Commentary Magazine

Lift Every Voice by Lani Guinier

Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice
by Lani Guinier
Simon & Schuster. 324 pp. $25.00

Rarely does the world pay much attention to the “sub-cabinet,” those hundreds of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries and the like who carry out the day-to-day work of the many bureaucratic units comprising the executive branch of the federal government. Of course, for the individual who is tapped for such a job—I speak from experience—landing it is undeniably a big deal, and the consequences for the hundreds of civil servants whose supervisor he becomes can also be substantial. By the same token, an appointment of this kind can matter a great deal to the cabinet member or agency head who becomes the appointee’s boss. Yet the nominations themselves rarely make news or generate controversy beyond Washington’s Beltway. Indeed, it has become common practice for Senate committees to “batch-process” nominees in perfunctory confirmation hearings or to skip hearings altogether.

There are exceptions to the rule, although they can be counted on a few fingers. Invariably they involve persons, or positions, entangled with the most fractious issues facing the nation (or at least facing political Washington). The Surgeon General’s post, for example, has become joined to the abortion debate and to American sexual behavior in general. Directorship of the Census Bureau periodically becomes controversial because of deep-seated differences over how to enumerate the population for purposes of congressional apportionment. And so forth.

In recent years, however, no sub-cabinet post has generated more heat than that of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Only a few months ago, the Clinton White House and the GOP-controlled Senate were deadlocked over the nomination of Bill Lann Lee for this position; the outcome was a “recess” appointment allowing the President’s choice to function temporarily in the role without having been confirmed. But even this high-profile dispute does not compare with the one over Bill Clinton’s nominee for the same post at the very outset of his first term as President: Lani Guinier, then a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania and now en route to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the first black woman to have won tenure at the Harvard law school.



A veteran civil-rights attorney and legal theorist, Guinier was nominated for the position of Assistant Attorney General on April 29, 1993; by June 3, her name had been withdrawn from consideration by the White House. During the intervening five weeks, the nation witnessed a spectacular example of what is now routinely termed a “firestorm” of controversy. Famously dubbed a “quota queen,” Guinier made a high-visibility appearance defending herself on Nightline, and saw her views on racial matters become the subject of editorials, columns, and talk-radio shows across the land.

This book is her revenge for what she endured—a bid for vindication and, above all, a move to write the story her way, to control its “spin.” Not that she needs to do this to boost her career; rather, it is abundantly clear that her fifteen minutes of celebrity left behind lakes of rancor, recrimination, and the bitterness of dashed hopes, and she means, by putting it on record, to settle accounts.

The drama of this book thus naturally resides in the parts that tell her version of her rise and sudden fall. As might be expected, Guinier bears plenty of animus toward her adversaries on what she terms the “right wing,” especially the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and Clint Bolick, a lawyer at the conservative Institute for Justice who did the most to make the country aware of her views on race. She also airs her resentment toward civil-rights (and Jewish) organizations for failing to support her with sufficient vigor. Mostly, though, as an erstwhile Friend of Bill (FOB), whom she had known since law-school days, Lani Guinier is angry at the man who nominated her, by whom she was burned, jilted, and humiliated, and whom she excoriates for spinelessness and lack of integrity.

We learn here, for example, that when Guinier met with President Clinton in the Oval Office to plead her cause, he could not, in a painful hour-long conversation, bring himself to tell her that his mind was already made up. Rather, a few minutes after they parted, he telephoned her with the bad news. He then immediately walked before the television cameras to declare to a nationwide audience, in a statement clearly prepared before their talk, that he had finally gotten around to reading Lani Guinier’s writings on civil rights, found them “anti-democratic,” and was withdrawing her name.



But the significance of the Guinier episode is not in the window it affords into the character and temperament of the protagonists. No issue in America is touchier than race, and no government practice is more controversial than “civil-rights enforcement,” particularly at a time when both public sentiment and court decisions have begun to reject many of the assumptions of the 1960’s and 70’s. That is precisely why the subcabinet post of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights is so important. There are few jobs on the domestic-affairs side of government where the occupant’s own ideas have such large consequences.

