Lani Guinier was mauled by the system

Published Sept. 30, 1993|Updated Oct. 10, 2005

It is months since President Clinton abandoned his nominee as assistant attorney general for civil rights, Lani Guinier. But the Guinier affair will not go away. Questions about her views and about the way the political process treated her continue to nag at us.

By far the best analysis of those questions is now in hand. It is by professor Randall Kennedy of the Harvard Law School and appears in the fall issue of The American Prospect, a liberal quarterly that takes a deeper look at public problems. The article is impressive in its evenhandedness. Kennedy praises professor Guinier in some respects, criticizes in others.

The attack on professor Guinier focused on her writings about voting, calling her a racial separatist. In fact, as the Kennedy article details, she is highly critical of the gerrymandered districts drawn recently to assure congressional seats for blacks and other minorities. Those districts have aroused much resentment and were questioned by the Supreme Court last term in a North Carolina case.

"In this context of judicial reconsideration and political backlash," Kennedy concludes, Guinier's search for methods other than special districts to assure racial fairness in voting "was ahead of the curve."

But he is critical of her proposed remedies in some respects. One was cumulative voting, a form of proportional representation, in local elections; Kennedy says she had not adequately thought through its strengths and weaknesses. He also chides her _ and others _ for too readily saying that "racism" was the motive for decisions they dislike.

But the portrayal of Lani Guinier as a racial separatist, Kennedy writes, "is false. The entire thrust of (her) writing has been to find ways that more fully integrate racial minorities into all of the various organs of American self-government." He adds that, "contrary to the claims of some, Guinier is admirably open-minded," prepared to change her ideas in response to arguments against them.

"While there are grounds for criticizing Guinier's writings," Kennedy says, "those articulated by many commentators after her nomination revealed the appallingly low intellectual standards in even the upper reaches of the political and journalistic establishments.

"The central slogan of the attack on her writings _ one that was pathetically embraced in the end by President Clinton _ was that they are "anti-democratic.' That was, and is, absurd. . . . Guinier favors rules of self-governance that she believes will encourage more participation by a wider array of people."

Kennedy is a little generous, I think, in attributing the inaccurate commentary on professor Guinier only to "low intellectual standards." Some of it, the crucial part, was a product of ideological zealotry that had no concern for truth.

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal began the attack in a piece by Clint Bolick, who as an official in the Reagan Justice Department had taken part in the weakening of civil rights enforcement. The editors wrote a headline calling professor Guinier a "quota queen," which was a straightforward lie.

The lie was picked up by many other newspapers and magazines. Their performance, much of it ranging from lazy to shameful, is described in an article by Laurel Leff in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. The article leaves little doubt that the press, and for that matter the politicians, allowed a continuing barrage of propaganda by Bolick and the Journal to shape events.

The attack was especially effective because the White House muzzled Guinier, forbidding her to respond until her Senate confirmation hearings. And the senators, with their usual courage, were doing their best to avoid the hearings and the responsibility.

Politics determined the outcome, Kennedy correctly says. Lani Guinier's insistence that race is still a corroding factor in American life clashed with the desire of Bill Clinton and the New Democrats to play down that issue.

"In the end," Kennedy writes, "it is hard to resist the conclusion that Guinier was unjustly demonized. . . . Clinton's abandonment of her remains a blot on his presidency. The ferocious opposition of her enemies and the eventual capitulation deprived the nation of an important debate and a talent that is hard to come by."

New York Times News Service