In 1993 Bill Clinton nominated Lani Guinier, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, to head the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department. Guinier was experi- enced in civil rights litigation and politics and was also a family friend. Her nomination was attacked. She was charged with favoring quotas and racial polarization, and Clinton withdrew the nomination before the Senate debate. This story merits reexamining because the tensions that propelled it play such a large role in American politics. It is as much a story about Clinton and the shape of racial politics as about Guinier.
Unsurprisingly, Guinier’s positions were deemed unacceptable by almost all Republican political figures who commented. 2 Somewhat more surprising, and far more important politically, were the vehement critiques of Guinier by center-right and centrist Democrats. The New Republic opposed her nomination in an article by Abigail Thernstrom and an editorial.3 Their arguments went as follows.
Guinier is smart and competent, but she would be a disastrous political appointment. Her emphasis on racial inequalities in political representation is legitimate, if overstated. But her proposals would increase the salience of race and sharpen racial cleavages. She would impose racial criteria on procedures—for dis- tricting and candidate selection—that should be race-neutral. Her commitment to shape proce- dures so as to achieve substantive political results makes her proposals effectively anti- democratic. Clinton should withdraw her nom- ination, on principled grounds and because it would hurt him politically. He did.
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