This American Moment: Lani Guinier

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The Democratic convention kicks off today in Denver with headliner Michelle Obama, and next week Republican delegates will gather in St. Paul to take up the podium. So we thought now would be the perfect time to pause, take a deep breath, and reflect on this unique American moment. For the next two weeks, TOTN will ask men and women from different backgrounds and political persuasions — artists, journalists, scholars and politicians — to put this election and campaign season into context. Every day, we'll ask a different thinker to tell us what is at stake, and what this election means to him or her. This week, we'll talk to Jorge Ramos, Christopher Hitchens, Jimmy Carter, and Lani Guinier, who joins us today.

In 1993, President Clinton nominated Lani Guinier, the first black woman to receive tenure at Harvard Law School, to be assistant attorney general for civil rights; but, ultimately, her nomination was withdrawn due to controversy over her views on racial quotas. Guinier is widely regarded as an expert on race, gender, class, and voting rights, and today she'll tell us what this American moment means to her.

And, of course, we want to hear from you, too: what is the significance of this American moment to you?



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Isn't if kind of funny and ironic that Hillary Clinton was once again bitten by a Southern Democrat philanderer. No not her husband, though he's been no saint; rather John Edwards who took votes away from Hillary when it mattered.

Sent by Sue | 2:52 PM | 8-25-2008

I don't believe rejecting Obama as president doesn't mean we haven't advanced as a nation. There are many who will not vote for Obama not because of his race but because of his beliefs. In many ways, there are separate. I'm not a racist but wouldn't not vote for Obama. Now, if he was a Republican with more of Republican ideology, then he'd get my vote.

Sent by William B | 2:57 PM | 8-25-2008

I find it very frustrating that some people believe that if Obama loses it is due to racism. Considering a Republican has been president the last 2 terms, that shows some people may vote Republican who would normally vote Democrat. Yes, there may be some people who won't vote for him because he is black but there is an equal number who will vote for him because he is.

Sent by parkersister | 2:57 PM | 8-25-2008

I have to take exception with Miss Guinier about the meaning of a Obama loss. While it may be a result of residual racism, it may also be the result of more voters believing the McCain would be a better president, irregardless of race.

If a black man can win on his merits, he can lose on his merits.

I'm not nieve enough to believe that there won't be anti Obama votes based on race but to state definatively that a loss would be do to racism is wrong.

Sent by Terry Urban | 2:59 PM | 8-25-2008

I will be writing in my vote for Hillary Clinton

Sent by jim | 3:01 PM | 8-25-2008

your program today was truly inspirational. we are so hopeful now to move this nation ahead...let's pray for this presidency to unfold and continue a dialogue with the nations of the world and not just push them around with our might. might is not right. GO BARACK! GET TO THE POLS AMERICA AND SEE A FUTURE JUST WAITING OUT THERE FOR US TO CULTIVATE. blanche swedberg, wilmette, il.

Sent by blanche m swedberg | 3:02 PM | 8-25-2008

Hi, I was just listening to your program when Lani Guinier was commenting on what it would mean to her if Obama was not elected. While I can understand her position that she would feel as if we still had not gotten over the original sin or Jim Crow; I respectfully disagree that if he is not elected that it could be due to his stance on issues or his level of experience not his race.

Sent by Margaret | 3:05 PM | 8-25-2008

I deeply resent Ms. Guinier's statement that if Obama loses it means that we haven't moved beyond slavery yet! That's saying if I don't vote for Obama I haven't moved beyond racism.

It can mean many things. Obama is indeed a very attractive candidate but he just doesn't stand for what I want my president to stand for. If a candidate OF ANY RACE OR EITHER GENDER were running with whom I agreed, he or she would get my vote!

Sent by James Kaiser | 3:05 PM | 8-25-2008

As I have long feared, it appears that if we do not elect Sen. Obama, we will be considered racists. Ms. Guinier says that his losing will bring us back to the original sin of slavery. Can we not oppose his politics without being cast in the mold of slaveholders? I do understand his appeal, and appreciate the historical nature of his candidacy - but I do not approve of his policies and cannot vote for him because of his policies and not because of his skin color. I and others like me will have to brave the attacks of the likes of Ms. Guinier who are unwilling to believe that we can see beyond his skin to the nature of his political views and the price we'd have to pay for them. It's too bad that only the Democrats give themselves leave to rise above racism, but doubt the sincerity of others who do so.

Sent by Susan G McDonald | 3:05 PM | 8-25-2008

I will be losing my job this year, so it is a very scary time. I have just turned 58, so I am facing not only a scarce market for employment but age discrimination. I own a house, and it has just lost 12% of its value. I live in a very bad housing market (Florida), so it will be difficult to sell my home.
So this moment is definitely one of economic depression for me.

