The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy

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Overview

Like the canaries that alerted miners to a poisonous atmosphere, issues of race point to underlying problems in society that ultimately affect everyone, not just minorities. Addressing these issues is essential. Ignoring racial differences--race blindness--has failed. Focusing on individual achievement has diverted us from tackling pervasive inequalities. Now, in a powerful and challenging book, Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres propose a radical new way to confront race in the twenty-first century.

Given the complex relationship between race and power in America, engaging race means engaging standard winner-take-all hierarchies of power as well. Terming their concept "political race," Guinier and Torres call for the building of grass-roots, cross-racial coalitions to remake those structures of power by fostering public participation in politics and reforming the process of democracy. Their illuminating and moving stories of political race in action include the coalition of Hispanic and black leaders who devised the Texas Ten Percent Plan to establish equitable state college admissions criteria, and the struggle of black workers in North Carolina for fair working conditions that drew on the strength and won the support of the entire local community.

The aim of political race is not merely to remedy racial injustices, but to create truly participatory democracy, where people of all races feel empowered to effect changes that will improve conditions for everyone. In a book that is ultimately not only aspirational but inspirational, Guinier and Torres envision a social justice movement that could transform the nature of democracy in America.

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post

Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres consider how blacks' own perceptions of their plight might lead to a new political movement. In The Miner's Canary, Guinier and Torres argue that rather than internalize their social dysfunction as being their "own fault," many blacks have developed a critical perspective on "the system." Refusing to accept the mythology of the American Dream—"that those who succeed or fail invariably do so according to their individual merit"—blacks "appreciate the necessity and efficacy of collective political struggle"...Guinier and Torres announce a bold agenda: "to use the experiences of people of color as the basis for fundamental social change that will benefit not only blacks and Hispanics but other disadvantaged social groups."
— James Forman Jr.

Boston Herald

Deep in the mines, a distressed canary is a warning that there's poison in the air. Professor Lani Guinier...and Gerald Torres...contend that in America, race is like a miner's canary: Injustices experienced by people of color warn of systemic toxins that threaten everyone...In a passionate call for social change and progressive action, Guinier and Torres convincingly argue that a colorblind approach to deeply entrenched problems does not work; it only inhibits democratic engagement and reinforces existing power structures. Citing the Rev Martin Luther King Jr.'s message that freeing black people from injustice will free America itself, Torres and Guinier urge progressives to use racial awareness as an entryway to political activism.
— Rob Mitchell

Choice

How can a book that advocates for something as ethereal-sounding as the "magical realism of political race" amount to a powerfully reasoned and concretely grounded call for the proliferation of multiracial coalitions in challenges to inequality and exclusion in American society? Law professors Guinier and Torres have managed to do so in their gracefully written book, which is both an analysis of the distinctive contours of the post-Civil Rights Era's racial fault lines and a manifesto for a politics that is decidedly color conscious. Indeed, the purpose of the book is to challenge not simply the calls for colorblindedness on the part of conservatives, but more significantly, similar calls on the part of political leftists.
— P. Kivisto

