Lani Guinier
Stanford Humanities Center

The Miner's Canary

On the risk to us all of racial marginalization

Miners often carried a canary into the mine alongside them. The canary's more fragile respiratory system would cause it to collapse from noxious gases long before humans were affected, thus alerting the miners to danger....

Those who are racially marginalized are like the miner's canary: their distress is the first sign of a danger that threatens us all. It is easy enough to think that when we sacrifice this canary the only harm is to communities of color. Yet others ignore problems that converge around racial minorities at their own peril, for these problems are symptoms warning us that we are all at risk.

The Miner’s Canary, p. 11



On public discourse and political communication about race

[T]here is a breakdown in our ability to talk to each other on a number of issues. Unfortunately, political discourse resembles, to a great degree, the worst excess of the adversary model of litigation, the 'winner take all' model of sports, and the 'only one of you is going to be left standing' model of war. When we use that structure to talk about something like race, it reinforces all the divisions and polarities we are experiencing on so many other levels, in terms of segregated housing patterns, people not going to school together or not watching the same television shows —basically, the prediction of the Kerner Commission from almost thirty years ago that we are becoming two nations, one white and one black. Even though it's a more heterogeneous nation in some ways, it is still very segregated.

Racetalks conversation, “A Commonplace Conversation with Lani Guinier”,
African-American Review 30(2), 1996; also,



On the problems of majoritarianism and racial division and their political solution

In an ideal democracy, the people would rule, but the minorities would be protected against the power of majorities. But if a group is unfairly treated, for example, when it forms a racial minority, and if the problems of unfairness are not cured by conventional assumptions about majority rule, then what is to be done? The answer is that we may need an alternative to winner-take-all majoritarianism….  I pursue voting systems that might disaggregate The Majority so that it does not exercise power unfairly or tyrannically. I aspire to a more cooperative political style of decision-making… a positive-sum, taking-turns solution.

Tyranny of the Majority, pp 4-5



On race-conscious districting

Under conditions of sharp racial division, then, majority rule can serve as an instrument to suppress a minority. It is not a fair way to resolve disagreements because it no longer promises reciprocity. That is what we learn from Brother Rice High School and Phillips County, Arkansas.

How can this unfairness be remedied? Perhaps through a more vigorous application of the conventional remedy of race-conscious districting. As indicated earlier, this remedy is not applied when — as in Phillips County — there is a system of district-wide, single-person offices rather than a collective decision-making body with multiple seats. But in the face of evidence of racial subordination, courts could simply reject such arrangements, require a system of subdistricts, and then ensure that some subdistricts have, for example, a black majority. 

“Second Proms and Second Primaries: The Limits of Majority Rule,”
Boston Review, Vol. 17, No. 5, September-October 1992, pp. 32-4



On Guinier's teaching style and the Socratic method

As for her own teaching style, "I can’t say that I have a single one," Guinier replies, when asked to characterize it. "I am committed to experimenting." One approach she and her students have found mutually satisfying involves small groups preparing for classes together. Students select syllabus topics and other students to work with; Guinier suggests study questions. "Class discussion is very rich because some students have already thought about the issues so deeply," she says. While Guinier finds that many students, especially women and people of color, tend to be "reluctant partners in the Socratic exchange, many women and men of all colors thrive once they have a chance to talk through their ideas in smaller, less formal settings." Yet Guinier doesn’t take this approach to all her classes. "I’m committed to creating a learning community that may require different interventions depending on who’s in the community," she says. "Part of the challenge is not to be rigid, either rigidly collaborative or rigidly Socratic. I always have an ear cocked for a better way."

Harvard Alumni Bulletin, Spring 1999; also at



On gender bias, listening vs. “gaming” and the need to change teaching methods

Men students, Guinier says, often participate more easily in the "gamesmanship" that is rewarded in many law school classrooms, where one "wins" by being self-promoting and aggressive in classroom exchange. Women, on the other hand, "are more likely to view classroom exchange as an opportunity for conversation"—an opportunity they sometimes find lacking. Women and men have much to teach each other, says Guinier. As she put it in her Celebration 45 speech, "Women can learn from men how to ‘play the game,’ and men can learn from women that there is a value to coming to class with the goal of listening and of making a contribution building on what other people are saying. That goal has the potential of making you an excellent lawyer. It was my experience as a trial lawyer, it was my experience as a government lawyer, and certainly is my experience as an academic, that those who listen are in a better position to take criticism and use it to move forward in a constructive fashion."

Harvard Alumni Bulletin, Spring 1999; also at



On affirmative action and the LSAT

Affirmative Action. What do we mean when we say the words Affirmative Action? For many Americans, the term is a code for preferences based on gender, but primarily based on race, for unqualified minorities. So that race trumps qualifications. But is that what, in fact, people who are implementing Affirmative Action think they are doing? What does it mean to be qualified to do a particular job? Is there a relationship we are actually thinking of and are relying on and are comfortable with between the so-called credentials that we use as gatekeepers and the job that needs to be done and the ability of people to do that job? Going back to my study of women and men in law school, is there a correlation between incoming credentials and performance first year? It turns out that the LSAT, which is the major "objective" indicator on which many law schools rely, is a very weak predictor of first-year performance and that's what it's best at! It has no correlation with success at the Bar and being a contributing member of society.

"A Commonplace Conversation with Lani Guinier"
African American Review (30:2) [Summer 1996], p.197-204.



On “testocracy” and the lack of social mobility in late capitalism

The old elite felt that it inherited its privileges. The new elite feels that it has earned its privileges. And the problem is that the new elite thinks that it earned its privileges based on its intrinsic merit. And therefore the message to those who are not part of this elite is, "You are stupid. You simply don't matter." Whereas, at least with the old elite, there was this sense of noblesse oblige, that in order to defend or legitimate the social oligarchy, you had to give back — as you said, the notion of service, of public service, of some commitment to the greater good. And there was the sense that even though you were privileged, it was simply luck that you inherited the privilege. So those who were out of luck, so to speak, did not necessarily think that they were stupid. They were unlucky and unfortunate but not necessarily stupid.

And I think the damage that we are doing through this testocracy, which is credentializing a different elite, is the damage to both the people who have an inflated sense of their own merit and an unwillingness to open up to new ways of problem solving, an arrogance that there's only one way to answer a question. Right? Because on that SAT it only gives one credit for one right answer. So that means all problems have a single right answer. And the question is, can you guess it within a short period of time. And it also conveys to those who are left out a very damaging sense that they internalize. And I think it really paralyzes true democratic experimentation.

PBS Frontline interview; see


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