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Lani Guinier

Lani Guinier

Lani Guinier (; born April 19, 1950) is an American civil rights theorist; she is the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman of color appointed to a tenured professorship at that institution.[1] Guinier's work includes professional responsibilities of public lawyers, the relationship between democracy and the law, the role of race and gender in the political process, college admissions, and affirmative action.


  • Early life and career 1
  • Nomination for Assistant Attorney General 2
  • Civil rights theories 3
    • Alternative voting systems 3.1
    • Revising affirmative action 3.2
  • Academic career 4
    • Teaching 4.1
    • Publications 4.2
  • Honors 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Early life and career

Born in New York City, Guinier is the daughter of a white Jewish mother, Eugenia Paprin, and Ewart Guinier, a black Panamanian-born and Jamaican-raised scholar who was one of two blacks admitted to Harvard College in 1929. Ewart Guinier was, however, not given financial aid nor was he allowed to live in the dormitories on the purported grounds that he had failed to submit a photograph with his application.[2] After dropping out of Harvard College in 1931 because he could not afford it, he ultimately returned to Harvard as a professor and chair of the Afro-American Studies Department in 1969.

Guinier has said that she wanted to be a civil rights lawyer since she was twelve years old, after she watched on television as Constance Baker Motley helped escort the first black American, James Meredith, to enroll in the University of Mississippi.[3] After graduating third in her class from Andrew Jackson High School, Guinier graduated from Radcliffe College in 1971 and Yale Law School in 1974. She clerked for Judge Damon Keith, then served as special assistant to Assistant Attorney General Drew S. Days in the Civil Rights Division during the Carter Administration.[4] In 1981, after Ronald Reagan took office, she joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) as an assistant counsel, eventually becoming head of its Voting Rights project.[3]

Nomination for Assistant Attorney General

Guinier is probably best known as President Bill Clinton's nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in April 1993.[5][6][7]

President Clinton withdrew his nomination in June 1993, following a wave of negative press, negative press which was brought on by her controversial writings, some of which even Clinton himself called "anti-democratic" and "very difficult to defend".[8]

Conservative journalists, as well as [11]

Some journalists also alleged that Guinier's writings indicated that she supported the shaping of electoral districts to ensure a black majority, a process known as "race-conscious districting." One New York Times opinion piece claimed that Guinier was in favor of "segregating black voters in black-majority districts,". Guinier was portrayed as a racial polarizer who believed—in the words of

In the face of the negative media attention, many Democratic Senators, including David Pryor of Arkansas, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois (the only African-American serving in the Senate at that time)[12] informed President Clinton that her interviews with senators were going poorly and urged him to withdraw Guinier's nomination.[13]

President Clinton took the senators' advice and withdrew Guinier's nomination on June 4, 1993. He stated that Guinier's writings "clearly lend themselves to interpretations that do not represent the views I expressed on civil rights during the [presidential] campaign."[14] Guinier, for her part, acknowledged that her writings were often "unclear and subject to vastly different interpretations," but believed that the political attacks had distorted and caricatured her academic philosophies.[14] William T. Coleman Jr., who had served as Secretary of Transportation under President Gerald Ford, wrote that the withdrawal was "a grave [loss], both for President Clinton and the country. The President's yanking of the nomination, caving in to shrill, unsubstantiated attacks, was not only unfair, but some would say political cowardice."[15]

Civil rights theories

Alternative voting systems

In her publications, Guinier has suggested various ideas to strengthen minority groups' voting power, and rectify what she characterizes as an unfair voting system, not just for racial minorities, but for all numerical minority groups, including fundamentalist Christians, the Amish, or in states such as Alabama, Democrats. Guinier has also stated that she does not advocate any single procedural rule, but rather that all alternatives be considered in the context of litigation "after the court finds a legal violation."[16]

Some of the ideas she considers are:

  • cumulative voting, a system in which each voter has "the same number of votes as there are seats or options to vote for, and they can then distribute their votes in any combination to reflect their preferences"--a system often used on corporate boards in 30 states, as well as by school boards and county commissions
  • multi-member "superdistricts", a strategy which "modifies winner-take-all majority rule to require that something more than a bare majority of voters must approve or concur before action is taken."

Revising affirmative action

Since 2001, Guinier has been active in civil rights in higher education, coining the term "confirmative action" to reconceptualize issues of diversity, fairness, and affirmative action. The process of confirmative action, she says, "ties diversity to the admissions criteria for all students, whatever their race, gender, or ethnic background—including people of color, working-class whites, and even children of privilege".[17]

Because public and private institutions of higher learning are almost all to some extent publicly funded (i.e., federal student loans and research grants), Guinier has argued that the nation has a vested interest in seeing that all students have access to higher education and that these graduates "contribute as leaders in our democratic polity". By linking diversity to merit, Guinier thereby seeks to argue that preferential treatment of minority students "confirms the public character and democratic missions of higher-education institutions. Diversity becomes relevant not only to the college's admissions process but also to its students' educational experiences and to what its graduates actually contribute to American society." [18]

Academic career


Guinier was Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School for ten years, before joining Harvard Law School in 1998. She regularly lectures at various other law schools and universities including Yale, Stanford, New York University (NYU), UT Austin, Berkeley, UCLA, Rice, University of Chicago. In 2007 she was a visiting professor at Columbia Law School, and in 2009 she was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.


Guinier has authored over two dozen law review articles,[19] as well as five books:

  • The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in a Democracy (forthcoming Beacon Press February 2015)
  • The Miner's Canary: Rethinking Race and Power (2002) (co-authored with Gerald Torres)
  • Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice (Simon and Schuster: 1998)
  • Becoming Gentlemen: Women, Law Schools and Institutional Change (1997) (with co-authors Michelle Fine and Jane Balin)
  • The Tyranny of the Majority (Free Press: 1994)


Guinier has been honored with the Champion of Democracy Award from the National Women's Political Caucus; the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award from the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession; and the Rosa Parks Award from the American Association of Affirmative Action. She was also awarded the 1994 Harvey Levin Teaching Award at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the 2002 Sacks-Freund Award for Teaching Excellence from Harvard Law School. In 2015 she was awarded the "Deborah W. Meier Hero in Education Award" from Fairtest.

She has received ten honorary degrees,[1] from schools including Smith College, Spelman College, Swarthmore College, and the University of the District of Columbia. In 2007 she delivered the Yale Law School Fowler Harper Lecture, entitled "The Political Representative as Powerful Stranger: Challenges for Democracy."


  1. ^ a b Harvard Law School - Lani Guinier biography
  2. ^ Guinier, Lani (March 7, 2003) [1998]. Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice.  
  3. ^ a b "Balancing Race and Gender: LDF Women Pioneers", The Defenders Online, March 31, 2009
  4. ^ "Lani Guinier, CV"
  5. ^ "Reno Completes Most of Lineup At Justice Dept.", New York Times, April 30, 1993
  6. ^ See the photograph from 1993: e.g., /articles/images/thumb/c/c0/Guinier.1993 ...
  7. ^ Kantor, Jodi (July 30, 2008). "Teaching Law, Testing Ideas, Obama Stood Slightly Apart". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-10-27. 
  8. ^ "Clinton Dumps Nominee", