University News

Experts square off on race representation

By
Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

“How are minority groups best represented?” “Can a member of a group better represent that group’s interests than a non-member?”

Those were the key questions that Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier and author Jim Sleeper wrestled with at Thursday afternoon’s Janus Forum lecture, “Does Race Matter?”
Guinier, a former civil rights lawyer, called for greater government involvement to ensure representation of minorities, while Sleeper cautioned against policies that might worsen racial tensions.

Guinier said most people view representation in government in one of three ways. The “trustee” model stipulates that representatives are elected to consult their own consciences when voting, whereas the “delegate” model requires representatives to “carry forward their mandates” from their constituents.

A third “descriptive” view of representation follows the thinking that members of a certain ethnic group can trust a representative whose background is similar and who can understand their needs.

But the flaw in all of these models of representation, she said, is that “our commitment to representation in this country is a commitment to a winner-take-all system.”

She said certain members of ethnic groups that do not have majorities in their districts do not feel represented because they cannot elect leaders sympathetic to them.

“It is by focusing on the way in which blacks and other people of color are represented that we can begin to see the flaws in the system itself,” Guinier said.

She compared the plight of minorities in America to the proverbial warning of the canary in a coal mine.

“The experience of those who have been left out is often a diagnostic tool to help us all to see what’s wrong with the atmosphere more generally,” she said.

Sleeper, author of the 1997 book “Liberal Racism,” called Guinier’s analogy of the canary in the coal mine “an apt one,” but warned that by implementing policies based on race “we’re beginning to experience diminishing returns … in ways that recapitulate the problems we’re trying to solve.”

“There are reasons why that makes sense in a transitional way, but there are reasons why we should move beyond it,” he said.

To get beyond racism, Sleeper advocated taking into account race only temporarily so as not to permanently “freeze-frame people into racial identities.”

Sleeper said President Obama sets a positive example by taking pride in being from the heavily African-American South Side of Chicago without expecting special treatment for his race.

“I do think he walked us through what … we should be going through in terms of graduating from the kind of racial color-coding,” he said.

Sleeper said he spent time formulating his position while living in Brooklyn, where he originally saw districts subdivided to block blacks from gaining political majorities. In that extreme case, he said, redistricting with regard to race was a “necessary step.”

But now, he argues, the government has gone too far with re-drawing districts to include more blacks, citing one New York district shaped like Bullwinkle to include the poorest households in the area.

“If people in this neighborhood wanted to get together to discuss what was happening with federal funding for their school board, the Hispanics in the room would have one congressman, the Orthodox Jews would have another congressman — it doesn’t make sense,” Sleeper said.

He also expressed concern that some policies pressure people to identify with specific ethnic backgrounds when they might not otherwise do so.

“I am not saying that a person should not choose to spend their life enriching and affirming an ethno-racial identity,” Sleeper said, noting that people should commit to an identity freely.

“No one should feel incentivized, corralled or coerced by well-meaning, redress-oriented methods into making an identification” that does not come from deep and true reflection, he added.

Both speakers said a proportional system of representation, in which there are no districts, is one potential way to improve minority representation.

“But once you have proportional representation, you have to understand what that means,” Sleeper said in response to an audience member’s question. “I may go the polls and vote as a white man, but I also may go to the polls and vote as a homeowner rather than as a tenant. Or I may go to the polls and vote as a professor rather than as a working guy. What you decide to vote on the basis of is totally up to you under proportional representation.”