Lani Guinier has never been one to hide her particular set of ideas under a bushel. In this book she clearly restates her central tenets, all of which were already in the public domain in 1993 and could not have been much of a surprise to the President and his team. A year later, they were restated in her book, The Tyranny of the Majority1 the very title of which signals her basic position. For Lani Guinier’s career has been largely devoted to waging permanent war against the “tyranny” that, in her view, flows from the workings of American democracy.

Central to her campaign is the belief that our system of “winner-take-all” elections is, in and of itself, undemocratic, for the simple reason that it has never yielded and cannot ever yield adequate representation for minority groups. Since, in Guinier’s opinion, the main factor swaying the actions of citizens in the voting booth is a candidate’s race, she takes it for granted that there will always be a ceiling—in the nature of things, a very low ceiling—on minority office-seekers. The fact that many black candidates have already been elected from majority-white districts seems not to count for her.

Guinier’s conviction that conventional elections are inherently unfair has led her to propose a host of exotic alternatives. A favorite is what she calls “cumulative voting,” a variant of proportional representation. Imagine a city-council race with seven seats up for grabs. Under her scheme, a voter would have seven votes to cast. He could plump for seven different candidates, give all seven of his votes to a single candidate, or choose any combination in between. The assumption is that minority voters will cast all their ballots for the minority candidates, rather than spreading them across the entire slate. By this means, each group will be assured representation on the resulting city council.

Some countries do run their elections this way, and so do a few local communities in the United States. At bottom, though, this is a strategy designed for balkanized societies bedeviled by warring factions and hostile ethnic groups, societies in which people have nothing in common that transcends group lines. America is not (yet) such a society—and as Guinier’s critics noisily pointed out in 1993, her scheme contradicts several long-established and fundamental tenets of our democracy, including preeminently the idea of one man, one vote.



Since part of the Assistant Attorney General’s job is to enforce the Voting Rights Act, Guinier’s views on these issues had to be taken seriously. But her position on elections is just the most blatant manifestation of what amounts to a quite radical vision of what American society is and—more ominously—what it ought to become.

In this connection, it is no small irony that Guinier herself is a product of the American melting pot. Her (black) father came from the French West Indies to Boston and to Harvard, where he became a professor of African-American studies. Her (Jewish) mother’s parents immigrated from Eastern Europe to the Bronx, where they ran a delicatessen on the Grand Concourse. Her parents met in Hawaii during World War II and then returned to New York City, where they lived in polyglot Queens and sent their daughter to an (integrated) public school.

How does Guinier recall that experience? She writes:

We all ate lunch together, blacks and whites, Italians and Jews, Japanese and Chinese. But when we left school we walked our separate ways to go to our different buses.

When she grew up, separate ways and different buses became her career. Lani Guinier could have devoted herself to the unum that is the American ideal. Instead, she opted for the pluribus: a lifetime of hammering on the cracks in American society in order to widen them further.

Is this the sort of person Bill Clinton wanted to be in charge of civil rights in his infant administration? From everything we know about the President (and his wife), the answer is very likely yes—at least until he was caught in the act. For even though Lani Guinier’s own career in government was derailed, the locomotive chugged on.

Deval Patrick, the man who wound up in her job, had in fact worked closely with Guinier in a myriad of projects, though he had written less and expressed fewer controversial views. On his watch, the course of civil-rights enforcement—including an embarrassing double reversal of the administration’s position in the case of the Piscataway, New Jersey, schoolteacher who was fired solely because her skin color was white—was little different from what one supposes it would have been under Guinier. And as for Bill Lann Lee, Patrick’s designated successor, he is well-known for his support of quota-style affirmative action.

The demise of Lani Guinier’s nomination, in other words, did little to move us toward a color-blind America, or toward a conception of civil rights centered on individuals rather than groups. Nor, it is clear, has she herself reconsidered—much less repented of—the views that led to her defeat. And why should she? After all, she is hardly alone. Those ideas, though expressed perhaps less radically, remain influential in law-school lecture halls, in the grant decisions of giant foundations, in the personnel offices of major corporations, and in the cubbyholes of Washington.

But that is why even the boring stretches of Guinier’s book, when she is not vividly describing how her friend the President stabbed her in the back, warrant attention. Although she is profoundly wrong about nearly everything, we ignore her at our peril.



1 Reviewed by Linda Chavez in COMMENTARY, June 1994


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