a racially biased legal system.

“I take strong positions, but I also try to be attentive to the complexity of things,” a 2013 profile in Harvard Magazine quotes Kennedy as saying.

On March 10, Kennedy brings his ideas to Tulane Law School for the George Abel and Mathilde Schwab Dreyfous Lecture on Civil Liberties and Human Rights. The event is scheduled for 4 p.m. in the Wendell H. Gauthier Appellate Moot Court Room 110, with a reception to follow in the Marian Mayer Berkett Multipurpose Room.

The endowed lecture, established in 1965, honors a pair of community activists who dedicated their lives to advancing civil liberties for all.

Kennedy plans to discuss another activist, the late Alexander Pierre Tureaud, a New Orleans-born lawyer who was instrumental in advancing equal rights in numerous areas of life in Louisiana. Among other achievements, Tureaud represented black plaintiffs who helped integrate Louisiana State University in the 1950s and a white client who wanted to attend historically black Grambling State University in the ’60s. Tureaud worked with then-attorney Thurgood Marshall on litigation to raise the pay of black teachers in New Orleans’ racially segregated schools to the level of white teachers, and on a later case that legalized protests at whites-only businesses and restaurants.

Tureaud’s efforts helped desegregate New Orleans public facilities including City Park, Audubon Park, public buses, the municipal auditorium and the airport restaurant. His papers are housed at Tulane’s Amistad Research Center.

Kennedy, who is the Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard, teaches courses on contracts, criminal law and the regulation of race relations. 

His numerous books have explored such topics as racial politics and the Obama presidency; interracial marriage and adoption; persistent divides based on color; and, perhaps most explosively, the use of the N-word, which he spells out in a 2002 book subtitled The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. His book Race, Crime, and the Law received the 1998 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

In the Harvard Magazine profile, former student Brad Berenson, who went on to work in the George W. Bush White House, called Kennedy “the kind of professor who thrives on iconoclasm,” and said  “He’s a great example of the inquiring mind of an academic, someone who is willing to question dogmas and encourage his students to do the same.”

In the Fall 2014 issue of The American Prospect magazine, Kennedy wrote about being a “racial optimist,” but his explanation was complicated.

“Intentional invidious racial discrimination constitutes a force in American life that is far from negligible,” he wrote in one passage, calling it “a substantial headwind” for racial minorities in key areas, including  housing, employment, criminal justice and electoral politics.

Still, he wrote, “Despite the many wrongs that remain to be righted, blacks in America confront fewer racist impediments now than ever before in the history of the United States. … That a black man has been the master of the White House for the past six years does indeed reflect and reinforce a remarkable socio-psychological transformation in the American racial scene. If that is ‘tokenism,’ give us more of it.”


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