Lani Guinier: a Poignant Tableau

June 05, 1993

Law professor Lani Guinier says President Clinton and many others have "misinterpreted" her "heavily nuanced" writings on minority representation and leverage in the political and legislative arenas -- the subject matter which led to the scuttling of her nomination as chief of the civil rights division in the Justice Department.

That, however, is subject to debate. Words matter even when their authors try to explain them as academic idea-juggling. Ms. Guinier wrote what she wrote, and what she wrote, her disclaimers notwithstanding, challenges basic concepts about the way democracy is practiced in this country.

Mr. Clinton may have been unduly and unintentionally harsh in describing some of her views as "undemocratic." But it doesn't take much nuance to be disturbed by her suggestions that majority rule is just a device to deny blacks any real role in elective or governmental decisions; that elected black officials who represent mixed constituencies are less than "authentic," and that minority groups of lawmakers (which minorities?) should be granted weighted votes to stave off defeat when the roll is called.

The American system, however imperfect, has over the decades moved steadily to protect political and civil rights that were denied too long to African-Americans. But much remains to be done, and the real question is whether Ms. Guinier, having made herself an easy target for right-wingers and racists, is the best person to improve enforcement of civil rights statutes.

On May 23 we said in these columns that Mr. Clinton had made the "wrong choice" and an "unwise appointment" in selecting his friend Ms. Guinier as his civil rights chief. Now the president has confirmed our judgment in a tableau poignant enough to impress all but the most cynical. It is difficult not to feel sorry for a battered president caught in a lose-lose situation of his own making. And compassion comes easily in regard to Ms. Guinier, denied a life's ambition by what she considers a rush toward "intellectual orthodoxy."

She feels especially grieved that the president did not give her the opportunity to defend herself in Senate confirmation hearings. Yet how could she have done so when her sponsor in the White House found her views incompatible with his own ideas on civil rights? And what good would have been served through protracted hearings that would deflect Congress from the core Clinton agenda -- an agenda that in the economic sphere is designed to uplift the disadvantaged who are central to Ms. Guinier's concerns? She would have better served her cause by offering to withdraw instead of insisting on being dumped.

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