Skip to content


Randall Kennedy

  • The man who killed Jim Crow: The legacy of Charles Hamilton Houston

    September 6, 2019

    Charles Hamilton Houston ’1922 S.J.D. ’1923 was an inspiring figure in American legal history and a sometimes controversial one as well. Both sides of his legacy were examined in a lively lecture and Q&A discussion at Harvard Law School this week, to coincide with the 124th anniversary of his birth on September 3, 1895. There was no disputing Houston’s status as a one of the key champions of American racial justice in the 20th century. In his opening talk, Professor Randall Kennedy outlined the obstacles Houston overcame as an African American lawyer in the early 20th century, and the accomplishments that ultimately led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision (which came four years after Houston’s death). Professor Kenneth Mack ’91 also celebrated Houston’s achievements, but pointed out decisions Houston made that reasonable minds might take issue with.

  • The man who killed Jim Crow: The legacy of Charles Hamilton Houston

    September 5, 2019

    Charles Hamilton Houston was an inspiring figure in American legal history, and a sometimes controversial one as well. Both sides of his legacy were examined in a lively lecture and Q&A discussion at Harvard Law School this week, to coincide with the 124th anniversary of his birth on September 3, 1895.

  • A black academic grapples with his own racism

    August 26, 2019

    An article by Randall Kennedy:  ‘How to Be an Antiracist” is a memoir by Ibram X. Kendi that details his grapplings with racism and his advice for eliminating it. Kendi is the director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University and the author of “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2016. Kendi’s latest book describes his peregrinations as a child and early adolescent in predominantly black, urban settings in New York; as an anxious student at the predominantly white Stonewall Jackson High School in Northern Virginia; as a journalism major at the virtually all-black Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University; and as a PhD candidate in the African American studies department at Temple University. Kendi dissects what he sees as his own racism in each of these phases of his life.

  • Does Representing Harvey Weinstein Preclude This Law Professor From Serving Students?

    May 20, 2019

    Can a famed law professor serve on the defense team of the nation's highest profile #MeToo case — and also adequately serve the needs of university students under his care? That is one of the questions at the center of a controversy that's erupted at Harvard University. It involves law professor Ronald Sullivan. He's done some of the nation's most important criminal justice work on behalf of the wrongly incarcerated, and until recently he was also on Harvey Weinstein's defense team. Sullivan was also the faculty head of a Harvard dorm. ... "There is no inconsistency between being a faculty dean of a house at Harvard University and, at the same time, being a criminal defense attorney for Harvey Weinstein," Randall Kennedy, professor at Harvard Law School, told On Point's Meghna Chakrabarti.

  • Harvard Betrays a Law Professor — and Itself

    May 15, 2019

    An op-ed by Randall Kennedy: I have been a professor at Harvard University for 34 years. In that time, the school has made some mistakes. But it has never so thoroughly embarrassed itself as it did this past weekend. At the center of the controversy is Ronald Sullivan, a law professor who ran afoul of student activists enraged that he was willing to represent Harvey Weinstein. Mr. Sullivan is my friend and colleague. He is the director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School and the architect of a conviction-review program in Brooklyn that has freed a score of improperly convicted individuals. He is also a sought-after lawyer who has represented plaintiffs (including the family of Michael Brown, whose death at the hands of a police officer fueled the Black Lives Matter movement) as well as defendants (including Rose McGowan, the actress who faced drug charges and is, ironically, one of Mr. Weinstein’s accusers).

  • Valerie Jarrett’s winding path to the Obamas’ inner circle

    April 12, 2019

    A book review by Randall Kennedy: Valerie Jarrett was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama during both his terms; is a close friend to Michelle Obama; directed an important real estate firm; and has served as chair of the Chicago Transit Authority Board, chair of the Chicago Stock Exchange and chair of the board of trustees of the University of Chicago Medical Center. She chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls and co-chaired the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault. She sits on the boards of directors of Ariel Investments and Lyft and is a distinguished senior fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. Jarrett is, in short, a big deal.

  • Legal Community Split Over Emory Professor’s Use of Racial Slur

    April 10, 2019

    Two law professors and a former law school dean have offered their public support to an Emory law professor suspended over the use of a racial slur. Affidavits from Harvard University’s Randall Kennedy, Princeton’s Keith Whittington, and Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, the former president of Florida State University where he also served as the law school’s dean, were included in formal complaints calling for Emory’s censure. ... Kennedy—a former law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the author of a book on the use of the slur as a “linguistic weapon”—said Zwier’s use of the word “was neither careless nor malicious.”

