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Updated 2:00 PM January 19, 2004



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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 said. “We 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 literate” and 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 was withdrawn.

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.


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