Randall Kennedy

In the wake of the first black presidency, can we finally overcome our racial prejudices?

One of the Preeminent Voices on Race in America

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Randall Kennedy | One of the Preeminent Voices on Race in America
Lavin Exclusive Speaker

Randall Kennedy challenges us to confront our racial prejudices—whether he’s talking about loaded words like “nigger” or the inescapable politics of race that shape America's first black presidency. On stage, this Harvard Law professor exudes a rare mix of sophistication, straight talk, and humor, encouraging debates of the most conscientious subjects. 

Randall Kennedy has “the whole panoply of black experience in America at his fingertips” (The New York Times). Kennedy's instant bestseller Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word sparked a firestorm of national debates sprawling across the pages of The New York Times, Newsweek, TIME, and, most importantly, the popular consciousness. Known for his fearlessness in tackling sensitive racial issues, Kennedy brings the divisive issues that plague black America to the forefront of mass culture. His latest book, For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law, examines affirmative action in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision regarding Fisher v. University of Texas.


In front of packed lecture halls, Kennedy showcases his wit and accessibility, while challenging audiences to confront their own racial prejudices and the prejudices embedded in society. Frank conversations include the ongoing linguistic and historical baggage of loaded words like “n-gger” and “sellout,” interracial intimacies and adoptions, and overt (and covert) racial lines. Kennedy is truly a must-see for anyone interested in the ongoing national conversation about race, identity and American life.


As one of America’s premier scholar on race and ethnicity, Kennedy studied at Princeton, Oxford, and Yale. Following positions at the United States Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, he joined the faculty at Harvard Law School where he has since written for academic and popular journals, published several books, including Nigger, Sell-Out: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, and The Persistence of the Color Line, and served on the editorial boards of American Prospect and The Nation.   

Speech Topics

Diversity & Race
For Discrimination Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law

What precisely is affirmative action, and why is it fiercely championed by some and just as fiercely denounced by others? Does it signify a boon or a stigma? Or is it simply reverse discrimination? What are its benefits and costs to American society? What are the exact indicia determining who should or should not be accorded affirmative action? When should affirmative action end, if it must? Randall Kennedy gives us a concise, gimlet-eyed, and deeply personal conspectus of the policy, refusing to shy away from the myriad complexities of an issue that continues to bedevil American race relations.
In this talk, Kennedy accounts for the slipperiness of the term “affirmative action” as it has been appropriated by ideologues of every stripe; delves into the complex and surprising legal history of the policy; coolly analyzes key arguments pro and con advanced by the left and right, including the so-called color-blind, race-neutral challenge; critiques the impact of Supreme Court decisions on higher education; and ponders the future of affirmative action.

U.S. Politics
The Persistence of the Color Line Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

Renowned for his well reasoned approach to the pitfalls and cliches of racial discourse, Randall Kennedy takes on the complex relationship between the first black president and his African American constituency. Kennedy tackles hot-button issues like the nature of racial opposition to Obama, whether Obama has any special responsibility to African Americans, the increasing irrelevance of traditional racial politics and the consequences thereof, black patriotism and its antithesis, the differences between Obama’s presentation of himself to blacks and whites and the challenges posed by the dream of a post-racial society.

Eschewing the critical excesses of both the left and the right, Kennedy’s talk offers an insightful view of Obama’s triumphs, travails, strengths and weaknesses, as they pertain to the troubled history of race in America. 

Diversity & Race
Sellout The Politics of Racial Betrayal

For a black person, few things are worse than being called a “sellout.” It is a volatile term, loaded with the stigma of racial betrayal. “Sellout,” the modern-day cousin to terms such as “Uncle Tom” and “Oreo,” continues to dog many prominent blacks, from Oprah Winfrey to Barack Obama. In this extraordinary talk, Randall Kennedy tackles this highly charged issue head-on. Exploring the actions that trigger cries of “selling out,” such as marrying a white person, acting and thinking “white,” or living in a white neighborhood, he shows us the negative consequences of living under the specter of race anxiety, and offers original solutions to overcome the feelings of fear, anger, and mistrust that often surround talk of so-called race traitors. This sweeping lecture, impeccably argued and full of hope and reason, brings a much-needed clarity to the topic, while getting to the core of what it means to be black in America today. 

Diversity & Race
N-gger The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word

In this lecture, Randall Kennedy focuses on key words in the ongoing conversation about American race relations. In the linguistic baggage that Kennedy unpacks are such words as “racism,” “discrimination,” and “diversity.” At the core of the talk is the most notorious racial slur in the English language and the basis for his New York Times bestseller, Nigger.

Diversity & Race
The Race Line in American Life

Randall Kennedy canvasses the many ways in which racial lines have been drawn overtly and, covertly, self- consciously and unconsciously. Many people claim that, with certain exceptions (such as affirmative action or racial profiling by law enforcement authorities), relatively little invidious discrimination impedes the forward progress of racial minorities. Kennedy examines that claim, considering the results of audits involving automobile transactions, employment applications, the receipt of tips by cab drivers, and the provision of medical care.