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The Miner's Canary

What if we could find a new kind of power, one that changes the rules, gives us new stories, and allows everyone to win?
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Lani Guinier
Lani Guinier
Race, for the two of us, is like the minder's canary.  Miners often carried a canary into the mine alongside them. The canary's more fragile respiratory system would cause it to collapse from noxious gases long before humans were affected, thus alerting the miners to danger. The canary's distress signaled that it was time to get out of the mine because the air was becoming too poisonous to breathe.
Gerald Torres photo by University of
Texas at Austin
Gerald Torres photo by University of Texas at Austin

Those who are racially marginalized are like the miner's canary: Their distress is the first sign of a danger that threatens us all. We watch the canary, seeking to improve the air quality in the mines, and to reconnect individual experiences to democratic faith, to social critique, and to meaningful action that improves the lives of everyone in the mine. To produce meaningful change, however, we must also understand power and its uses...


The article in YES! was adapted by permission of the publisher from The Miner's Canary, by Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Copyright ©2002 by Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres.

However, we do not have the rights to put the full article on the web. To read the complete article, you will need to obtain a print version of the winter 2003 issue YES! Or, we strongly recommend reading the book.

Lani Guinier is Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. She was nominated in 1993 by President Clinton to be the first black woman to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Clinton dropped her nomination when she was attacked by conservatives for her perspectives on democracy, voting, and giving voice to minorities.

Gerald Torres is H.O. Head Centennial Professor in Real Property Law, University of Texas Law School.

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