3 Lessons on Politics and Race in the US

On Monday, February 1, Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy joined the IOP’s Harvard Political Union and the Politics of Race and Ethnicity program for a discussion about racial justice and political correctness in today’s society. The discussion was the first event in a two-part series titled “The Politics of Race: Can We Talk?”

Professor Kennedy shared his views frankly and plainly in an hour-long roundtable exchange with over 50 members of the Harvard community. Here are some of the key takeaways:

“I am part of this country, for good and for bad.”
Asked about discrimination against particular racial groups in the United States, Professor Kennedy pointed out that racial problems are a complex, multifaceted issue affecting many groups. Citing the U.S. internment of Japanese descendants in World War II as an example, he lauded the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 for apologizing and granting reparations to those affected. Kennedy said he would have been happy if even more reparations had been paid. He emphasized that while he himself was not a direct contributor to the actions of internment, he considers himself a part of the U.S. whether the nation’s actions are good or bad. His message evoked images of the U.S. as not a collection of individuals, but a united entity in which all Americans must take responsibility.

“Racial reformers have done a good job over the past 50, 100 years.”
With the conversation centered around prejudice in today’s society, Professor Kennedy recognized that many problems still exist today, something he attributed to inertia in a country as large as the U.S. Yet he made sure to remind the group of how quickly the U.S. has been able to change for the better, noting the remarkable transformation of a divided society and stating that racial reformers should be proud.

“Students have a lot more power than they think.”
The evening’s discussion was approaching a close when a question was raised about freedom of speech. Professor Kennedy immediately pointed out that students have a great deal of power in their hands, a force which oftentimes isn’t used. Simple actions such as publicity and word of mouth can be great vehicles of change. He noted that every individual has their own ambitions and passions and that each individual has an important fight to wage. In an environment today where many are calling for changes, his words serve as a reminder of the power of each individual to fight for the reforms that they desire.