Sent by L. T. Singer | 3:07 PM | 8-25-2008

Having just tuned in to this dialogue, I was offended by the racist positions of your guest Lani Guinier.

A caller said that Sen. Obama's candidacy was the fulfillment of Dr. King's vision that we judge people by the "content of their character and not the color of their skin." It was a beautiful comment, I thought.

In the follow up discussion, Dr. Guinier said that we would be returning to the days of slavery and Jim Crow if this country did not elect Obama.

In my view, this is a racist position. I intend to vote for McCain because I disagree with Obama's views on several key issues, such as abortion and gay marriage. It seems to me that Dr. King's vision is fulfilled if I judge Obama's candidacy based on his positions, just as I would any other candidate. To vote for him due to his race DESPITE his positions is racist.

For Dr. Guinier to state that this country would be taking a step backwards in race relations if we don't elect Obama is implying that we SHOULD judge him based on his race, which seems counter to Dr. King's speech, and is simply reverse racism.

Sent by Steve Wilson | 3:11 PM | 8-25-2008

While I respect Lani for her accomplishments, I strongly disagree with her comments when she responded to the question of, what it says about us as a nation if Obama loses the election. Lani's opinion is that, it would mean that people are not ready for a black president. There are many of us who disagree with Obama on the issues. He is an inexperienced candidate who is very far to the left. I disagree with the Lani's assumption that if Obama looses the election it would be because of his race.

Sent by Penny | 3:11 PM | 8-25-2008

Listening to the final portion of the interview with Lani Guinier I couldn't help but be surprised at one of her responses to Neal Conan's question which was, in effect, "What will it say about America if Barrack Obama loses the election?" Here response was, in effect, that this country will not have overcome it's "original sin", that of slavery. She referenced Jim Crow laws and the fact that "Founding Fathers" such as George Washington owned slaves to emphasize her point. I would think that because someone is of African American decent would be no better a reason to vote for them than it would be to vote against them. It is a leap of logic to conclude that an African American person who is presented to be President must be elected President or else the sins of the past are not expiated. This line of reasoning only foments the divisions that are at the root of many of our nation's problems. I'm a white male and have not yet decided for whom I will vote. But I promise you it will be based on whether or not I agree with key components of any of the candidates platforms, not their skin color. I assume Lani Guinier agrees with Mr. Obama's positions because they are consistent with her beliefs not because he is African American. However, she paints a very broad stroke to assume she makes her conclusions based on content of character while others are making their's based on skin color.

Sent by Scott Hilton | 3:17 PM | 8-25-2008

I voted for Senator Obama in the primary, neither because of his race nor despite of his race, but because I was impressed by his pragmatism, his intellect, and his political talent.

There are other things besides race that make one identify with someone -- age, education, class background. Despite the fact that I'm a white woman, I identify with Obama more than any of the other candidates.

But I think it's a mistake to assume that white peoples' attitude toward Barack Obama reflects their (our) attitude toward black people in general. If anything, it's a sign of an ability to look beyond race in certain very limited circumstances. Obama's nomination is not the end of the story of race relations in America; it's an important step toward racial equality, but we're not there yet.

Many of Neal Conan's questions hint that white people should be patting ourselves on the back for being willing to vote for a black man. This is ridiculous. If Obama wins in November, it will be because many white people made the self-interested decision to vote for the person and the party that they thought would represent them best, even if they weren't completely comfortable with Obama's racial background.

Sent by janet | 3:20 PM | 8-25-2008

If the the forefathers of the U.S. could have foreseen the consequences of slavery, I believe they would have paid some Mexicans do the work.

Sent by Mike | 3:29 PM | 8-25-2008

For me, an Obama loss would not signify the persistence of racism in the U.S., but it would signify an American electorate unwilling to embrace progressive ideas, change, and the future at the most critical juncture of the 21st century so far, and that is depressing enough.

Sent by George | 3:30 PM | 8-25-2008

I was a tad puzzled when I heard Lani Guinier suggest that if Senator Obama doesn't get elected President it will be because of racism. I am not sure whom I will vote for since Senator McCain hasnt announced whom he will choose as his running mate. But I do know I have reservations about whether Senator Obama is anything more than a well packaged lofty speaker. I want an adult for President who knows first hand what war is like, and who looks hard at the world around us, and as President will look out for the United States first and foremost. And will let me keep more of the money I earn which will allow me to give to causes I believe in. Instead of someone who wants more of my money to spend on causes they believe in.

