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Funderburg: So Commonplace is just all about you! It's all about that darn nomination, isn't it? [Both laugh.]
Guinier: I would say that experience, without denying the personal effect, was confirming of views and fears and skepticisms I had well before that. I had been a litigator for years with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and one reason I left is that I was frustrated with how litigation tended to polarize Civil Rights issues. Within that polarized model, we were losing our sense of genuine social transformation and were becoming defenders or enforcers of particular positions. So this is an evolving idea. It did not hatch solely in the two months that I was experiencing my public nightmare.
Funderburg: I have to admit that I'm a little skeptical about your project. I'd say, as Comel West often does in response to people who ask if he's optimistic about the future: "I'm not optimistic, but I'm hopeful." I wonder, for example, who you're going to get to participate in these conversations that haven't existed before.
Guinier: You're right that, on the one hand, as Americans we are attracted to something new and innovative; but as Americans we are also very resistant where the change means us. But I am actually optimistic, not just hopeful. I believe that the glass is half-full, but I am committed to filling the rest of the glass, to changing the future in a way that is more inclusive and is consistent with basic fundamental values: mutual respect, cooperation, equal opportunity, and fairness.
I spoke with a gentleman who recited to me a study from Boston in which they asked parents: What do you want for your kids? And the first thing that all of these parents-who crossed ethnic and class lines- wanted their kids to do was to learn how to swim. The second thing the parents wanted their kids to do was to go to college or to do better than they had in terms of education. But the third thing they wanted their kids to learn was how to get along with people who are different, because it was a skill the parents did not have and wanted their kids to have. So that's one reason I'm optimistic. It's not the parents we may reach, but it may be the children
Other studies corroborate this. The National Conference of Christians and Jews did a study a year ago in which they exhumed stereotypes-Blacks having very hostile views about Asians, Latinos having hostile views about Blacks, Whites having hostile views about Asians, Blacks, and Latinos. But when the same people were asked, "Would you sit down with a member of the group you have just described in resistant or stereotyped ways to solve a local school problem or to collaborate about issues of crime or to talk about the common good?" 95 percent of the people said, "Yes."
Funderburg: Because the goal was a common interest?
Guinier: Because people want to do better, because they want America to be better, but they're not being given the opportunity to collaborate.
Another reason I'm optomistic is because of my son, who's in second grade. When I went for a parent-teacher conference, his teacher told me that they went around the room to mention what each of their parents did, and Nicholas's friend was very proud that his mother was the vice president of a bank. At this point Nicholas just burst out and said, "Well, why isn't she president?" If we plant the right seeds and if we provide deliberative space and an opportunity for people to really interact cooperatively, people will surprise us.
Funderburg: Can you give an example of what happens if that opportunity is provided?
Guinier: The New York City police used to have a height requirement. You had to be five-foot-seven or six feet tall. It was a height requirement that discriminated against women and women brought suit, and they not only opened up the opportunity to be police for other women but for Latino and for Asian men, and for short white men. You could say that this was an Affirmative Action program, but it wasn't just for women. It was really challenging the assumption that being six feet tall was somehow merit-based. The requirement treated everyone the same, it's true-you were six feet tall or you were not-but it was not necessarily a valid criterion for being a police officer.
In the process of talking about I learned that, when women went to resolve domestic violence cases, they turned out to be more effective than some of the six-feet-tall men because their approach was to try to defuse the situation, not to confront it. And then in terms of keeping housing projects safe, the women were more effective because their approach to the young men most likely to get into trouble was to mentor them, to treat them with respect, so the young men did not have to demand respect. In response, the young men checked their own behavior, because they didn't want to disappoint an adult who was showing interest in them and in their futures.
So it's a way of helping us reconceptualize police work, which again goes right back to the notion: When women were hired as police, did that mean we were getting lesser qualified women because they were not as tall, or did it mean we were getting differently qualified women? There are certainly instances where a tall and strapping young male police officer is quite effective, but that is not the only way to be a good police officer. So it's an opportunity to rethink the structure of the job in a way that not only provides the opportunity for more diverse people to do that job, to support their families, but it also makes the citizens better off, because they are being policed by a work force that is approaching the task in a pluralistic and adaptive fashion.
Funderburg:What are Commonplace's next steps?
Guinier: We were going to have a National Conversation on race in the fall, but we decided to do the focus groups then and to start more slowly so that we could approach the National Conversation with confidence in our methodology. Very few people are participating in the national conversation right now whether they are White, Black, Latino, middle-class, working-class, or under-class. The conversation is taking place within a very elite stratum of the society, and in some sense it is taking place among repeat players who often went to similar schools, live in very similar neighborhoods, and talk to each other all the time.
To cite one example, welfare mothers are not part of the conversation about welfare reform. I read a wonderful piece , an exception to this, in the New York Times. They interviewed a group of women who had been on welfare and formed a support group to reinforce each other to stay off welfare. They finally asked them, "What would you do to change welfare?" The women's response was that they would require everyone on welfare to come up with a plan as to how they're going to get off welfare. they said no one does that! Then they said they would have a review board that includes some former welfare recipients--to review the plans! Well that made a lot of sense to me, but I wouldn't have thought of it because I am not a part of the system. We don't ask the people who use the system. That's what Commonplace (now Racetalks Initiatives) is trying to do: to give those people, ordinary people, across race and class lines, not only the opportunity but the vehicle for having a public voice.
They have done studies asking Americans, "Who do you trust?" On the bottom of the list are journalists, politicians, and lawyers--the three groups most engaged in the conversation right now. And who do they trust? Other ordinary Americans. Those are the only people they don't think have an agenda.
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