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Guinier Speaks To Kresge Crowd

By Sarah Y. Keightley
News Editor

On Thursday morning, Lani Guinier spoke at the opening of the "Black Women in the Academy: Defending Our Name 1894-1994" conference held at MIT. Using humor and anecdotes to illustrate her points, she captivated the audience that filled Kresge Auditorium.

Guinier studied at Radcliffe College, then went on to Yale Law School, graduating in 1974. She is a civil rights attorney, and spent seven years as a litigator for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Since 1992 she has been a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

In April, Clinton nominated Guinier to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Because some of her scholarly work created much controversy, he withdrew her nomination in June.

Guinier's speech focused on the unique role of black women in academia, her withdrawn nomination for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, and her support for cumulative voting.

After her keynote address, she responded to questions from the audience. These questions ranged from how she would have handled her nomination differently to her opinion on specific legal issues to dealing with stereotypes.

The audience was clearly moved by her speech. Many women said they could relate perfectly to her experiences. Guinier received many thank you's and several requests for hugs.

Guinier began her talk by speaking of her Yale Law School experiences. One of her professors called the class "gentlemen." "In his view, `gentlemen' was an asexual term," Guiner said. This was evocative of the traditional values of men, she said.

She came to realize that she was a "minority within the minority" -- a black woman.

What W.E.B. DuBois had called a "two-ness, the double identity of being black and an American," was now a "three-ness" for black women, Guinier said. Women have to take on what Mari Matsuda calls a "multiple consciousness," which is "a bifurcated thinking between personal consciousness and the `gentleman's' consciousness that dominates the status quo."

The withdrawn nomination

Guinier also spoke about her withdrawn nomination for Assistant Attorney General. Her main complaint was that she never got a chance to present herself and her ideas at a hearing. "The academy had prepared me well for being outcast from the mainstream though accepted within it."

"I could not express ideas attributed to me because I wasn't allowed to speak for myself or explain myself," Guinier said.

The media took control of my image, she said. "The distortions were so gross, even my mother could not recognize me."

Guinier said she doesn't advocate quotas, but "Quota Queen" was an easy stereotype for her. "My real ideas were never allowed to emerge," she said. And though Guinier could never speak for herself, those who opposed her could speak out.

Still she assured the audience: "I did not get a hearing, but I did not lose my voice for long."

The big controversy arose when Guinier's critics focused on one of her law review articles that supported alternative electorate procedures. Though people have the right to vote, that does not necessarily mean anything, Guinier said. For situations when 51 percent of the voters enjoy 100 percent of the power, they are excluding 49 percent of the voters, she said.

Guinier explained how groups can be excluded for participation, and how she believes this goes against the idea of fair play in a multi-racial democracy. As an 8-year-old Brownie, she resigned from a "rigged" hat-making contest. Another Brownie, whose mother was a hat maker and made her daughter's hat in front of everybody, won the contest. This "stands as an example of rules that are patently rigged or patently subverted," Guinier said.

"Yet sometimes, even when rules are perfectly fair in form, they serve in practice to exclude particular groups from meaningful participation," she said. "Some rules can seem just as unfair as the milliner who makes the winning hat for her daughter."

The fairness of majority rule assumes shifting majorities -- losers on one issue may be winners on another issue -- connected with the value of cooperation, she said. But, "sometimes the majority is a fixed group that seems to rule by ignoring the minority."

Quoting James Madison, Guinier said the "tyranny of the majority requires safeguards to protect one part of society against the injustice of the other part." Guinier's solution is cumulative voting, allowing all voters to take turns and ensuring that "majority rule does not become majority tyranny."

Minority shut out by majority

As an alternative to "winner-take-all" decision making, Guinier supports the idea of cumulative voting. Under this system, even the loser gets something, and the rule of taking turns results in a positive sum solution, she said.

For example, last spring a private high school in Chicago had two proms -- one mainly attended by white students and the other mainly attended by black students. The controversy arose when the all-white prom committee was choosing songs. Each student could vote for three songs, and the songs with the most votes would be played at the prom. It turned out that many of the black student's songs were not chosen.

The black students felt shut out by the decision-making process based on majority rule. Guinier quoted one student as saying: "With us being in the minority, we're always out-voted. It's as if we don't count."

White students were hurt that their black peers were holding a separate prom. They thought the black students were not playing by the rules, namely the supposedly fair majority rule, Guinier said.

An alternative to the situation would be to give each student 10 votes to place on how ever many songs, reflecting the intensity of their preferences. In this way, the black students could pool their votes to hear some of their songs at the prom. So even if the majority's favorite songs were played more often, the "songs that the minority enjoyed would also show up on the roster."

Not a new idea

Cumulative voting is not a new idea, Guinier said. "Thirty states require or permit corporations to use this system to elect their boards of directors," and both Reagan and Bush supported it under the Voting Rights Act, she added.

"Yes, I didn't get a hearing, nor as a female-gentleman law student did I speak out, but as a result of conferences like this one ... some of us are working to ensure that other voices are heard," Guinier said.

Guinier advised the conference participants to "spark the debate that we have so often been denied." She also urged the participants not to speak with anger -- "We are survivors, not victims." Through conversation, black women can share their insight and through collaboration they can work to solve problems.

"Gifted with second sight, we can share our stories ... build coalitions, develop a voice. ... We shall speak until all the people gain a voice."