Lani Guinier argues for political empowerment, not privilege or preference

April 17, 1994|By Lyle Denniston

When historians of the future tote up the many acts of prodigious ineptitude in the first year of Bill Clinton's presidency, they are likely to put at or near the top of their list his sacking of Lani Guinier -- the spurned first choice to be the government's top civil rights official.

Ms. Guinier's book, put forth as an answer to all of her critics, is a good measure of what Mr. Clinton's surrender cost him, his administration and, perhaps, the nation.

The book could rank as one of the most important political documents in the modern struggle for political freedom and equality for America's blacks. If taken as seriously as it asks to be, the book could provide a way out of the angry conversation that this country so often has over race as a factor in our politics.

That is quite an amazing prospect, given that she was depicted in Washington a year ago, by her most aggressive challengers, as a racist revolutionary bent on profaning most if not all of America's political faith, the political beliefs that the people supposedly hold most dear about their democratic order.

Last spring, Ms. Guinier, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and longtime friend of the Clintons, was on her way into the Justice Department, to run its Civil Rights Division. But, after her critics had scared Mr. Clinton with a sloganized, over-simplified use of her scholarly writings, there was no defense from him, and she was, in effect, run out of town. (The elegant little speech she gave at the Justice Department, on her way out of town, is printed as the book's epilogue.)

In a matter of weeks, critics skewed her views into profoundly radical forms, remaking her into an enemy of majority rule, one person-one vote, equal voting rights, and democratic individualism. She once said that her own mother could not recognize the Lani Guinier that emerged in that public portrait.

The academic writing that got her into trouble, the scholarly work that Mr. Clinton said would be difficult to defend, makes up the bulk of this book. Thus, this is not a fresh effort (except for a new opening chapter she wrote, plus a stylishly written but quite unnecessary defense of her in an introduction by Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter).

Its recycled nature is unfortunate. Law review articles do not come across well as popular literature. And, although many of Ms. Guinier's ideas -- when carefully read and fully understood -- are capable of lifting the spirit, sending the mind off excitedly in new directions and generating stimulating new political conversation, much of the work is in the arcane language of social mechanics, especially group dynamics at its most abstruse.

What is absolutely clear from a disciplined reading of the book, however, is that this is imaginative, promising and hopeful political argument, well worth the effort its ingestion requires. It is, in that sense, true to the mission she has set for it. In one of her simplest and most compelling sentences, she writes: "By critically examining certain fundamental assumptions about representation, I hope to revive our political imagination."

Ms. Guinier's intricate theoretical structure grows out of a very simple proposition: The reason blacks have been given the right to vote is to help them "overcome majority prejudice." Simple though that proposition is, many would say it is highly debatable.

The conventional belief seems often to be that, once blacks had been assured of equal opportunity to enter the polling booth and cast ballots, democratic representation would do the rest. Given a place at the political table, they would then have a political voice, and that should be enough: There should not then be a further entitlement by right to specific public policies or programs, because that would be reverse racism.

Ms. Guinier does not advocate such an entitlement. She does argue, though, that the right to vote means more than simply having a ballot to drop into the box, more even than the chance to help pick the winner. Voting, she says, "is not simply about winning elections. The purpose of voting is to influence public policy."

That, she stresses, is not a suggestion that blacks have any guaranteed right to policies or programs of their liking -- that is, particular government "outcomes" that they prefer.

What she does suggest is that blacks ought to be entitled to procedures at election time and then in the legislatures that, some of the time, give them a chance to help shape the outcome. If blacks have an equal vote, but the prejudice that once burdened them at the political level is simply transported inside legislative halls so that they can never hope to get what they need or want, little if anything will have been gained. With the vote, she argues, must come "empowerment." Otherwise, she suggests, majority rule remains "majority tyranny."

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