Is race merely a neutral description of human biological variation, or is race scientifically irrelevant? Is it a legal fiction delineating the rights, privileges and aspirations of distinct social groups,or inherently divisive, a barrier to recognizing the essential humanity of eachindividual? Finally, is the discourse about “race relations” or “racism”—about finding ways to accommodate fundamentally antagonistic interests, or extending the promises of democracy to all? TheNonprofit Quarterly asked Harvard educator and social critic, Lani Guinier,co-author with Gerald Torres of The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race,Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy, for her take on these thorny questions and some opinions on where we go from here.

Professor Guinier, we’ve all heard the argument that the dismantling of legal racial discrimination under Jim Crow and the dramatic rise of the black middle class since the 1960s herald the end of racism in our lifetimes. Forty years after Selma, does “race” still matter?

Race still matters even as many more people of color, as individuals, are moving into the middle class. For example, those blacks who are now middle-class in terms of income do not enjoy access tothe same “wealth” as whites who are middle-class. The average net financial assets of middle-class whites is nearly 55 times greater than middle-class blacks earning comparable income. Social mobility, in other words,does not compensate for what Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro call “asset poverty.”

What this tells us is that race and racism are much more complex phenomena than individual prejudice, individual skin color or individual mobility. Race is more than what you look like and racism is more than what you, as an individual, think or feel about others. Racism is a political, social and economic phenomenon that is used to support a social and economic hierarchy constructed to keep some people “in their place”at the bottom and others on the top. Racism drives the narrative explaining and justifying the stratification of society and ensuing inequities in resource distribution. Unraveling this story involves linking race to power because those in power are telling the story. And the story they tell is designed to hide their power and privilege.

On the other hand, race is not just about stigma or disadvantage. Race can help us see the persistent contradictions between our espoused values and the dysfunction of many of our democratic institutions; race can help us imagine a more democratic and just society.

This is because race tracks power. Used as a diagnostic tool, the experiences of people of color render transparent the real factors influencing decisions and policies related to the distribution of resources. These decisions not only disadvantage people of color, they also and predictably disadvantage poor whites, women and other excluded groups as well.

So how should we understand “race” today?

Race is a social category that has been misused to distract people from a more systemic analysis of the distribution of resources. Certain public policies have been racialized, allowing policy-makers to enlist the support of poor and middle-class whites for decisions that will ultimately disadvantage them—using race as a distraction. Gerald Torres and I propose instead to retrieve this social category and demonstrate its value as a diagnostic and analytic tool.

We came up with the term “political race” to reclaim and redefine the meaning and use of race. Gerald introduced me to the metaphor of the miner’s canary. Miners used the canary’s fragile respiratory system to alert them when the atmosphere in the mines was too toxic. We suggest that people of color are like canaries in the mines—the problems that play out in communities of color are symptomatic of issues that are much more widespread, chronic and potentially fatal to all of us.

For example, during the fight around Proposition 209, a ballot referendum outlawing affirmative action in California, the issue was made to seem as if “racial preferences” were denying poor and working-class whites access to higher education—again, Latinos and blacks were allegedly monopolizing admission into the elite UC system. In fact, at the time in 1996, for every one black male student enrolled in a four-year state college in California, five were in prison; for every one Latino male in a four-year state college, there were three in prison.

Prison spending in California jumped by 794 percent during the 15 years leading up to 1995—over 2.5 times as much as the growth in allocations for higher education. In 1995 California ranked first in the nation in prison construction and 41st in education spending. This shift from investing in education to prisons was responsible for the sense of scarcity by poor and middle-class whites.

Blacks and Latinos were not monopolizing access to highereducation; they were monopolizing access to the prison system. This is an example of political race. Race was being used to deny the reality of thesituation; we’re saying race needs to be used to illuminate the reality of conditions.

You’ve said that applying a “racial lens” to examine many social issues will often illuminate broader structures of injustice. Can you give us a recent example of this?

The University of Texas at Austin had used the LSAT and other ostensibly race-neutral, merit-based tests for admission to its law school for years. In the interest of achieving a degree of diversity in its student body, UT-Austin also adopted an affirmative action policy to assure that blacks and Latinos, who did not perform as well on the LSAT, were nevertheless given an opportunity to enroll at the law school. In 1992, a white woman named Cheryl Hopwood was denied admission to the law school. Charging “reverse discrimination,” Hopwood and the Center for Individual Rights, a national organization specializing in litigation against affirmative action programs, challenged the admission of the 62 black and Latino students accepted that year. Four years later, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the University. The numbers of blacks and Latinos enrolled at UT-Austin (in the college as well the law school) declined precipitously.

