Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Miner's Canary by Lani Guinier

(Originally appeared In BET online around 2003 or so when BET did book reviews. I wrote a few of them.)

The Miner’s Canary
Subtitle: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Pages: 392
Price: $27.95
Authors: Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres

“In our view, unless we begin to rethink power, we are going to witness the slow but steady evisceration of American democracy as fewer and fewer people participate, as government decision-making loses legitimacy, and as private power becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of a few winners, who will not hesitate to take all. Put simply, we need to rethink power in order to save democracy.”
--from “The Miner’s Canary)

I first heard of Lani Guinier back in 1993 when the usual lot of sleazy Washington conservatives decided not only that she didn’t deserve an administration appointment, but didn’t even want to give this woman—who appeared super literate and impressive in every interview that I had seen—the courtesy of a public hearing. I figured if the Jesse Helms crowd didn’t even want her ideas aired, then I needed to find out what her “subversive” ideas were all about.

And after discovering her ideas I could see why the establishment (Or what I seriously refer to as “The Man”) found them so disturbing. Her ideas are truly revolutionary. Guinier, in her first book “Tyranny of the Majority”, makes the case that the winner take all election system itself not only hurts minority interests (any minority interests by the way, such as drug decriminalization supporters, proponents of alt fuels, the Hispanic voter etc.) but third party efforts as well and may in fact deaden the desire to participate in what appears to be a fixed political game—ever so transparent in these big lobby, big scandal, supreme court selected president times. If her ideas of proportional representation and smarter balloting were ever enacted, then conditions in the black community would certainly improve, but how do you advance minority interests in the face of hostile majorities?

Professor Guinier, now a tenured Harvard University professor, attempts to answer “how” in her new book “The Miner’s Canary”, which is subtitled: “Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy”. It was co-written by Gerald Torres, a University of Texas law professor who Guinier has collaborated with since 1990.  Word to the wise: This is a difficult and demanding read. If you find yourself uncomfortable around such ideas as magical realism, critical race theory, the writings of Michel Foucault and 60 pages of footnotes, then you might want to wait for the Cliff Notes version.

Patient and industrious readers, however, will appreciate the logical rigor of the book and its number of surprising insights and observations. Personally, I found the arguments outlining the limitations against affirmative action to be eye opening. Or as she asks indirectly: what real difference does it make if a black person runs AOL/Time Warner? I find this point compelling. Has “cosmetic diversity”, as Guinier phrases it, represented by a Tiger Woods or Condi Rice, alleviated the massive financial and social inequalities within the nation’s black communities? That’s known as a question that answers itself and it’s a tough question that Guinier and Torres attempt to answer.

The writers argue that beneficial change has to come by using the idea of “Political Race”. For example, the writers argue blacks will be the most effective leaders of change because blacks understand the structural problems of the society more clearly—the title refers to the idea that Blacks feel community problems first. The writers also highlight a number of cases where there were successful organizing efforts, which while based upon core black concerns, managed to bring in other cultural allies cultures while reaching their goals, whether it was union organizing or ensuring black participation in higher education after affirmative action plans have been dismantled.

I suppose the only question I had about the proposed remedies had to do with how grassroots organizing, no matter how inspired or creative, can overcome structural hostilities. After all, what if the poisoning of the canary is conscious? Still, if you’re looking for ideas as to how to move the racial discussion into winnable areas, “The Miner’s Canary” comes highly recommended during these dark and troubling times.