About The Miner’s Canary
(Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres) (Harvard Press 2002)

Like the canary’s distress, which alerted miners to poison in the air, issues of race point to conditions in American society that endanger us all. In this pioneering new book, Guinier and Torres warn us that we ignore race at our peril, and propose a dramatic, hopeful shift in the way we think about race and put it to political use.

Ignoring racial differences – color blindness – has failed, they argue. Race and power intertwine at every level of social interaction, from classrooms to courtrooms to congressional districts. Only cross-racial coalitions can expose these embedded hierarchies of privilege and – through innovative power sharing and democratic engagement – demolish them. Guinier and Torres call this concept of enlisting race to resist power political race. The methodology of political race has policy implications for affirmative action, racial profiling, criminal justice, access to educational opportunity, voting and democracy. It is a methodology for diagnosing systemic injustice and then organizing to resist it.

Political race confronts the social and economic consequences of race in a “third way,” that offers a multi-layered political strategy rather than a set of public policy of primarily legal solutions to issues of racial justice. Political race dramatically transforms the use of race from a signifier of individual culpability and prejudice to an early warning sign (“the canary in the mines”) of larger injustices. Political does not mean conventional electoral politics. It challenges social change thinkers and activists to rethink what it means to win and whether winning an election or a particular policy change is enough. Once you see the potential for change through collective action, you cannot look at things in the same way. Indeed, it can become a process of joyful struggle.

Publishers’ Weekly called the book “one of the most provocative and challenging books on race produced in years.” Ian Henry-Lopez said, it is “a hymn of hope” for those who fear the future.

(The Miner's Canary is available at Amazon.com, click on above book jacket to link to amazon.com)

Hear  Lani Guiner  interviewed by Kojo Nnamdi, WAMU, Public Radio, click  here   (scroll down  to Friday April 12th, 1pm "Lani Guinier" and click on "listen.")  Lani Guinier says that "race is the canary in the coal mine." Her solution? Take away the variable of race, and change the atmosphere in the coal mine. She joins Kojo to explain.  


Reviews of The Miner’s Canary

Legal scholars Guinier and Torres invite the public to consider, among other indicators, the plight of young black men, long the primary targets of racial profiling on the part of law-enforcement agencies . . . Those who insist that American courts dispense justice equally get a stern lesson with statistics the authors cite to the contrary, while civil-rights activists will find much to motivate them in the authors’ prescriptions, which include grassroots political organizing, consensus building, ‘enlisting race to resist hierarchy’, and other measures. A useful, provocative, wounded critique of the status quo.
-- Kirkus Reviews

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.
-- Melissa Nobles, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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.
-- Nancy L. Rosenblum, author of Liberalism and the Moral Life

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.
-- Ian F. Haney-Lopez, author of White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race

Rejecting the unacceptable choice between color-blindness 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.
-- Gerald Frug, author of City Making: Building Community Without Building Walls

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.
-- Nell Irvin Painter, author of Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol

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 from cooperative efforts for reform rather than race-related resistance to it.
-- Derrick A. Bell, author of The Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism

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.
-- Michael C. Dawson, author of Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics

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.
-- Jane J. Mansbridge, author of Beyond Adversary Democracy

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.
-- Henry Louis Gates, Jr., author of Colored People: A Memoir

A vision with room for everyone.  In Miner's Canary, Guinier and Torres chart a new vision for race in America.  Instead of the stagnant, stone throwing rhetoric that has crippled the dialogue on race, this book lays out a blueprint on how Americans of all races can start talking to each other and move forward together.  Miner's Canary builds on the prevailing idea that race is not about biology but politics.  When viewed through the prism of social and economic factors versus the color of an individual's skin or the texture of that person's hair, we begin to see that social and economic  injustice is less about race and more about protecting power and privilege.  This book is about ways to get Americans of all races talking to each other and working together to protect democracy.  I challenge those who would say otherwise to stop the name calling and stone throwing.  Read this book, and let's figure out ways we can work together to make American better than any of us ever dreamed it could be
-- A  reader from Galveston, Texas, March 4, 2002                             

A Fresh Approach to Race.    Lani Guinier has the courage and imagination to think  outside the box, especially about Democracy and Race.  Thats why she one of my favorite public intellectuals.

Back in 1993 she made headlines when Clinton withdrew her nomination as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights because her support of proportional representation was too controversial. Our winner-take-all electoral system is undemocratic, she maintains, because it disenfranchises everyone who votes for a losing candidate even when the margin of defeat is less than the margin of error.

    Now, in a new book entitled The Miners.  Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy   (Harvard 2002), Guinier and fellow law professor Gerald Torres project a social-political view of Race that goes beyond biological or phenotypical constructs.  People of color, they explain,  are not just members of an oppressed identity group who need more rights or more representation.  Like the miners canary,  they are an early warning signal that the entire community is in danger.

    For example, in the 1990s at the K-Mart distribution center in Greensboro, N.C., the only K-Mart distribution center in the country with a majority black work force, workers were receiving $5.10 less an hour than at comparable K-Mart centers. Seeking a winning strategy, union leaders contacted the Pulpit Forum, a coalition of preachers headed by Rev. Nelson Johnson that had been organized in the 1960s to ground the civil rights struggle in the moral foundation of the churches.

     Up to then the dispute had been framed either as a labor or a civil rights struggle. The labor approach underplayed the role of  the black workers who had been the first to organize because their status as a racial minority helped them see the collective unfairness of the situation.  The civil rights  approach risked alienating white workers and playing into the divide and conquer strategy of management.

      Rejecting both approaches, the Pulpit Forum pastors described K-Mart refusal to pay a living wage as a threat to everyone in Greensboro who wanted to build a sustainable community. They then began a prayer vigil every Sunday at the distribution center, prepared to be arrested for trespassing. Although their initiative and presence highlighted the mostly black workforce, their prayers also expressed concern for all Greensboro workers whose wages were inadequate to sustain their families.  Some white workers had been reluctant to join the movement because they did not want to share power with blacks.  But the transformation of the resistance from a purely labor or civil rights struggle to one addressing the welfare of the whole community eventually inspired white workers and community members to become part of the resistance.

     That is how Jimmy Boggs  viewed Racism. We should see it as a challenge to take us to another plateau, he used to say.  Otherwise we cast ourselves as a self-interest group, as victims and as underlings.

    The miners canary approach can also be used by those excluded on the basis of gender or disability. For example, when women challenged minimum height standards for New York city police, they not only opened up opportunities for themselves and for Latino, Asian and short white men. They also challenged the assumption that good police officers have to be physically dominating.  Subsequently policewomen have turned out to be particularly effective in situations involving domestic violence or young men because they tend to defuse rather than confront situations.

   Thus the struggle of women against minimum height standards for police offices has helped to re-conceptualize policing for the benefit of the entire community

By Grace Lee Boggs, Michigan Citizen, July 28-August 3, 2002