Harvard Law School Professor Lani Guinier at the UW Diversity Forum
What happens when one works hard and plays by the rules, yet does not succeed?
That’s the question posed by Lani Guinier, the first Jewish-African American woman tenured professor at Harvard Law School, who has been a thought leader in issues of access and equity in higher education, and the theoretical construction of race and gender in the political process. Guinier was the keynote speaker at the 2012 Diversity Forum: Embracing Our Past to Chart Our Future held Oct. 12 at the Union South and hosted by the UW Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Advancement.
Guinier said one of the impulses that the people of the United States have is looking for scapegoats to identify the cause of their failure as we examine the dark side of the American Dream. She added that although racism and classism looks as if it only affects those being oppressed, in actuality it has an enormous influence on our society and country as a whole.
“That’s where the American Dream, in some ways, assumes its dark side. It’s dark side meaning that the American Dream does not really provide an explanation for failure,” Guinier said.
As a graduate for Radcliffe University and Yale University Law School, Guinier became a tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania in which she taught at for 10 years. Continuing on with her passion and drive towards civil rights as well as education, she then moved on to become the first African American woman to become a tenured professor at the prestigious Harvard University.
Citing numerous historical examples, Guinier’s remarks at the Union South examined in-depth the shifting conversation of affirmative action and race-conscious policies as The Supreme Court struggles with the racial preferences used by the University of Texas to achieve student diversity and as several conservative justices questioned how much is enough to declare affirmative action programs no longer necessary.
Guinier’s ongoing point was that race is like the canary in the coal mine. Race, as the miner’s canary, is really a signal to all of us that there is a problem with the atmosphere in the mine. The solution is not to fix the canary and leave the miners in the mine. The solution is to heed the warning of the canary and use that as motivation to fix the atmosphere in the mines. Guinier explained how prior to the use of gas masks, miners would bring canaries down into the mines. Because of their fragile respiratory system, if the pressure was too strong of the air was too thin, the canary would start gasping and struggling for breath, signaling to the miners that it was no longer safe.
“The point that I’m trying to make is that the way that those who are most aggrieved experience the mine is not because they are weak and need to be strengthened,” she said. “It’s because there are problems with the mine that affect many more of us.”
Guinier talked about one of her personal pet peeves — aptitude tests that so many colleges use as the proxy for merit. “If you look at the data, these tests — the LSAT, the SAT, the GRE, the ACT — are very poor predictors of future performance. What do they actually correlate with? Your parents’ socioeconomic status,” she said.
“If you knew somebody’s LSAT score, you could predict their grades 14 percent of the time. You could do a little better the second year — 15 percent of the time,” Guinier added. “That means 85 percent of the time you’d be wrong! If you know someone’s LSAT you are better able to predict the kind of high school they went to or the kind of car that their parents drove than you could predict their future grades. And yet we call the LSAT and the SAT ‘merit.’ So the problem is not with the performance of the individuals; it’s that we’re using the wrong metrics to determine who should succeed.”
Guinier brought the Diversity Forum audience back to 1957 and Little Rock, Arkansas to explain the ways in which classism and racism have been in conjunction throughout the history of our nation. Little Rock was one of the first places in this country that had just been granted desegregation in school due to the passing of Brown v. Board of Education.
“It was Central High School that was to be desegregated,” Guinier said. “But there was a backstory that was going on that was equally important in understanding the racism of the whites who had gone to Central High School and had resented its desegregation.”
Guinier explained how the elite upper class white children transferred to a new school that had yet to be desegregated called Hall High School, while the working- class white children we subject to the desegregation that was so unwanted during that time. “For many of the poor and working-class whites who were still at Central High School experiencing the desegregation while the upper-middle class members of their cohorts had moved on, they experienced desegregation as downward economic mobility,” she said.
Guinier said that people started to question the American Dream narrative that hard work will grant you success. When hard work is exuded but success was not granted, someone must be to blame. “How does the American Dream narrative explain failure?” Guinier asked. “It doesn’t really have a story about failure. If you work hard and play by the rules, you will succeed. What happens if you work hard and play by the rules but you’re still in the same position you were 30 years ago? That’s where race comes in. Race becomes the explanatory variable. Black people must have stolen the American Dream. Blacks — or Latinos — have stolen the American Dream because we don’t have an explanation for failure.”
Guinier told the crowd that her goal is to change the way that we look at problems. And it will take more than just getting together a few people who do well on standardized tests. “Problems require a group of people who can collaborate to take advantage of the lived experience of those people and the commitments of those people and the diversity among those people to solve complex problems in the future,” she said.
These solutions need to be driven by people who are committed to serving their community. “This issue of merit is not just an individual capacity to answer hard questions. It’s an issue of democratic merit; not individual merit. Merit is an incentive system to reward actions a society values,” Guinier said. “ Right now, we’re defining merit based upon how you do on a particular test that had nothing to do with what you’re going to be doing in college or law school and even less to do with what you’re going to be doing when you graduate.”
These particular tests, Guinier said, consistently tell you most about the class environment and the earning power of the people of whom you are being educated with. “I’m suggesting going back to this miner’s canary and that the experience with women in Law School, the experience with Blacks and Latinos at the University of Texas, and the experience of working-class whites in Little Rock, Arkansas, is the experience of the canary in the coal mine. These people are fragile and they are gasping for breath. We don’t need to simply fix them — with a pint-sized gas mask so they can withstand the atmosphere — what we need to do is to use the experience of those who have been left out as the basis for rethinking the way that we are teaching everyone. What we ultimately want is a diverse group of problem solvers who are not only leaders but collaborators in helping us to address the challenges of the 21st century.
“The goal, in my view, is not simply to ensure that people of color succeed,” she added. “Although, of course, I’m in favor of that. But I don’t feel like people of color should succeed while working-class white people fail. This is about lifting all boats. Which suggests to me we need a new narrative to explain failure.”
That’s where the idea of diversity becomes really important. “Diversity suggests that there is an alternative way to solving difficult problems. It’s not simply reliant on the SAT scores or LSAT scores of individuals ... who also happen to be more privileged,” she said.
Guinier made it very clear that she’s not opposed to competing or opposed to freedom. “But we’re not going to solve the complex problems that remain in the wake of what happened in Little Rock or what’s happening to this day to women in Law School, [or] the problems facing rural whites in terms of admission to higher education,” she said. “It’s not simply about the freedom to compete; it’s about the importance of working with others to solve complex problems and learning how to collaborate.
“If we’re talking about solving hard problems, we need to encompass a commitment to diversity of experience and a diversity of perspective,” Guinier added. “We need to understand the ways in which those problems can be solved, or at least addressed, by bringing a new perspective and a new worldview into the mix.”