Lani Guinier

We may have lost the presence of Lani Guinier due to Alzheimer at age 71 (January 7, 2022) but her legacy as a legal theorist, civil rights attorney and professor of law impact will be felt for generations. Born in 1950 to a civil rights activist Jewish mother and lawyer, union organizer father of Jamaica descent, who grew up in Panama and was valedictorian at a Boston high school. With mixed parents, who found love in Hawaii, married during a time where it was illegal in most states. Her parents settled in Manhattan. Loni believed she was more discriminated against than her parents particularly by her mother’s relatives based on how she was treated at the unforgettable tender age of four. Lani was 12 years old when she decided to follow in the footsteps of civil rights attorney Constance Baker Motley, after seeing her escort James Meredith the first black man to integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962 . Motley, a 1945 Columbia University Graduate, was the NAACP Legal Defense Fund litigator in securing entry of the well qualified Meredith acceptance into ole’ Miss’ and later went on to become the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge, and a mentor to Lani Guinier.

It was her father’s experience of becoming a dejected Harvard student in 1929 because he was admitted (without photo and based on merit) as the second black student (the quota was one at the time) the most ever admitted in one year! By the grace of Ralph Bunche (a hero for Justice and nobel peace prize winner) pointed him to a place on campus where he was accepted.  He left Harvard due to limited resources and joined the military during World War II. He later became a professor at Harvard having finished his education at City College in New York.  Lani attended Radcliffe (71’), the woman’s side of Harvard as an undergraduate. Her time at Yale Law School (74’) helped shape her awareness about learning styles when everyone was addressed as ‘gentlemen’ and women, as women, were not encouraged to speak up. Lani critiqued this experience as ‘one size fits all pedagogy’ that ‘marginalizes women and minorities in her 1997 book Becoming Gentlemen: Women, Law School, and Institutional Change

Lani Guinier professional career experience began while at Yale. She interned summers at the law office of Julius Chambers, in North Carolina, who was the third Director-Counsel to their first female to also hold that position, Elaine Jones of Alabama, at the Legal Defense Fund. Lani credits these two internships as ‘a connection to power of local people.’ Lani as Yale graduate included clerking for US Court of Appeals and for Honorable Damon J. Keith of the US District Court Eastern Division Michigan.  She worked in the Carter Administration as assistant to Assistant Attorney General Civil Rights Division and at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) on voting rights projects. Her educational, governmental, and legal experiences shaped a brilliant legal mind to innovate ‘critical thinking’ teaching methods, which fostered student engagement, mentoring and questioning barriers to full participation and achievement. Her work focused on the struggle of women and minority students performance in higher education. Lani Guinier loved her decade long teaching experience at the University of Pennsylvania (1988-1998) before being invited to become the first Black woman tenured professor at Harvard. Her reasoning was she would complete the family evolution of the ‘Harvard experience’ from her father to herself. Her son also became a Harvard Professor. 

The Clintons knew Lani Guinier from their time at Yale Law School. President Bill Clinton, in 1993, nominated Ms. Guinier to become the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Lani had fought for a 25 year extension to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 under Ronald Reagan during her tenure with LDF in 1982. Clinton did not understand her argument for Voting Rights after attempting to digest her recommended citation from the Repository at the University of Michigan Law . He instead used this complex document of scholarly and theoretical intent to withdraw her nomination without a hearing. Clinton called Lani and told her what his intentions after she sustained many unfounded and unrecognizable attacks from those opposing her nomination. Even though Carol Moseley Braun was (first black woman) senator at the time, she and Ted Kennedy recommended withdrawing Guinier’s name for consideration due to low support. Clinton waited for Lani’s answer to which she replied ‘okay’ followed by silence, she hung up the phone. President Clinton called back saying she hung up, to which she replied ‘I thought the conversation was finished.’ This push, attack, shutdown only propelled Lani’s voice, into the limelight. With a much larger platform, she wrote an autobiography about that experience in her book Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice (1998). Her next invitation would come from Harvard Law as their first black woman tenured professor. 

The timeliness and importance of her work on democracy and voting rights as an influential professor is best reflected in what is happening these last two weeks of January 2022.  The Arizona Democratic Party has censured Senator Sinema as a result of her siding with Republicans in a vote against the John Lewis Voter Rights Advancement Act. With many of her constituents affected, Voto Latina, launches ‘Adios Sinema’ campaign as a movement to remove the Arizona Senator from office.  Many groups including ‘indivisible’ and black groups have joined forces, as the democratic voter base, to ensure she is not re-elected. This is exactly what Lani Guinier argues as step 2 in her recommended citation at the University of Michigan based on the civil rights movement strategy ‘voting was a strategic means to engage black voters in meaningful election for effective representation and policy responsiveness.’ Their reaction are a direct response to Senator Sinema’s failure as their elected representative to fully respect and gurantee her constituent base have unimpeded access to the ballot box. 

Lani Guinier was not on the front page news, January 25, 2022 yet a subject near and dear to her regarding SAT tests were! ‘This year more than 76% of all four year colleges and universities won’t mandate an entrance exam score for admissions, according to FairTest, a non-profit that advocates for a more limited use of standardized tests,’ according to an article in the ‘Wall Street Journal Education section titled ‘SAT to Go Digital’ by Douglas Belkin. Ms Guinier since 2005 and before have critiqued issues surrounding fairness in education based on her experience as a student and professor. In an interview with PBS Lani argues in depth from her research and writings the flaws in the SAT or higher education entry exams as a poor indicator of performance in higher education. This highlights her teaching methods which defy limitations on performance due to test scores. Guinier explains when it is not diagnostic (useful to teacher or student) then it fails to determine the true potential of students. She pointed to a Ford Foundation study from a national survey on purpose of higher education from various groups where a large segment thought it was ‘to prepare people to work and play well,…together with others in a diverse society, not just a diverse work force.’ She discusses her ‘canary in the mine’ theory as a symbol of our ‘testocracy’ is poisoning the atmosphere for potential. 

Lani Guinier was a prolific writer of not just books but articles and scholarly legal papers ensuring her life’s work for justice, equality, empowerment and democracy would not be lost for generations to come. She can be easily found in social media search engines and well represented in educational circles by reputable institutions as she was given honorary degrees across the country.  Lani also received teacher awards for her outstanding class work at U of Penn and Harvard Law School packed classes. She was a mentor to Sherrilyn Ifill, recent head of Civil Rights at the Legal Defense Fund. Lani Guinier remains a role model for her students as well as some of us who come across her contributions when seeking critical thoughts about what this democracy must do to become ‘a more perfect union’. I am grateful to learn about the life works of Lani Guinier and trust she will continued to be recognized as one of our greatest thinkers for advancing the potential of this country’s citizenship and promised participation in its democracy. 

Author and artist Lillian L. Thompson for ‘Advocate and Recognize Global Afro Women’ January 26, 2022.