Coming together initially to resist the threatened resegregationof UT-Austin, a multiracial coalition of black and Mexican-American legislators, academics, and attorneys dissected the admission practices of the state’s flagship university, finding that the highly-touted aptitude tests were enabling upper-middle-class whites to monopolize admissions to this publicly subsidized institution. This is because the SAT and the LSAT, which dominated admissions decisions, correlate more closely with parental (and even grandparents’) income than they do with first-year college or law school grades. As a result, at the college level, a mere 10 percent of the state’s 1500 high schools were filling 75 percent of the seats in eachfreshman class. Upper-middle-class suburban white schools were dominating access to higher education. High school graduates from the poor, predominately white counties of West Texas were faring no better than low-income people ofcolor—not a single poor white graduate from some West Texas counties had gone to University of Texas-Austin in the preceding decade.

With regard to law school admissions, UT-Austin’s policy disadvantaged poorer applicants by including in its admissions index the median LSAT of all those who took the test from the applicant’s college. This formula penalized Cheryl Hopwood, at the time a single mother raising a child with a disability, because she could not afford to attend a more elite college. Yet her complaint focused on race, not class. The focus on race alone covered up the underlying economic disparities involved in the exaggerated role played by standardized tests.

Texas activists soon realized that the traditional admission criteria for the University of Texas system had failed to serve the public mission of the university—to train citizens and leaders for the entire state. Moving beyond an analysis posing race-conscious criteria against test-based criteria, the ad hoc learning community of activists proposed offering seats in these public universities to the top 10 percent of all graduating high school students in the state, regardless of test scores and race. Their research discovered that high school grades are a better predictor of college grades than the SAT or LSAT, despite the uniformity of the standardized tests and the wide variability in local grading practices. The “Texas Ten Percent Plan” created a truly broad populist coalition crossing racial, economic and ideological boundaries.

The performance offreshmen admitted under this plan (as measured by their GPA at UT) actually exceeded that of students admitted in the previous years under the test-based criteria—across all racial groups, white, black and Latino.

We hear a lot about the need for Americans to strive for a “color-blind society,” but you don’t seemconvinced. What’s wrong with the notion of putting racial categories behind us?

“Color-blindness,” on both the left andright, has become a justification for people who already have power to keep their privileged position while excluding others. Color-blindness defines race as skin color and the solutions to problems as residing at the personal rather than the societal level. Proponents of this approach generally believe that the government should be “neutral” with respect to race. On the right, it is a pretext for doing absolutely nothing about persistent disparities in opportunities, treatment and outcomes. On the left color-blindness may be intended to avoid the tendency of race to polarize—so we don’t talk about it when we want to build progressive coalitions. Instead we create “universal programs” and initiatives, imposing them on other people for their benefit. It is a paternalistic approach that denies the intelligenceand agency of the people who often have incredible insight into what is wrong. On the one hand, it ignores the energy among many people of color to mobilize. On the other, it allows racial prejudice among working-class whites to dominate its strategic thinking.

By not addressing race directly, the scapegoating of people of color continues and the alienation of people of color persists. It is a prescription for top-down policy solutions that are presumed to succeed almost in a vacuum, without much thought to grassroots organizing strategies that get whites and non-whites to coalesce around a truly transformative vision.

How has the discussion of race been decoupled from power?

Liberals and conservatives believe fervently in the integrity and autonomy of the individual and on some level have allowed that belief to dominate the conversation about race. The Rehnquist Court has reinforced this perspective with its reluctance to use the tools of the legal system to combat what they call “societal discrimination.” They have constructed a legal analysis that requires as a precondition to legal intervention the identification of an individual “perpetrator” who harbors bad feelings toward people of color or women. By contrast, Gerald and I are saying that racism is much more than individual prejudices that any one person may or may not believe. Racism is much more like a hierarchy; its architecture is constructed so that some people remain on top and others on the bottom. Racism is the explanation that justifies this pyramid of resource distribution.

Does race support the American Dream?

The “rags to riches” mythology of the American Dream individuates poverty and wealth. Those who work hard and play by the rules get ahead, while those who are lazy or cheat lose. It naturally follows that rich people play by the rules and poor people just don’t have it together to succeed. This is a commonly held emotional truth even if it falls apart with any examination. For instance, although it was true that a large portion (roughly two-thirds) of the very wealthy started out poor in the early 1900s, by the 1970s, only four percent of the wealthiest Americans started out poor. Most working-class and poor whites are unlikely to rise above the status in which they were born—especially as an increasing share of the nation’s wealth is concentrated in fewer hands.

