Racism remains a subject that's not to be discussed


September 16, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

Months have passed since President Clinton nominated University of Pennsylvania law professor Lani Guinier to the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights and then dumped her in the face of conservative opposition.

The president's failure to back his own nominee generated a tremendous uproar, particularly from blacks and women, who charged that the president had betrayed his most loyal constituents.

Yet, we have learned these past few months that life somehow goes on regardless of political brouhahas; the White House reportedly will announce a new nominee to the post within the next few days.

The broken ties between the president and his political allies are slowly healing. Meanwhile, babies continue to cry, birds continue to sing; the sun and the moon continue to rise and fall, rise and fall, right on schedule.

Nevertheless, the dumping of Ms. Guinier has taken on a significance and power that resonates far beyond the actual event or person. Something similar happened following the Rodney King incident. His beating by white Los Angeles police officers came to represent, for many people, the brutal treatment of blacks by the criminal-justice system.

But Ms. Guinier makes a better symbol than Mr. King -- who was unemployed, under the influence of alcohol and on parole when police stopped him for speeding. Ms. Guinier is better educated, more articulate, and obviously determined to use her failed appointment as a platform to drive home a larger message.

"My nomination has come to symbolize the situation in which

America finds itself with regard to race and racism," said Ms. Guinier yesterday.

She was speaking in Washington at a "town meeting" arranged by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the Howard University law school. The topic: "The Meaning of Race in America: The Nomination of Lani Guinier."

"America has nothing against individual blacks," Ms. Guinier continued, "but when it comes to confronting the problem of racism and remedies to racism, America has adopted a policy similar to that proposed for gays in the military: Don't ask, don't tell and don't pursue. My nomination," she said, "was withdrawn in part to avoid talking about race and racism in a public forum."

Also on yesterday's panel were Dr. Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., chief Judge of the Third Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals; and Dr. Cornel West, professor of African American and religious studies at Princeton University and author of the book "Race Matters."

The panelists generally agreed that most of white America -- and much of black America -- have become reluctant to acknowledge the pervasive impact of race on society.

They also agreed that the general reluctance to confront the issue of racism has resulted in a distortion of mainstream black opinion by the media.

For example, opinion polls indicate that the majority of middle class, college-educated blacks believe race relations have deteriorated during the 1980s, causing a reversal of many of the economic and political gains of the civil rights movement. But the media tend to amplify the voices of those few blacks who discount the impact of racism.

Said Judge Higginbotham: "From his remarks, Justice Clarence Thomas evidently thinks that if the clock were turned back, he would have been the confidant of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson -- their trusted adviser -- rather than the one who planted their tobacco and hoed their fields."

But the panelists also found room for disagreement on strategies and remedies. They disagreed, for instance, on whether blacks should push for programs targeted specifically to black needs or push for programs that address common problems. They debated whether black leaders and organizations have become too soft and comfortable or whether compromise has become the best strategy in today's conservative climate.

In all, it was a fascinating and thought-provoking discussion. But Ms. Guinier is right: Issues of race, racism, and remedies sadly remain too controversial, too taboo, for public consideration. Unfortunately, the panelists were, in effect, preaching to the choir yesterday.

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