  • When ‘the n-word’ meets public education

    April 8, 2019

    An op-ed by Randall Kennedy: News reports suggest that an effort by the Cambridge School Committee to display racial enlightenment has turned into a racially discriminatory act of political repression. In January, a teacher at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, Kevin Dua, sponsored a research project titled “RECLAIMING: Nigger v. Cracker: Educating Racial Context In/for Cambridge.” The project sought to explore the history and effects of racial slurs. Dua invited members of the committee to attend a discussion of the project in part because he wanted them to address an issue that surfaced when the students pursued their research: School computers blocked access to websites containing the n-word and other racial and ethnic slurs. One member of the committee who attended, Emily Dexter, listened to the presentation, participated, and volunteered to assist the students in negotiating the problem of the computer filters. So far so good. The situation presented a positive instance of public high school education: an exercise aimed at sparking curiosity about an important, albeit controversial, subject in the context of an academic setting in which students, instructors, and others could engage, hopefully, in a memorable, fascinating, edifying exchange of information and views. But then things went awry.

  • Video: Unexampled Courage 2

    Video: Unexampled Courage

    April 5, 2019

    Harvard Law School recently hosted Judge Richard Gergel, U.S. District Judge of the U. S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, for a talk on his book, "Unexampled Courage,” and a discussion with HLS professors Randall Kennedy, Kenneth Mack and Mark Tushnet.

  • Minnesota professor’s suspension fuels academic freedom debate

    April 1, 2019

    Augsburg University history Prof. Phillip Adamo led a classroom discussion about the N-word this school year, saying the racial slur rather than the euphemism. The class set off a flurry of student complaints, international press coverage of Adamo’s eventual suspension and intense soul-searching on Minnesota’s most racially diverse private campus about inclusion and academic freedom. ...This time, students took their complaints to the top. Adamo says he was told not to return to his classroom the following week and was relieved of his duties as honors program director. He was eventually suspended as the university sought to formally discipline him. His case drew national attention and press coverage in the U.K. and Denmark. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard law scholar Randall Kennedy, who is black, blasted Adamo’s suspension as “a dispiriting farce” and argued that Augsburg leaders had undermined the university’s reputation. Adamo got support from the American Association of University Professors and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which charged that Augsburg “has run roughshod over academic freedom and its own policies.”

  • When Civility Is Used As A Cudgel Against People Of Color

    March 14, 2019

    The value of civility is one of the few things Americans can all agree on — right? That's the common assumption. And yet it's an assumption that depends on everyone thinking they're a full member of the community. But what about when they aren't? ... San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the national anthem enraged many people — including President Trump. The upward spiral of unarmed black people (mostly men) who have been killed by (mostly) white policemen was unacceptable to the NFL star. He chose to kneel to bring attention to it, and that, says Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy, made a lot of the white public furious. "The idea that these athletes were addressing themselves to a burning political issue — that in and of itself made people mad," Kennedy says.

  • ‘A word that has blood dripping off it’: How a white lawmaker’s slur reverberated in Maryland

    March 5, 2019

    Before the vote, Maryland Del. Charles E. Sydnor III had planned to rise to explain why he would cast a ballot to censure his colleague, a fellow Democrat who began her state legislative career with him five years ago. ... Sydnor was one of 137 members of the House of Delegates who, on the final day of Black History Month, took the rare action of censuring Del. Mary Ann Lisanti (Harford) for conduct that “brought dishonor to the entire General Assembly of Maryland.” The revelation Monday that Lisanti, a white lawmaker, had described an area of Prince George’s County as a “n----- district,” sent feelings of hurt, shock, anger and disgust through the State House, across Maryland and into Prince George’s, a community long hailed as a mecca of the black middle class. ... “It is the most notorious racial-ethnic-group slur in the American language, and that is saying something because the American language is filled with slurs,” said Harvard Law professor Randall L. Kennedy.