Sent by MotherLodeBeth | 3:37 PM | 8-25-2008

For the record:
Please--Coach Craig Robinson, Michelle's brother who will introduce her in Denver tonight, is the head men's basketball coach at Oregon STATE University. Yes, I realize he's not the story, but if someone who has been covering Michelle "in depth" is going to mention him, let's at least get the details right. (This error would be equivalent to describing a Harvard grad as a member of Skull & Bones.)
We realize that no one east of the Mississippi thinks higher education exists out here, but the PAC-10 conference produces scholars and leaders who are making a difference all over the world. The least we can do is get the details right.

Sent by Kathleen Bucher | 4:04 PM | 8-25-2008

Niel: Lets's review. Your are conducting a discussion about our country's first serious African American presidential candidate and you tee up a question like this (sic) for a "civil rights" expert, and let this ridiculous comment slide by without pointing out the obvious irony? It is precisely these divisive views such as ms. Guinier's that give pause to a white person contemplating a vote for Obama. Thank god it is not she or one of her ilk with the nomination!

Sent by Heather Prichard | 4:13 PM | 8-25-2008

Why is it that African Americans never acknowledge that their forefathers also practiced slavery and the European slave trade would not have been possible had it not been for this trading among Africans themselves. I would love to hear Ms. Guinier's answer to this question. What chances would a white candidate have in any african country with a majority of people of color making up the population? There you go again- dumbing down a real discussion of national consequence.

Sent by Ken Prichard | 4:29 PM | 8-25-2008

Re: Ms. Guinier's assertion that an Obama loss equals America NOT achieving "Dr. King's dream".... On the face of it, her comment shows her OWN racial bias; if America does not elect a black man it MUST be on the basis of his skin color.
WRONG. It very well can mean we don't like his politics. Simple as that.
I, a midwestern white woman of a certain age, have NEVER voted for a Democrat and I probably never will.
While I disagree with several things in the McCain campaign, I vehemently disagree with many, many longstanding planks of the Democratic party platform. For those reasons - and those reasons alone - I will not vote for Mr. Obama.
I don't care if he's black, white, or purple. (Although I would like to vote for a truly "green" candidate.)
Ms. Guinier, don't you dare cast your aspersions upon whole groups of people whom you do not know, and about whom you obviously know very little.
We are better than that.
Whether you want to believe it or not, we are better than that.

Sent by Meg in St. Louis | 4:42 PM | 8-25-2008

I was listening to the show today as I usually do if I am on the road and when Neal asked MS. Guinier what if MR. Obama loses the race, her answer really disturbed me. I do not believe if MR. Obama loses it will be about race. I do not plan to vote for him on ideological grounds, he just does not represent my beliefs. I believe he is a terrific orator as MS. Guinier stated and he has the ability to inspire people but his party stands for things that I believe are morally wrong. I am a 25 year Navy veteran and in the military for the most part it is not about color it is about the worth of a man or woman so in some way Dr King's dream is coming true. If the Majority of African Americans believes as MS. Guinier believes then we as a nation are in trouble.

Sent by Jim | 5:18 PM | 8-25-2008

Loved her response to the question "So, what if Obama ISN'T elected". She went right into some nonsense about white supremacy and Jim Crow laws. Uh, maybe if he is not elected it just may have to do with America not buying what he is selling and his proposed policies. To suggest if he loses it is based on some racist conspiracy is ridiculous.

Sent by Jeremy | 7:08 PM | 8-25-2008

Several people have commented on the incongruity of Ms. Guinier's comments today related to the racism and the election (or not) of Mr. Obama. The most disturbing aspect of the interview was the failure of the NPR reporter to question her presumptions. Actually, the reporter set up her comments with his question. Those two acts are inexcusable on a show that is supposed to be informative and informed.

Sent by Jonathan Kent | 8:54 PM | 8-25-2008

WHY is this historical moment about
the man not the issues and the man.Senator Obama need to layout his technology agenda which is not up to date with the new supremacy in mathematics, space science and atomic communications.THIS moment is dominated by race, not key issues.
THIS Convention is about history being made not exposing major technological issues.

Sent by jerry a. Myers | 9:00 PM | 8-25-2008

I am reading these comments and thinking, 'Thank God I am not the only person who was horribly offended by that.' Lani's comments about what an Obama loss would mean were insulting, to say the least. Regardless of who you support, the wonderful thing about the U.S. is that you have the ability to make a decision.

Sent by Ian Binder | 9:13 PM | 8-25-2008

Lani Guinier's response to Neal Conan's question, "What do you think it would say about America if he (Obama) loses?" that "I think it would say that we are still caught up in the original sin that has haunted our country since the founding, that is, the sin of slavery and of the subsequent commitment, in many ways, to Jim Crow and white supremacy ..." implies that if you don't vote for Barack Obama it is because he is black and you are obviously a racist. Her thought process actually shows who the real racist (one definition: one who is prejudiced in favor of certain races) is.
I am caucasian and I am not a racist and I am not voting for Obama because I do not agree with many of the principles and values of the platform of the Democratic party. I more closely agree with those of the Republican party, but I am actually looking at a third party with which I can more wholeheartedly endorse. I believe we are looking too much at the physical characterisitics (race, age, etc.) and to personality of the individual candidates, rather than to the issues and values of the parties.
It seems Ms. Guinier, based on her line of thinking typified in this answer, is another person Obama will have to distance himself from.

