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,
On public discourse and political communication about
[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
Racetalks conversation, “A Commonplace Conversation
with Lani Guinier”,
African-American Review 30(2), 1996; also, http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/guinier/racetalks/Af_AmReview.htm
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,
Tyranny of the Majority,
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
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
and Second Primaries: The Limits of Majority Rule,”
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
PBS Frontline interview; see http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/sats/interviews/guinier.html
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