  • ‘Whose Side Are You On?’: Harvard Dean Representing Weinstein Is Hit With Graffiti and Protests

    March 5, 2019

    The graffiti showed up on the door of a Harvard University building last week: “Our rage is self-defense,” and “Whose side are you on?” The unexpected target was Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., who is an accomplished lawyer, the director of Harvard’s criminal-law clinic and the first African-American to be appointed as a faculty dean. Earlier this year, Mr. Sullivan joined a team of lawyers representing the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who heads to trial in June in Manhattan on rape and related charges. ... In his first public remarks, Mr. Sullivan said in a phone interview on Monday that he did not anticipate the level of backlash he has received. He has a long history of taking on high-profile and, at times, controversial clients, as well as representing students who have been victims of sexual assault, he said. “Lawyers are not an extension of their clients,” Mr. Sullivan said. “Lawyers do law work, not the work of ideology. When I’m in my lawyer capacity, representing a client, even one publicly vilified, it doesn’t mean I’m supporting anything the client may have done.” ... But many of Mr. Sullivan’s colleagues have come to his defense. Dozens of law professors from the university on Feb. 14 sent a letter to the college in support of Mr. Sullivan. On Feb. 28, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor, who wrote: “Those calling for Sullivan’s resignation or dismissal as a faculty dean solely because he is serving as Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer in a rape prosecution are displaying an array of disturbingly widespread tendencies.

  • When a Dean Defends Harvey Weinstein

    March 4, 2019

    An op-ed by Randall Kennedy: Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. is the faculty dean of Winthrop House, one of the 12 undergraduate dormitories in which most students live during their final three years at Harvard College. The faculty deans are mentors, guardians, and counselors — truly in loco parentis. They are responsible for their house’s overall social environment and manage a staff charged with facilitating the well-being of the students. Sullivan, the first black faculty dean at Harvard, is also a clinical professor at Harvard Law School, where I have taught for over three decades. In addition to those roles, Sullivan engages in private legal practice. He helped win an acquittal in the double-murder prosecution of the professional football player Aaron Hernandez (a convicted murderer in a different case, who eventually committed suicide). He represented the family of Michael Brown, whose death at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., fueled the Black Lives Matter movement. At the invitation of the Brooklyn district attorney, he designed and adopted a conviction-review program that freed scores of improperly imprisoned people. Sullivan is, in short, an imposing, deeply respected figure in the legal community.

  • In Defense of Harvey Weinstein’s Harvard Lawyer

    March 4, 2019

    The law professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. is among the most accomplished people at Harvard. He has helped to overturn scores of wrongful convictions and to free thousands from wrongful incarceration. ... Sullivan faces this “clamor of popular suspicions and prejudices” because he agreed to act as a criminal-defense attorney for an object of scorn and hatred: Harvey Weinstein. ... Catharine MacKinnon, Harvard’s James Barr Ames Visiting Professor of Law, emailed: The issue is not whether Ron can represent reviled clients accused of crimes and still be the faculty dean of a college. Of course he can. The issue is substantive. ...The Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig echoes the argument that it’s possible to be a survivor of sexual assault and feel comfortable with Sullivan’s choice. ...“The skills, capacities, and dispositions that would help to make a person a valued defense counsel are also the skills, capacities, and dispositions that would help to make a person a valued Faculty Dean,” [Randall Kennedy] argued.  ... The Harvard professor Jeannie Suk Gersen emailed me her concerns with such “processes”: "Professor Sullivan has chosen to represent and defend persons whom many people would not defend. Strong disagreement with those choices is of course part of the exploration of differences of principle and opinion that we’d hope for in a university." ... “Little more than half a century ago, mainstream lawyers were frightened away from defending alleged Communists who faced congressional witch hunts, blacklisting, criminal trials, and even execution,” Harvard Law’s Alan Dershowitz wrote. ... The Harvard professor Janet Halley calls Harvard’s actions “deeply disturbing.” She explained in an email: The right to counsel even for the most despised defendants, the basic role of counsel in our legal order, the presumption of innocence, academic freedom, and the right of University employees to assist persons accused in the University’s Title IX proceedings—are all implicated here. ... The Harvard law professor Scott Westfahl, however, defended the idea of a climate review, also by email. ... “We are all better off as a result,” and he noted, “I completely support the right of Professor Sullivan, an extremely talented defense lawyer, to take on a very difficult case. Should Mr. Weinstein be convicted, there will be absolutely no doubt that he received a fair hearing with the best possible defense counsel.”

