Guinier: Focus not just on race, but also poverty
Inequalities in higher education and in society at large often are most
visible when viewed through the lens of racial differences, but many
discrepancies affect poor white people just as much as racial minorities,
Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier said.
|Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services
“We have to become aware of the connections between race,
class, geography, gender and all of the other signifiers in our society,” she
need not lose sight of race, but we can’t simply focus only on race.”
Guinier gave the MLK Symposium Memorial Lecture Jan. 19
at Hill Auditorium, where most of the 3,600 seats on three levels were
filled. Her appearance was part of University’s 17th annual symposium honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King
Jr., this year with the theme “Still Separate? Still Unequal? Brown
versus Board of Education, Fifty Years Later.”
To emphasize her point, Guinier used the metaphor of the miners’ canary.
Miners, she said, took a canary into the mines so it would signal,
due to its fragile respiratory system, when the air was toxic and the
men should evacuate. The experience of people who are underrepresented
and silenced in society “is
the experience of the canary in the mines,” she said, but the
problems they face ultimately affect everyone.
“The argument that I’m making is that the canary is a diagnostic
tool, the canary is a lens that helps us to see the deep structural flaws in
this society that are adversely affecting the canary because it is so vulnerable.
But those same structural flaws are also affecting poor and working class whites,” she
said. “I am taking my lesson from that of Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr., that we need to heed the lessons of the canary, not just to fix the
canary but to fix the atmosphere in the mines.”
Referring to U-M’s two Supreme Court cases, she said
many people blame affirmative action for problems in higher education
and say that Blacks and other racial minorities have taken their places
at colleges and universities.
“The plaintiffs in the Grutter and Gratz cases have misdiagnosed
the problem,” she
said, “but there is a problem.”
Affirmative action, she said, “is a gas mask for the canary. It helps
to survive, but the system, the structure, is still intact.”
What needs to happen, she said, is to change the way privilege
and opportunity are allocated to everyone. And that needs to happen,
she said, if Michigan is to repudiate a ballot initiative proposed
by University of California Regent Ward Connerly, which effectively
would ban affirmative action in education and state and local government.
It is critical, she said, for citizens to become “racially
to understand the links between race and poverty. States must
spend more on higher education than on the prison system, she said.
And education should move away from the “backward-looking” merit
system and aptitude tests, she said.
The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which ended segregation
in the public schools, was part of the solution to some of these
problems, but it also was part of the problem, she said. While the
landmark ruling inspired a generation to fight for justice, she said,
it also focused on the way segregation “damaged
the hearts and minds of Negro children.”
But segregation “also damaged the hearts and minds of white children, and
Brown was silent on that fact,” she said. The ruling
failed to help poor white people understand what they would
gain from desegregation and from joining forces with their
socioeconomic counterparts of other races, she said.
Guinier is the author or coauthor of several books. In 1998,
she became the first Black woman appointed to a tenured professorship
at Harvard Law School. She also was head of the voting rights project
at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 1980s and has served in the
Civil Rights Division during the Carter administration.
In 1993, President Clinton nominated her to head the Civil
Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Some people in the political
right wing derided her as a “quota queen,” and her nomination ultimately
The nickname could not have been more inaccurate, said Phoebe Ellsworth,
Frank Murphy Distinguished University Professor of Law and Psychology.
Guinier looks for innovative solutions that are “far more sophisticated than quotas,” Ellsworth
said in her introduction.
Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs
and senior counselor to the president for the arts,
diversity and undergraduate affairs, opened the session.
President Mary Sue Coleman gave a welcome and remarks.
The lecture was sponsored by the MLK Health Sciences Planning Committee,
School of Public Health, Hospitals and Health Centers, Medical
School, School of Nursing, College of Pharmacy, School of Dentistry,
and the School of Social Work.