The American Dream mythology uses race as an explanation for the declining fortunes of middle-class, working-class and poor whites. People, especially politicians, haveused race to shift the blame onto blacks or Latinos, or “illegal”immigrants. As beneficiaries of government largesse, these individuals have somehow hijacked the American Dream. But the story doesn’t end there.Having less government means eliminating aid to the undeserving poor (read lazy, primarily people of color). This will reduce the tax-burden on the middleclass and other hard-working (read white) people, allowing them their birthright—getting rich. Thus the truth about our social and economic realities is disguised through a highly racialized account of the American Dream.

So, is there some way out of this morass?

People have to be willing to build transformative multiracial learning, teaching and organizing communities that share power and reframe issues away from zero-sum analyses. We call them learning communities because we all have to be willing to assume our share of the responsibility for learning as well as for teaching. We say transformative multiracial communities because we are dealing with issues of race, gender, and class—social change is at the heart of the learning community’s agenda.

In these groups we see people begin to share power and responsibility. They move from the notion of hierarchy that is top-down and like an upright triangle to a notion of participation that is more like an oval. We call this generative power and pose it as the antithesis of hierarchical power. Hierarchical power comes from a belief in the zero-sum proposition (I win-you lose) and assumes the only way to exercise power is through control. If you don’t control someone else will. Generative power suggests there are ways power can be shared such that everyone has a little bit of power and in the end each person gets more back than what she put in.

Creative experimentation—a willingness to take risks and try new things—is also an important quality of these learningcommunities. To really accomplish something, you have to be willing to take risks—be prepared to fail. I’m not saying to be reckless. But, sometimes, you have to move forward based on faith—“the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

A third quality is critically reframing issues so they are not boxed in little neat packages: this is the liberal view of race, here, the conservative view of race over there. By ridding ourselves of the bi-polar (right or wrong) packaging, we can really begin to see the fundamental elements of various positions and begin to reconstruct them.

The development of the Ten Percent Plan demonstrates how these three qualities underlying a transformative multiracial learning or organizing community can work in practice. First, rather than limit themselves to traditional legal strategies in response to the Fifth Circuit’s decision, black and Latino activists assembled a broad coalition of lawyers, academics and activists. By sharing power and working together across disciplines and perspectives, this group was able to create an innovative solution that ultimately benefited them all. Second, black and Latino activists took a creative risk in going beyond traditional standardized test scores in developing admissions criteria. Third, the activists were able to critically reframe the issue by using the experience of people of color as a lens to illustrate injustices that affect poor whites in West Texas as well. Not surprisingly, the leadership came from people of color, but they used their leadership to promote a transformative agenda that others could support. The Texas Ten Percent Plan passed the legislature by one vote—cast by a conservative white legislator representing a poor West Texas district.

And is there an appropriate role for the nonprofit sector?

When nonprofits identify a problem they need to also make sure all the relevant stakeholders are at the table while they brainstorm—not just foundation executives and leadership of nonprofit organizations. Those with decision-making authority don’t necessarily have their ear to the ground anymore. They need to bring indigenous leadership within the communities of color affected by the issue to the table.

Watch the canary. Look for the ways that various problems converge around people of color, immigrants—the least well off—and really try to follow the canary. See what’s happening and track the experience of those people because it will lead to all kinds of understandings of social dysfunction.

Say dysfunction because in a democracy you can’t have a collective society—a society that assumes collective responsibility for each other—unless we are willing to work together and take responsibility for making our society work for everyone. Nicholas Lehman says the dominant ideology these days is what he calls a one-way libertarianism… Many upper-middle-class suburbanites have been convinced that the government owes them a set of good schools, good police, and good roads, and yet they owe nothing to government and to each other. If we don’t begin to understand the ways in which we owe things to each other, we cannot function as a democracy.

I think it would be great if an effort would be made to fund public, problem-solving spaces such as radio shows, black, Latino and Asian local newspapers or other local media that help disseminate information and also use experimental forms of video, theater and role-playing interactions to bring people together. We need more networks of artists, activists, advocates and scholars to brainstorm about contemporary problems. We need fewer “celebrity experts” and talking heads and more democratic forms of engaged, participatory media. I am thinking here of those public spaces that become sites for community and school partnerships, innovative forms of multiracial public deliberation, and local organizing efforts that mobilize around a transformative vision of racial and social justice.