A "Commonplace" Conversation with Lani Guinier

This interview appeared in African American Review, Volume 30, Number 2, 1996.

Lise Funderburg is a journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. She is author of Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity (Morrow/Quill).

Funderburg: What do you hope to remedy with Commonplace, your recently established, not-for-profit group?

Guinier: Accomplish would be a better word; remedy sounds much too ambitious for the shoestring operation that we are presently. Perhaps in a year we might feel emboldened to discuss what we're remedying. But at this stage, we are struggling to transform public discourse, particularly about issues of race.

We're proceeding along several different axes at once. The first one is an academic research agenda where we are trying to develop a methodology for structured dialogue, for multiracial deliberation, for collective decision-making and collaboration among people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. We're designing focus groups to study competing hypotheses about the barriers to candid or honest public communication-particularly on race. And we're testing two major theses. One is that you have to get people together to talk about race by providing them a mutual task that doesn't have an explicit racial text. The second hypothesis we're testing is that you have to confront, magnify, and explode stereotypes before you can get people to the point of trust and intimacy.

We then want to apply that methodology to public conversations that involve people in the media, public policy activists, to structure conversations gain across difference, not just of race or of gender, but of perspective and discipline that the journalists can learn how to see nuance and the academics can learn how to be more clear. In this take-it-on-the-road part of the project, we could actually try to intervene in local communities that are confronting conflict or-and this is where we're we're more inclined to intervene we could try to change the way the media covers the issue of race, because the media plays such an important role as the connective tissue in our national and local community.

Funderberg: Why does public discourse need to be restructured?

Guinier: We are operating from the premise--and it is not an original premise [laughs]--there is a breakdown in our ability to talk to each other on a number of issues. Unfortunately, political discourse resembles, to a great degree, the worst excess of the adversary model of litigation, the 'winner take all' model of sports, and the 'only one of you is going to be left standing' model of war. When we use that structure to talk about something like race, it reinforces all the divisions and polarities we are experiencing on so many other levels, in terms of segregated housing patterns, people not going to school together or not watching the same television shows-basically, the prediction of the Kerner Commission from almost thirty years ago that we are becoming two nations, one white and one black. Even though it's a more heterogeneous nation in some ways, it is still very segregated.

Funderburg: How is it more heterogeneous?

Guinier: Number one, we can't just talk about race in a context of black and white. We have to think about other people of color in a global sense and the relationship not just between whites and people of color, but among and within communities of color.

Second, there has been some progress: There is at least the appearance of increased diversity-on college campuses, in public legislatures and city councils and school boards, and on television-in what we see as representational icons. On the other hand, much of that is superficial; it's cosmetic, and it's temporary. People may work in a multiracial environment, but then go home to a very homogeneous neighborhood.

Funderburg: Also, it seems that many multiracial environments are still tiered hierarchically. A company with a history of having white employees can say it's become diverse, but what positions are held by those people who bring the "diversity?

Guinier: Michael Lind recently wrote a terrific article in Harper's on the haves and the have-nots. And he talks about the haves as the contemporary counterparts to feudal lords who are creating structures, both architecturally and figuratively, to barricade themselves from the rest of the population. Once you enter a major corporation, the headquarters of a major television station, a bank building-as soon as you leave the street-you enter a world in which most of the people are now the same.

Funderburg: In Commonplace's first brochure, the suggested topics for debate are race, gender, class, and America's future. What would we talk about on the second day?

Guinier: [laughs.] Well, the first thing I have to say is it's not a debate, okay? It's a conversation. But it's not just talk, it's a predicate to collaboration. We're searching for a vocabulary to express the idea that the way in which we presently communicate is very hierarchical. The communication, in some sense, describes a ritual in which the goal is to win-perhaps through persuasive argument, perhaps by demonizing your opponent, depending on the particular rules of engagement. Only one side can win. We're trying to rethink the nature of this conversation so that the focus is not just on performance and on talking but also on listening, mutual understanding and mutual respect. We think that, through genuine conversation, collaboration will emerge.

Funderburg: When you talk about Commonplace and what "we" are trying to do, who is the "we"?

Guinier: I'm working with a number of people, some informally, some formally. I have a colleague at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who is an expert on mediation and alternative dispute resolution models. I'm working with a program officer at a foundation in New York and with graduate students in the psychology department at Penn who are the principal investigators for trying to develop this methodology. I'm trying to enlist the support of CEOs and other executives within major corporations who are allowing us to study their problems to try not only to learn about them as academics, but to develop an approach that is portable, that can be adapted by others.

Funderburg: You propose three possible models: National Conversations, Public Juries- a legal term-and Table Talks. What are these?

Guinier: Table Talks is our way of describing the focus group r people sitting around a table talking to each other. It's informal, it's not highly public, but it's among strangers. It's an effort to study what will get such a group of people to a place that they're not at yet but that they want to be at. So it's a project that assumes some preconditions: This is not for everyone and anyone. These are people who really are committed to a different kind of discourse.

The Public Juries are an application of the methodology. We haven't conducted any yet. You mention that it's a legal term, and in some that's deliberate, because the jury is a democratic institution in which you have ordinary citizens participating in deliberation. We worried about the connotation that a public jury is deliberating to come to a verdict, because in the context of a trial that is their goal. This is not a trial, just as it's not a debate. So the public jury is more like a grand jury that issues recommendations or takes testimony and really provides an opportunity to empower ordinary citizens, to give them permission to have a public voice.

Jim Carey, a professor at Columbia, calls the contemporary public conversation the equivalent of an academic tea party held in a football stadium-meaning it's a very small group of people participating in a conversation in which only they know all the rules and use lots of jargon and shorthand , focusing primarily on process and in some sense dictating who's winning and losing without discussing what's at stake or the implications of either outcome. The assumption of the present model is that the "fans" are passive spectators who are watching all of this, entirely absorbed in the ongoing game. The problem is that the fans have turned off and the citizens are going home. The 1994 elections,- which are hailed as this huge mandate for the Contract With America, were actually elections in which more than half the Americans boycotted the process.

Funderburg: And what was the average turnout preceding those elections?

Guinier: Well, unfortunately, the average turnout has been very low in midterm elections. This was not unusual. About 38 or 39 percent of the eligible voters showed up. If we were to Step out of our xenophobia and become true democrats, with a small d, we would realize that we are not the premier democracy and that we have a lot to learn from other democracies around the world, where twice as many citizens compared to the United States participate in elections.

Funderburg: For example?

Guinier: Sweden. A number of the Scandinavian countries have larger voter participation rates. South Africa! In part, this has to do with the election rules: Ours are structured in an adversarial, winner-take-all fashion. But it also has to do with the way in which we conduct debate prior to the election. And that's where Commonplace is trying to intervene.

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