Defining 'This American Moment'

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What is at stake in the 2008 election? Talk of the Nation launches a new series called This American Moment, in which artists, journalists, scholars and politicians describe the impact of this moment in U.S. history. First up: Lani Guinier, a law professor at Harvard University.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Today, as the Democratic Party delegates gather in Denver and Republicans prepare for their convention in Saint Paul, we begin a series of conversations about "This American Moment." We're going to take a step back to put this election and this campaign season in context every day. We'll ask different guests to tell us what he or she thinks is at stake, what this election means to him or her. We've asked artists, journalists, scholars and politicians to join us this week. We'll talk with Jorge Ramos, as we mentioned, Christopher Hitchens, Jimmy Carter, and with Lani Guinier, who joins us today.

We also, of course, want to hear from you. What's the significance of "This American Moment" to you? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Lani Guinier is the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard University. She worked for many years as a civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and as a special assistant in the civil rights division of the Department of Justice. In 1993, President Clinton withdrew her nomination to be assistant attorney general for civil rights and made a controversy over racial quotas.

Lani Guinier joins us today from a studio in Vineyard Haven in Massachusetts. Thank you very much for being with us today.

Professor LANI GUINIER (Law, Harvard University): Thank you for inviting me.

CONAN: And did you ever think that you would live to see the day an African-American becomes a major party candidate for president of the United States?

Prof. GUINIER: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: What does it say to you about America and how it's changed?

Prof. GUINIER: Well, it's really interesting because in the early 1950s, my father happened to be listening to W.E.B. Du Bois, who's an icon not only of our family but of America. And Du Bois was celebrating his birthday and was reading from a letter that he had written to his grandson in which he predicted that in the years ahead, his grandson would have many more options than he. And my father turned to the person seated next to me and - seated next to him and said, Du Bois has lost it. Meaning, there's no way that things are going to change so that his grandchildren would have more options.

And I was visiting recently with another woman who was present at that same moment with my dad, and she was talking to my son, who is a junior, a rising senior in college, and he was talking about all of the things that he was hoping to do, to go to law school and get a PhD. And it struck her at that moment that this was Du Bois' optimistic and yet realistic dream back in the early 1950s.

CONAN: It is an extraordinary statement, do you think, about American society. But nevertheless, a lot of people wonder, why it is that a - would think of a traditional civil rights leader, like a Jesse Jackson, failed to win the Democratic Party nomination, why Barack Obama succeeded. What do you think? Is it just the passage of time?

Prof. GUINIER: Well, I don't think it's fair to compare Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson, and I think the comparison doesn't do justice to either of them. That is, Jesse Jackson really represented a tremendous breakthrough in the 1980s. And one of the things that people don't realize is that he mobilized a whole generation of young people who are now running the Democratic Party. He brought into the Democratic fold people like Donna Brazile and other black and white activists who had been on the outside and then they are now on the inside. And he laid, in many ways, the path that Obama is now following.

On the other hand, Obama was not a civil rights activist. He was a community organizer, and his vision of change was different than Jesse Jackson's, but he's been able to benefit from many of the - many of the changes that Jackson and his generation wrought.

CONAN: Some in the civil rights community see Obama's candidacy as a mixed blessing because they fear that with his successes, many white people in America will say, see, it succeeded, the civil rights movement is over, we're passed that.

Prof. GUINIER: Well, it's interesting, because one of the things, one of the most important changes that the Obama administration would bring, and certainly what his candidacy has already brought, is a different sense of the role of a mobilized constituency. What Obama learned from his years as a community organizer is that it's not simply about picking the right leader. It's also about the relationship between that leader and his or her constituents. And what Barack Obama has done is to mobilize and energize a group of people who need to continue to remain energized even after he's elected, God willing. And they need to understand that they have an important role not just in terms of voting for him but in keeping him accountable to the mandate of those who supported him and also protecting him when he will invariably be attacked.

So it's really a very different relationship between the notion of elected officials and their constituencies. It's not simply electing someone to represent you and you can now go on about your business. It's really about an ongoing relationship between the representative or a president, and the people of the United States.

CONAN: During this primary season we saw two very different contests in the Republican Party. You can see very much the same kinds of contests that we've become used to over the past 20 to 30 years as primaries are becoming increasingly important in both political parties and in the nominating process, critical to the nominating process. In the Democratic Party we saw unprecedented numbers of millions come out to vote for the two major candidates, for Senators Clinton and Senators Obama. What do you think that says about the participation in those two campaigns?

Prof. GUINIER: I think it says this is a moment of generational change, and one of the things that Barack Obama, in particular, but Hillary, in different ways, one of the things that they've done is to reach out to people who have otherwise not been active participants in the political process in the past. They have energized people to think that it's possible to play an important role as voters, as citizens, and as participants in our democracy.

I think it is a beautiful thing to see all of the young people who - there are several things on YouTube and on the Web, images of young people who can tell you, or at least could tell you during the primaries, how many delegates Hillary Clinton had compared to how many delegates Obama had. When I was their age, I didn't even know what a delegate was!

CONAN: We're talking with Lani Guinier on "This American Moment." If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We're going to be talking with a number of thinkers and politicians and artists and news commentators over the days of the Democratic and Republican conventions. Let's see if we can get Harold on the line. Harold is calling us from Coloma. Am I pronouncing that right, in Michigan?

