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Lani Guinier discusses race, class, and democratizing education

By Marilyn Hernandez-Stopp '14 on February 7, 2013
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Lani Guinier spoke at Love Auditorium as part of Black History Month at Colgate.

Lani Guinier speaks at Love Auditorium as part of Black History Month at Colgate. (Photo by Gabriela Bezerra ’13)

Lani Guinier kick-started the celebration of Black History Month on campus Wednesday night.

A professor of law at Harvard University, civil-rights activist, and author of six books, Guinier touched on issues of race and class in her lecture, which was presented by the ALANA Cultural Center and the Robert A. Fox ’59 Leadership Institute.  She took the audience on a journey through time, placing her narrative in the context of the Civil Rights movement, and the movements to desegregate schools in the South.

Guinier revealed a surprising twist of events that has been for the most part omitted from what we’ve been taught in our textbooks about this monumental time in American history. She recounted that the attempts by black students in Little Rock, Arkansas, to desegregate Central High School prompted the upper–middle-class elites of Little Rock to build their own all-white school.

Therefore, the whites of the lower classes felt that they’d been hit by what she called “a double whammy” and emphasized this example to explain how race is deeply related to class.

“There is something fundamentally wrong about how we distribute opportunity,” said Guinier. The American Dream, she claimed, has become a means for finding a scapegoat when the idea of working hard and playing by the rules doesn’t work.

Her lecture then shifted from the historical context to an issue close to home: the role of institutions of higher education in perpetuating the misrepresentation of people of all races and all classes. She said that we need to “democratize” education, and ensure that people of all backgrounds can gain admittance to prestigious institutions like Colgate or Harvard. “Race can’t stand in for diversity of experience and perspective,” Guinier emphasized.

Her solution: ensure that students of all races and all classes can have access to opportunity because a poor white student, a middle-class Asian American, a working-class Latino, and an upper–middle-class black student will each have something unique to bring to the table.

Black History Month celebrations will continue featuring brown-bag events, opportunities for community service, and other lectures.

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