In the media smear campaign against Lani Guinier, Clinton’s nominee as assistant attorney general for civil rights, her views were not only distorted, but in many cases presented as the exact opposite of her actual beliefs.
One of the most prominent themes of the attack on Guinier was her supposed support for electoral districts shaped to ensure a black majority – a process known as “race-conscious districting.” An entire op-ed in the New York Times — which appeared on the day her nomination was withdrawn (6/3/93) — was based on the premise that Guinier was in favor of “segregating black voters in black-majority districts.”
In reality, Guinier is the most prominent voice in the civil rights community challenging such districting. In sharp contrast to her media caricature as a racial isolationist, she has criticized race-conscious districting (Boston Review, 9-10/92) because it “isolates blacks from potential white allies” and “suppresses the potential development of issue-based campaigning and cross-racial coalitions.”
Another media tactic against Guinier was to dub her a “quota queen,” a phrase first used in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (4/30/93) by Clint Bolick, a Reagan-era Justice Department official. The racially loaded term combines the “welfare queen” stereotype with the dreaded “quota,” a buzzword that almost killed the 1991 Civil Rights Act.
The problem is that Guinier is an opponent of quotas to ensure representation of minorities. In an article in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review (Spring/89), she stated that “the enforcement of this representational right does not require legislative set-asides, color-coded ballots, electoral quotas or ‘one black, two votes’ remedies.”
But once the stereotype was affixed to her, there was seemingly no way she could dispel it: “Unbelievably, the woman known as the ‘quota queen’ claimed she did not believe in quotas,” columnist Ray Kerrison wrote in the New York Post (6/4/93).
Many commentators painted Guinier as a racial polarizer who implies that “only blacks can represent blacks,” as George Will put it (Newsweek,6/14/93). And she was repeatedly charged with believing that only “authentic” blacks counted.
But in a Michigan Law Review article (3/91), Guinier stated that “authentic representatives need not be black as long as the source of the authority, legitimacy and power base is the black community.” But more important, she was not endorsing the concept of authentic representation; she was critiquing it, describing it as a “limited empowerment tool.”
One of the few opinions frequently attributed to Guinier that she actually held was her support for “proportional representation” — a system in which seats in government are divided by the percentage of the vote each party or slate receives. (If 40 percent of the voters back a party, that party would get roughly 40 percent of the seats — as opposed to a “winner-take-all” system, in which 51 percent of the voters can get 100 percent of the seats.) But her position was twisted by commentators like the Washington Post‘s Lally Weymouth (5/25/93) into a vision of “a society in which a minority can impose its will on the majority.”
How could Guinier’s positions be distorted so thoroughly? Part of the problem was simple laziness: Rather than doing research into Guinier’s record, many journalists preferred to simply repeat the charges of ideologically motivated opponents. When the New York Times finally devoted an article to her views, rather than to the political firestorm that raged around them — on June 4, after the nomination had already been killed — there still was not a single quote from any of her writings. “Almost everyone is relying on reconstructions by journalists and partisans, injecting further distortions into the process,” reporter David Margolick wrote — “everyone” including himself, he admitted in an interview with Extra!.
The fact that Guinier is an African-American woman, a group greatly underrepresented in mainstream media, contributed to the substitution of media stereotypes for her actual views.
But there was also an ideological agenda at work: promoting Clinton’s media-celebrated shift “back to the center.” It seemed as if the hiring of Republican spin doctor David Gergen had to be complemented by dumping a representative of the “radical left.” “How he deals with Ms. Guinier in the weeks ahead may show whether Mr. Clinton is moving back to the middle of the road,” the New York Times‘ R.W. Apple wrote (5/31/93) in a front-page news analysis of the Gergen appointment.
To make her a proper sacrificial offering, however, the establishment media had to reinvent Guinier — transforming a sophisticated advocate of racial reconciliation and participatory democracy into a sinister, race-baiting enemy of the American Way.
Democratic or Anti-Democratic?
(From “Lani Guinier’s Challenge to the Press,” Extra!, November/December 1993)
By Lani Guinier
No one who had done their homework seriously questioned the fundamentally democratic nature of “my ideas.” Indeed, two conservative columnists, George Will and Lally Weymouth, both wrote separate columns on the same day in the Washington Post (7/15/93), praising ideas remarkably similar to mine.
Lally Weymouth wrote: “There can’t be democracy in South Africa without a measure of formal protection for minorities.” George Will wrote: “The Framers also understood that stable, tyrannical majorities can best be prevented by the multiplication of minority interests, so the majority at any moment will be just a transitory coalition of minorities.” In my law review articles I had expressed exactly the same reservations about unfettered majority rule, about the need sometimes to disaggregate the majority to ensure fair and effective representation for minority interests.
The difference is that the minority that I used to illustrate my academic point was not, as it was for Lally Weymouth, the white minority in South Africa. Nor did I write, as George Will did, about the minority of wealthy landlords in New York City. I wrote instead about the political exclusion of the black minority in local, county and municipal governing bodies in America.
Yet these same two journalists (Washington Post, 5/25/93; Newsweek, 6/14/93) and many others condemned me as anti-democratic. Apparently, some of us feel comfortable providing special protections for wealthy landlords or white South Africans, but we brand as “divisive” and “radical” the idea of providing similar remedies to include black Americans, who after centuries of racial oppression are still excluded.