Eight months after she was unceremoniously abandoned by President Clinton, who had nominated her to head the Justice Department's civil rights division, law professor Lani Guinier has gained an audience for her unwavering views on race relations that is broader than she ever could have imagined.
Guinier spent the weekend in Los Angeles being honored as "a champion of justice" by a gathering of 550 mostly African American lawyers and their spouses at a formal dinner and lauded at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Today she will speak at USC.
Guinier is in such demand as a speaker that she has had to hire an agent. Soon, a collection of her once-obscure law review articles on voting rights will be published in a book. She has attained perhaps the ultimate sign of celebrityhood--taxi drivers recognize her. And among those applauding her remarks at Saturday night's gathering of lawyers was Fritz Schombee, South Africa's consul general in Los Angeles, who is white.
It's quite a distance from a year ago when Guinier, although well known in civil rights circles, was teaching in relative anonymity at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
"If she had been confirmed, she wouldn't have as much influence as she does now. Thank you, Mr. President," said Reginald A. Holmes, president of the John M. Langston Bar Assn., which sponsored her trip here.
"I really don't think of myself as a celebrity," she said. "I didn't break Hank Aaron's home run record. I don't consider celebrityhood a reward. I see it as an opportunity, that comes with many burdens, to reach out to many people who are hungry for a real dialogue about race relations. . . . Because of the very public way in which my conscience or my principles were 'revealed' to the country, there may be more people who are curious or intrigued than there were before."
During her stormy and abortive nomination battle, Guinier was bashed as a "quota queen" who urged preferences for racial minorities. In her law review articles, she advocated a variety of proposals designed to enhance the power of black voters and black lawmakers, who she said were still being denied rights granted to them under the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and amendments to it.
In her speech and in an interview with The Times, Guinier said Americans are in "a state of denial about race."
"In a strange way, my nomination came to symbolize the state of denial we find ourselves in about civil rights in particular and race in general," Guinier told the Langston dinner Saturday night. "Americans support the advancement of individual black achievers . . . but when it comes to discussing race, our policy comes close to the one on gays in the military: Don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue."
Americans of all shades fall prey to stereotyping, said Guinier, the daughter of a black father and a Jewish mother. "Relations are largely characterized by serious misunderstandings and a massive failure to communicate," she said.
"Some of the discomfort reflects the polarization of the last 12 years, in which national civil rights policy emphasized reverse discrimination, fed white fears of racial preferences and discussed discrimination exclusively in terms of innocent victims and guilty perpetrators rather than as an institutional or structural phenomenon in which we all participate," Guinier said.
"When civil rights is reduced to the idea of blameworthy individuals, it is not surprising that many resist its message. No one wants to be called names."
As for Clinton, her longtime friend and former classmate at Yale Law School, Guinier said she has not heard from him since he withdrew her nomination last June, before she had an opportunity to explain her views at a Senate hearing.
Guinier said she hoped that some of the issues she wanted to discuss in her Senate hearing would be aired at the forthcoming confirmation hearing of Boston attorney Deval Patrick, who was nominated last week by Clinton for the Justice Department job she had hoped to hold.
"He's very talented; he's very committed; he's a very good lawyer," Guinier said of Patrick, one of her former colleagues at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "My only concern is that he can't do what needs to be done alone," and thus far Clinton has not made civil rights enforcement a priority of his Administration, Guinier said.
"Attorney General Janet Reno has made some very good speeches and has announced a couple of good cases, but given the need in this country for more aggressive civil rights enforcement and the opportunity for this Administration to live up to its campaign rhetoric, there really is a vacuum."