  • How a Dispute Over the N-Word Became a Dispiriting Farce

    February 12, 2019

    An article by Randall Kennedy: A series of dismaying events has transpired at Augsburg University, in Minneapolis. According to several undisputed news reports, it began in October, when a student read a sentence in class from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time ... Airing the N-word caused a commotion. The professor leading the class, Philip Adamo, asked the students if they felt it was appropriate to voice the word Baldwin had written.

  • Who Read What in 2018: History and Journalism

    December 10, 2018

    ...Randall Kennedy: The most memorable book of the year for me was one I have read and reread at least annually over the past few years: Lee Baer’s “The Imp of the Mind: Exploring the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thoughts.”...Adrian Vermeule: I’m somewhat at a loss, because I rarely read new books, on principle. Most are bad. Time, that piercing reviewer of books, relegates so many to obscurity; and time’s judgments often take decades to ripen. Two old books I’ve read in the past year have deepened my understanding of sovereignty—the concept from high political and constitutional theory that is much in the news and that underlies issues of elections, populism, borders and European Union membership.

  • Learning while leading at Harvard Law Review

    Learning while leading at Harvard Law Review

    November 27, 2018

    On a March evening, Michael Thomas Jr. gave a tour of Gannett House to his dad and two brothers, who were visiting to see where Barack Obama first made headlines as the first black leader of the Harvard Law Review. But they were also there to celebrate Thomas, who had recently been elected the journal’s third African-American president.

  • The Rise and Fall of Affirmative Action

    October 9, 2018

    If Blum’s suit is successful, the effect will be felt far beyond Harvard. It will limit the freedom that academic institutions have often had in pursuing their unique educational missions. The lawsuit, and Blum’s efforts to change the cultural conversation surrounding diversity and discrimination, could end affirmative action in higher education as we know it....Suspicions about the fitness and the qualifications of nonwhites didn’t begin with affirmative action. But it has become the most prominent way that these suspicions are aired, since the stakes are so clear. Life rarely seems so zero-sum as it does when we imagine that we are vying for the lone seat in the classroom. “Affirmative action is part of a larger struggle,” Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School, told me. “The much larger struggle is the struggle against the idea that the United States is a white man’s country. Do people of Asian ancestry benefit from that larger struggle against the notion that America is a white man’s country? Yes, absolutely.”

  • The Second Redemption Court

    September 4, 2018

    The conservative majority on the Supreme Court today is similarly blinded by a commitment to liberty in theory that ignores the reality of how Americans’ lives are actually lived. Like the Supreme Court of that era, the conservatives on the Court today are opposed to discrimination in principle, and indifferent to it in practice...“For large portions of American life people of color have been treated unjustly, and for most of that period the Supreme Court has found ways to rationalize that, and make us think that is consistent with promises of liberty and equality,” says the Harvard Law professor and legal scholar Randall Kennedy. “That’s what it’s typically done. Is it doing that today? Yup.”

  • Ethnicity not a factor in Elizabeth Warren’s rise in law

    September 4, 2018

    The 60-plus Harvard Law School professors who filed into an auditorium-style room on the first floor of Pound Hall on that February 1993 afternoon had a significant question to answer: Should they offer a job to Elizabeth Warren?...The Globe examined hundreds of documents, many of them never before available, and reached out to all 52 of the law professors who are still living and were eligible to be in that Pound Hall room at Harvard Law School...“By the unwritten rules that most schools played by at the time, none of this should have happened,” explained Bruce Mann, Warren’s husband of 38 years, who joined her for the interview with the Globe. “Law faculties hired in their own image. . . except for those rare occasions when someone came along that was just so stunningly good that they couldn’t ignore her.”...She dazzled Andrew Kaufman, a Harvard Law School professor who recalled meeting her at a conference she organized at the University of Wisconsin Law School in the mid-1980s. “I was blown away,” Kaufman said, recalling his first interaction with Warren. “I thought she was a real whiz.”...“The views had a lot to do with the methodology she was using,” recalled David Wilkins, a Harvard Law professor who voted to offer Warren a job. “Was it the right methodology?” ...“She was not on the radar screen at all in terms of a racial minority hire,” [Randall] Kennedy told the Globe. “It was just not an issue. I can’t remember anybody ever mentioning her in this context.”...“It had nothing to do with our consideration and deliberation,” said Charles Fried, the former solicitor general to president Ronald Reagan and a member of the Harvard Law School appointments committee at the time. “How many times do you have to have the same thing explained to you?”