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  October 15, 2001

Guinier Likens Voices of Marginalized
Groups to Canary in Mine

The role of a canary in warning of a poisoned atmosphere in a coal mine can help illuminate the circumstances of those marginalized in American life, according to Lani Guinier.

"The experience of people of color, the experience of women, the experience of those who are disabled, the experience of those who are too often discounted as losers, is the experience of the canary, and we need to heed that experience if we want to better understand the atmosphere in the mines," Guinier said in an Oct. 4 lecture.

Guinier's lecture,"Who's Qualified," was part of the Institute for African American Studies' Critical Issues Series and the University's Human Rights Semester.

A former civil rights lawyer who is now a professor at Harvard Law School, Guinier said that all too often, American society tends to "pathologize" the canary by seeing only the "problems converging around people of color, women - around those who are marginalized.

"I would like to suggest that we need to listen to the canary and fix the atmosphere in the mines so all of us can breathe cleaner air," she said.

Guinier told the audience her main objective was to provoke them into thinking "outside the box" when it came to considering qualifications, and gave several examples of instances where someone decided the best approach was "to study the canary."

At the University of California-Berkeley, she explained, a calculus professor was concerned about why his African American students' grades lagged behind those of Chinese American students. When he shared his concerns with colleagues he received the "usual, stereotypical, blame-the-canary answers," Guinier said, "such as, the African American students came from single-parent homes, they did not have as good a high school background in math and, most of all, didn't study as hard as other students."

A closer look revealed that the African Americans studied as much, if not more than, other students, she said, but tended to study alone. The Chinese American students, on the other hand, discussed calculus over lunch, on the way to study hall, or in other social settings.

The calculus professor started a peer workshop for the African American students, Guinier said, which included inviting former students to help out, discussing calculus over meals, and encouraging students to work in groups. Within a semester, the African American students' grades improved, and by the end of the second semester, their grades were among the highest in the class.

But the professor soon had an epiphany, Guinier explained. "He realized that the problem was with him. He was the teacher who used the chalk-and-talk method of teaching calculus where everybody sat in class and took notes. If he really wanted to teach his students calculus, he had to learn from the experience of the African American students that he needed to expose all his students to the opportunity to learn calculus in groups."

Guinier proposed that the best way to address the issue of qualificatio ns is to look at the mission of an organization or institution and "strategize backwards." For example, a commission charged with studying the causes of the 1992 Los Angeles riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict concluded the L.A. Police Department needed to hire more female officers, she said.

"You can't assume that the only mission of a police department is to dominate criminals, when in fact those who dissipate conflict, who talk first rather than draw their weapon first, may be more successful at keeping the peace, at doing the job of a police officer," she said.

Guinier is widely known for the controversy surrounding her 1993 nomination to be assistant attorney general for civil rights by then President Bill Clinton, a former classmate of Guinier's at Yale Law School. Guinier's nomination came under intense attack from conservative media and politicians who labeled her a "quota queen" who favored, among other things, "segregating black voters in black-majority districts."

Although Guinier's written positions were contrary to how they were portrayed in the media, Clinton subsequently withdrew her nomination, claiming he was troubled by opinions expressed in her writings that he said he hadn't read before nominating her. An investigation by the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting concluded that "rather than doing research into Guinier's record, many journalists preferred to simply repeat the charges of ideologically motivated opponents."

Gary E. Frank