Sent by Tim | 9:16 PM | 8-25-2008

Lani Guinier's comment that an Obama loss will mean the country still stuggles with original sin, slavery, is once again evidence that she was, and remains, unfit for public office...although certainly qualified for intolerant Harvard. She epitomizes black bigotry (oh my, someone said it!) and all that is still wrong in the black community. Race matters...sure, but bigotry has no place. Comments such as hers deserve the ridicule of public condemnation. But, of course, your host probably agreed with her...what a shame.

Sent by William | 10:56 PM | 8-25-2008

This is a quote from the interview, when Lani Guinier was asked what it would mean if Obama lost the elction:

"I think it would say that we are still caught up in the original sin that has haunted our country since the founding, and that is the sin of slavery, and of the subsequent commitment in many ways to Jim Crow and to white supremacy. One of the things we have to understand: We can admire George Washington, we can admire Thomas Jefferson, but these founding fathers all owned slaves, they owned human beings as property, and a set of justifications had to arise in order to explain that to themselves and to our country. I think we're ready to move past those justifications, but that's really the question."

Jim Crow? Really?

Basically, she seems to be suggesting that either Obama will win, or America is still severely racist. While I find it slightly surprising to hear these types of comments, I find it far more surprising to hear them on national radio. I really hope that she just said something she didn't mean under the pressure of the interview, grasping for SOMETHING to say.

Sent by Bryan Hardin | 11:01 PM | 8-25-2008

Guinier's comment claiming an Obama loss would be an indication of persistent American racism is potentially more damaging than the Rev Wright issue, and the Jesse Jackson embarrassment. If she is for Obama what was she thinking? I hope the McCain people don't find this interview.

Sent by Bob | 1:37 AM | 8-26-2008

If John Mc Cain loses, would it be because he is an old white guy? Ms. Guinier comments perpetuate racism and does little to unite americans.

Sent by T. Renaud | 8:30 AM | 8-26-2008

Lani Guinier's raciallly charged response to the question concerning what it would mean to her if McCain was elected President over Obama went unchallenged by Neal Conan. I can't imagine your previous guest Ted Koppel letting that go by without further explanation. It was a missed opportunity to shed more light on the attitudes of black Americans towards this election.

Sent by Bill Parker | 3:29 PM | 8-26-2008

As I was listening to This American Moment with Professor Lani Guinier, and basking in the hope of a victory by Senator Obama in November, I was suddenly shocked by Professor's Guinier's insinuation that not voting for Senator Obama is racist. I would expect such a foolish and divisive comment from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, but not someone of Ms. Guinier's intelligence. Does she believe Senator Obama will win because he is black, or does she believe he will win because of his vision for the country and his ability deal with the issues of the day? Is Ms. Guinier a religious bigot because she does not support Mitt Romney? Ms. Guinier's unfortunate and simple minded comment ruined any admiration and respect I had for her.

Sent by B. Richardson | 3:08 PM | 8-27-2008

Your guest got the history of black women's voting quest. Actually, after the slaves were freed, black MEN were given the right to vote, despite the many years of hard work by Susan B. Anthony and her followers. Black - and all - women had to wait until 1920 to get the right to vote.

Sent by Mary Pegram | 3:30 PM | 8-27-2008

I am sadly disappointed that so many people don't understand the impact of racism in this country. Newsweek understands it. There was an article in their recent issue on the impact of racism. Look at it. 25-50 percent of older white Americans won't vote for Obama because he is black. Look at the article. It is so easy to dismiss this
as important If you prefer McCain because of his stand on the war, the economy, oil prices fine. There is no need to be defensive. We have never dealt with racism in this country. Either we fly to the suburbs to avoid it, or assure ourselves it is no longer a problem. Check it out. Read about the ghettos in this country. Find out. But denying it exists and hiding
your head in the sand will not make the issue go away. INform yourself.

Sent by Margaret Murphy | 2:13 PM | 8-28-2008

Why are they all acting like children? Why does it seem like a game, with the children who change the rules and the stories as they go, and the self-righteous children who define the rules all the time. Yeah! And the soccer moms... I'd like to know what Frank Deford has to say about this American moment.

Sent by Ilan Ben-Yehuda | 2:50 PM | 9-4-2008

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