Melissa Nobles
Guinier and Torres issue a clarion call for the progressive possibilities of racial politics in the twenty-first century. The Miner's Canary convincingly demonstrates the positive role that racial identification has played and can continue to play in expanding, deepening, and enriching American democracy.
Nancy L. Rosenblum
The Miner's Canary is conceptually imaginative and politically inspiring. It is generously inclusive where other accounts of race and power are harshly exclusive. Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres combine sober analysis and models of democratic activism.
Ian F. Haney López
Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres sing a powerful song in lyrical, accessible, sophisticated tones: Race exists, race positively shapes identity, and organizing around race can save our society. To those who want to join their voices to what must become a swelling harmony, here are the first stanzas. For those afraid of the future, here is a hymn of hope.
Gerald Frug
Rejecting the unacceptable choice between colorblindness and identity politics, Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres show us how race consciousness can mobilize people across racial categories to confront structural injustice on issues ranging from education to union organizing, from voting rights to prisons. Inspiring, learned, and compellingly written.
Nell Irvin Painter
Compassion permeates this thoughtful analysis. Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres show us how Americans of all races and ethnicities can draw upon African Americans' positive racial identity, which is rooted in solidarity and the ability to see problems that are systemic. Yes, we can advance democracy by all becoming "black," in the sense of building upon our culture's race consciousness.
Derrick A. Bell
As the stunningly insightful stories in The Miner's Canary make clear, the primary racial challenge of the twenty-first century is to convince white people that social ills adversely affecting people of color disadvantage whites as well. Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres argue persuasively that progress can come through cooperative efforts for reform rather than race-related resistance to it.
Michael C. Dawson
In this outstanding, trenchant, and ultimately uplifting book, Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres demonstrate how a racial order still profoundly structures the life chances of all Americans, and convincingly argue that racially based social movements have historically, and can again, promote a truly egalitarian society. The Miner's Canary is sure to become required reading for all those who seek to understand the racial divide as well as those who care about the future of the American polity.
Jane J. Mansbridge
I recommend this book to every thoughtful U.S. citizen. We all need to get a better analytic grip on the phenomenon of "race." We all need to rethink outdated democratic systems. We all need help in organizing human action across lines of division. The Miner's Canary shows how the experiences of people of color are a key diagnostic tool, drawing attention to flaws in the existing system and galvanizing practical ways to change it for the better. Guinier and Torres have got it exactly right.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The Miner's Canary is thoughtful, provocative, and timely. It persuasively develops the idea of "political race," a concept that identifies racial literacy as a new way to think about social change in American society. This book will challenge the very way we think about race, justice, and the political system in America.
Washington Post - James Forman Jr.
Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres consider how blacks' own perceptions of their plight might lead to a new political movement. In The Miner's Canary, Guinier and Torres argue that rather than internalize their social dysfunction as being their "own fault," many blacks have developed a critical perspective on "the system." Refusing to accept the mythology of the American Dream--"that those who succeed or fail invariably do so according to their individual merit"--blacks "appreciate the necessity and efficacy of collective political struggle"...Guinier and Torres announce a bold agenda: "to use the experiences of people of color as the basis for fundamental social change that will benefit not only blacks and Hispanics but other disadvantaged social groups."
Boston Herald - Rob Mitchell
Deep in the mines, a distressed canary is a warning that there's poison in the air. Professor Lani Guinier...and Gerald Torres...contend that in America, race is like a miner's canary: Injustices experienced by people of color warn of systemic toxins that threaten everyone...In a passionate call for social change and progressive action, Guinier and Torres convincingly argue that a colorblind approach to deeply entrenched problems does not work; it only inhibits democratic engagement and reinforces existing power structures. Citing the Rev Martin Luther King Jr.'s message that freeing black people from injustice will free America itself, Torres and Guinier urge progressives to use racial awareness as an entryway to political activism.
Choice - P. Kivisto
How can a book that advocates for something as ethereal-sounding as the "magical realism of political race" amount to a powerfully reasoned and concretely grounded call for the proliferation of multiracial coalitions in challenges to inequality and exclusion in American society? Law professors Guinier and Torres have managed to do so in their gracefully written book, which is both an analysis of the distinctive contours of the post-Civil Rights Era's racial fault lines and a manifesto for a politics that is decidedly color conscious. Indeed, the purpose of the book is to challenge not simply the calls for colorblindedness on the part of conservatives, but more significantly, similar calls on the part of political leftists.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"To my friends, I look like a black boy. To white people I don't know, I look like a wanna-be punk. To the cops I look like a criminal," explains Lani Guinier's 14-year-old biracial son. Mixing myriad personal examples with hard data and analysis of biased news reports, Guinier and Torres cogently and forcefully argue that "color-blind" solutions are not "attaining racial justice and ensuring a healthy democratic process." Arguing for a multifaceted conception of "biological race, political race, historical race, cultural race," their purpose here is to find terms for discussing "the lived experience of race in America" and for moving toward a society that values (rather than just tolerates) difference. Moving through a wealth of complicated, intellectual and often abstract material, Guinier and Torres pick out the concrete and useful bits: Michel Foucault's explications of power as an ideology are explained via a contentious and racially divided union drive at K mart; the old joke about the rabbi and the bishop of Verona is used to illustrate the long-fought-over issue of race-conscious redistricting an issue that got Guinier labeled "the quota queen" in 1993 via her book The Tyranny of the Majority. Guinier, a professor at Harvard Law School, and Torres, professor at the University of Texas Law School, also grapple intelligently and with passionate wit with such explosive topics as racial profiling and the elusiveness of racial identification and identity (i.e., "white Hispanics"), making this one of the most provocative and challenging books on race produced in years. (Feb. 8) Forecast: While the tone and argumentation here are firmly academic compared with Guinier's other titles, this book will be widely reviewed on the basis of her reputation, and will be brandished by pundits. And even Beltway outsiders will remember the controversy when Clinton nominated her to be an assistant attorney general. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A factually dense rebuke to (mostly white) liberals who "choose a colorblind vision" of politics, arguing that American society's ingrained racism requires effective race-centered policymaking.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674010840
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 2/5/2003
  • Series: Nathan I. Huggins Lectures Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 740,039
  • Product dimensions: 6.11 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 0.99 (d)

Meet the Author

Lani Guinier is Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

Gerald Torres is H.O. Head Centennial Professor in Real Property Law, University of Texas Law School.

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Table of Contents

Prologue

1. Political Race and Magical Realism

2. A Critique of Colorblindness

3. Race as a Political Space

4. Rethinking Conventions of Zero-Sum Power

5. Enlisting Race to Resist Hierarchy

6. The Problem Democracy Is Supposed to Solve

7. Whiteness of a Different Color?

8. Watching the Canary

Notes

Acknowledgments

Index

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