HAROLD (Caller): Yes, Coloma, Michigan.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

HAROLD: Well, I think this is a fantastic opportunity, not for me but for the nation, to go to its core and realize Dr. King's dream, judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Barack Obama is a brilliant man and I believe and I hope the majority of Americans believe that he can end the division or go a long way towards bringing an end to that division and uniting up as a people. We are Americans. And also, I take students to Europe in the summer and I just got back, and I'm telling you, it doesn't matter what part of the world you're in - Europe, Asia, Africa. People believe that Barack Obama can be aunifying and inspiring leader for all of us.

CONAN: And I guess we'll all be aware of the coincidence that the day he accepts the nomination is the anniversary of Dr. King's speech, when he made those comments in the "I Have a Dream" speech.

HAROLD: I'm old enough to have been at that march on Washington.

CONAN: Lani Guinier, do you think that this is a realization of Dr. King's dream?

Prof. GUINIER: Well, I certainly think it's an important step toward Dr. King's dream. I don't think it's the realization of that dream. No one person alone is going to realize that dream. This country, as a whole, has to work together to realize that dream. And what's exciting about the Obama candidacy and about the Democratic Party, at this point, is how diverse it looks.

Surprisingly, when you look at the Olympics which just passed, when you looked at the Chinese team - this is something Thomas Friedman talked about in a column at the New York Times - you looked at the Chinese team, everyone was Chinese. You looked at the Korean team, everyone was Korean. You looked at the American team, everyone was from around the world. And we represent all of the amazing diversity, not only of the United States but of the world.

And it's bringing diverse people together in pursuit of common objectives that is the challenge not only for the Democratic Party but for this country. Barack Obama's candidacy offers us that opportunity and the question is, will we take it? I'm reminded of a panel that Skip Gates had last week where there was a young, white woman who has been working for the Obama campaign for more than a year, and the topic of the panel was, does race still matter? And she admitted that when she agreed to do this panel, many of her white friends told her, oh, Sarah, don't go there. Nothing good can come of this if you, you know, you may say something that's racist or you may say something that's perceived to be racist. And she said, because of her participation in the Obama campaign, she has been able to experience what then Larry Bobos(ph), a sociologist, called "compelling moments," moments were she was connected to peers who shared a larger purpose than themselves and worked as a team together. And in that process, she was able to do what Dr. King imagined, to look past people's skin color but also to be comfortable discussing their skin color and what it means to them and to her.

CONAN: Harold, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

HAROLD: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Lani Guinier on "This American Moment." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And Lani Guinier, I can't - you - you've used the conditional verb-tense quite often, nevertheless, I can't help but feel that you think that Barack Obama's going to win this election. But what do you think it would say about America, given the disparity of the popularity of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party as we look ahead, what do you think it would say about America if he losses?

Prof. GUINIER: I think it would say that we are still - 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.

CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller on the line. And let's go to Monroe, Monroe from Charlotte, North Carolina.

MONROE (Caller): Good afternoon. My comment is this about Barack Obama. To me, now he has a universal appeal. It's not about race, it's not about color, it's not about tradition. It's about appealing to folks in a non-traditional way so that he can inspire and motivate people to (unintelligible) one another.

CONAN: Universal...

Prof. GUINIER: Amen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Monroe, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MONROE: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can go now to Colby(ph), Colby with us from Chicago in Illinois.

COLBY (Caller): Hi. I guess my comment is a little bit darker. I think this is a moment of reckoning for the American people in the sense that we have so many hard choices to make as a people. Whether it's about global warming or about renewal of resources or about our standing in the world, and the election of a president is just the beginning step in us deciding we're going to make those hard choices. Carter tried to help us make those hard choices and he lasted four years. So I think this is a moment of real questioning for us, the people, are we willing to get behind the president and make the hard choices we have to make because he can't do it alone? So that's what I got. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Colby, thanks very much for the call. In that regard, Lani Guinier, of course, if Barack Obama is elected, there will be that honeymoon period and he may get some policies passed. He's likely to have, if he should get elected, bigger Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress. Nevertheless, every - every president makes mistakes, every president comes up against policy failures. Every president has severe difficulties at some point in their administration. And those hard choices that Colby was talking about, they remain hard choices. I mean, how do you accept carbon caps without raising the price of electricity? There are going to be difficult decisions to make.

Prof. GUINIER: Well, I agree with Colby and I believe that part of the brilliance of the Obama campaign has been their effort to energize a grassroots space, and to stay in touch in conversation with the people who are supporting them. That's a conversation that will not stop on Election Day. It needs to continue. In order to give Barack Obama and his administration and what I hope is a Democratic Senate and House of Representatives, what will permit them to act in the best interest of the country is to have a mobilized constituency that holds them accountable to the right choices and that protects them when they are invariably attacked.

CONAN: On Thursday at Invesco Field - it used to be Mile High Stadium - in Denver, Barack Obama will address 70,000 people as he accepts the Democratic Party's nomination for president of the United States. Is there going to be one thing you're going to listening for?

Prof. GUINIER: That's a good question. I'm so impressed with Barack Obama as an orator. And I what I hope he does is to tell us a unifying story of common purpose, how we can come together and focus on the "ands" that we have in common and not the "ors" that separate us.

CONAN: Lani Guinier, thank you so much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.

Prof. GUINIER: Thank you.

CONAN: Lani Guinier, the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard University, an expert on civil rights. She joined us today from the studios of Audio Solutions in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts. Tomorrow our series, "This American Moment," continues. Jorge Ramos, the senior anchor of Univision will join us. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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