Homage to Lani Guinier

Since the Supreme Court handed down its decision that race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina were unlawful—a definitive rejection of affirmative action at universities and colleges across the country—many Democrats have offered their unwavering support of Affirmative Action as a strategy to right historical wrongs. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was quoted, “The Court’s misguided decision reminds us how far we still have to go to ensure that all Americans are treated equally.”

Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said, “Predominately white institutions have historically barred Black and brown people from accessing higher education. Affirmative action continues to help level an uneven playing field.”

Level an uneven playing field? To even suggest that leveling is occurring indicates that the Democrats either have not been paying attention to or have been ignoring the conditions of their most loyal constituents. The masses of Black people would say that our conditions are bumpier than ever, and the data would support that truism.

As I read statements from the likes of our most visible Democrats, it became crystal clear why Lani Guinier was not confirmed as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights back in 1993. The Republicans and Democrats knew that Professor Guinier understood that affirmative action as practiced since its origin in no way creates advantages that extend far into Black communities. More importantly, both parties knew unequivocally that Guinier’s work could reauthor affirmative action to level the field for America, helping it to pivot into some semblance of a nation that recognizes the humanity of everyone and lean into the democracy it hails as dear.

The Republicans called her a “quota queen,” a nod to the racist slur welfare queen to suggest that she supported favoring race simply to achieve a stipulated representation. The Democrats purportedly believed that Guinier’s interviews with the Senate were too controversial to continue supporting her as a nominee, forcing Clinton to withdraw her nomination. But Clinton’s statement that Guinier’s writings “clearly lend themselves to interpretations that do not represent the views I expressed on civils rights during the campaign” is suspect at best. I’m willing to bet that the DNC misinterpreted Guinier’s writings. Maybe it thought that because Guinier was light, bright, and half-white they could use her as yet another formidable voice in delivering the message of “we have overcome,” with such strategies as affirmative action.

Guinier was adamant about her position, sharing that she could not be in favor of quotas, given that her father, Ewart Guinier, had attended Harvard as “a racial quota of one.” How does it ever benefit Black people to be the only one in a learning or other environment? No matter, she was not permitted to continue the confirmation process.

However, what Guinier did favor was what she coined as “confirmative action,” which would connect diversity to admissions criteria for all students, irrespective of race, gender, ethnic background, and class. She argued that this nation should have a vested interest in everybody having access to higher education to create that more perfect union they make us sing about. Confirmative action would refocus college admissions to the mission of a democratic mission and role of public and private educational institutions, call upon those individual beneficiaries to translate those benefits to communal receivership, or in her simpler, eloquent words, “actually contribute to American society” in the context of a multiracial democracy.

In her writings as a brilliant professor, thinker, and champion of social justice, Guinier exposed that affirmative action—while seemingly helping some chosen few—did not challenge the systemic flaws in a meritocracy. It assures the development of a permanent class of losers and a permanent class of winners without ever questioning or investigating why anyone would lose in a democratic society. In her words, she offers that confirmative action “challenges the idea that those who are already privileged can be trusted to administer or justify a system for allocating opportunity.”

I appreciate and pay homage to the courage and intellect of Guinier to examine the very real shortcomings of affirmative action and to develop the architecture for something better. It is a conversation that Black folks collectively have been discouraged to have with any real honesty. Affirmative action is un-African, non-communal, anti-community with its focus on sliding one or three of us through the door, stripping us of identify and a natural inclination to buttress our environments and each other. It has blunted our ability to speak forthrightly about the failings of PWIs in their education of Black people. It has severed may connections to the Black community, as we witness othering within our larger clan.

Affirmative action reminds me of INROADS, an educational program back in the 80s that identified Black and brown students as academically advanced who were candidates for college preparation. I can’t lie. I loved it. It gave me something to do in the summer. I made great friends. I had some incredibly dynamic teachers and educational experiences. It benefitted me and my fellow students. We participated under the requirements that we planned to (1) pursue majors in science/math and business and (2) attend identified PWIs. Essentially, this program was training us to serve white America. That’s no different than the objective of affirmative action. And as the saying goes: we can’t serve two masters.


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