Healing the divide

January 03, 1995|By Lani Guinier

We are a nation deeply divided. Healing these divisions requires honest and open talk something our political system seems increasingly incapable of providing.

It now seems that the ugly political season of 1994 may never end, as Republicans and new Democrats hover like vultures around the recently interred body of the old New Deal coalition. Already, politicians are climbing over political rivals, seeking to pre-empt each other's bids for their party's presidentia l nomination.

This political maneuvering serves mean ambition, not the public good, and shows how governance itself has become a seamless election contest. Constant public opinion polls pit one side against another. There is no room for thoughtful deliberation or shades of gray. Simply choose sides, and watch the politicians fight it out.

These cynical games poison our political discourse. They are the result of our winner-take-all political system, which disproportionately rewards winners and punishes losers. Since losers get nothing and winners get it all, competition to win is fierce. Communication is subverted by public relations; words become bullets in the struggle for political advantage.

Inspired by the winner-take-all mentality, institutions designed to foster communication now pervert and distort it:

In the mass media, the focus is on conflicts between divergent points of view

Among our intellectual elites, there is little or no conversation across racial or ideological lines.

At the highest levels of decision making, there is disdain for genuine conversation to mediate conflict witness Newt Gingrich's declaration that he would cooperate but not compromise with the Democrats.

Simpleminded slogans now masquerade as the answer to vexing social issues. Our solution to crime problems? Three strikes and you're out. Our solution to welfare problems? Two years and you're off.

Concerns about excess welfare dependency and random violence are real, but our elected officials have failed to advance new or compelling ideas. Rather than change the nature of debate to justify better, more accountable government, politicians of all stripes pander to white fears of blacks. Racial messages are encoded into the language of welfare reform and getting tough on crime.

Think of the code words whites have for blacks: minority, urban, criminal, crime rate, social programs, inner city, qualified candidate, welfare mother. Then listen to the black codes for whites: suburban, Republican, conservative. Each group sees the other as ''them.''

In this polarized climate, our so-called leaders have lost the will to do more than simply condemn our problems. Even worse, they have lost the imagination to do more than censure the victims and blame the victimizers. We are left with the discouraging idea that me and my interests are incompatible with you and your rights. We justify, in the name of winning all, the total disparagement of those who then lose all.

Race is the great taboo. It is like a giant pothole. If we don't fix it, and simply drive around it, it will not go away. We shall be permanently disabled from adapting to a more diverse and complex world if we do not first address America's race problem in the context of a more engaged and more collaborative democratic conversation.

The answer is not to stay home and worry about how to blame ''them.'' We must find and create democratic public spaces where we can talk with ''them'' about ''us.'' We need ways to talk about controversial issues such as race among people deeply divided by experience and belief. We need to remove discussion of race from the culture of co By Lani Guinier

We need first to talk in order to cooperate in solving our collective problems.

I do not believe that talking about race invariably leads to an ''us'' versus ''them'' debate. Talking can reveal what we have in common, turning strangers into friendship.

Lani Guinier teaches law at the University of Pennsylvania.

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