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Making the case for affirmative action

Review by Dennis Kosuth | October 4, 2002 | Page 9

BOOKS: Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres, The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy. Harvard University Press, 336 pages, 2002, $27.95.

"THOSE WHO are racially marginalized are like the miner's canary: their distress is the first sign of a danger that threatens us all." This sentence appears early in a new book by Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres. It sums up their aim in writing The Miner's Canary--to understand the connections between racism and other social inequalities and to draw conclusions about the way forward for change.

Guinier knows from personal experience how U.S. political leaders use the issue of race, not only to stoke bigotry, but as a "wedge" issue for promoting a more general right-wing agenda. In 1993, Bill Clinton nominated Guinier to be assistant attorney general for civil rights. Republicans went on the warpath, denouncing her as a "quota queen" for her support of affirmative action.

In typically gutless fashion, Clinton let Guinier be crucified in the mainstream media--then pulled her name from consideration before she even had a confirmation hearing to defend herself against the right wing's slanders. The New York Times noted approvingly that this represented Clinton's shift "back to the middle of the road."

The Miners' Canary does a good job of dismantling the anti-affirmative action arguments that were used against Guinier a decade ago. One case that the book examines is the 1996 lawsuit against the University of Texas Law School, which ended with a federal appeals court declaring that any college admissions program using race-conscious criteria for deciding on students was unconstitutional.

The specific student involved in the lawsuit was a white applicant who was denied admission to the law school, though she had a higher Texas Index score than some Black and Mexican American applicants who were admitted.

But Guinier and Torres show why the narrow obsession with test scores hides a wider injustice. For example, the authors show, only 10 percent of high schools in Texas were filling 75 percent of all freshmen seats at the Texas law school.

"These high schools were predominantly the more affluent suburban and private schools," Guinier and Torres write. "Thus, the conventional admission criteria had failed to serve the public mission of the university to train citizens and leaders from the entire state."

The Miners' Canary goes on to examine workplace issues--specifically studying how race has fit into the dynamics of union organizing in meatpacking and department stores. Electoral and legislative issues like California's anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 also come up.

Guinier and Torres conclude that because of racism, minorities are more likely to lead resistance--and that whites should support their struggles because the results will benefit everyone. This appeal for Black and white unity is positive. But the authors' view of how class fits in this picture is confused.

"That goal [liberating everyone] will be realized only when more privileged whites, as well as middle- and upper-class people of color, join their fate with those less fortunate and make personal sacrifices in the short run to struggle together for larger social justice ideals," Guinier and Torres write. This ignores how those in power benefit from racism--by using the issue of race to scapegoat minorities and deflect attention from their overall attack on working people.

The potential for unity does exist among workers, Black and white alike--but whether the potential is realized depends on the actions of opponents of racism in making the connections clear. The Miners' Canary is helpful--in taking apart the arguments against affirmative action and calling for a unified grassroots struggle, not only against racism, but all social injustices.

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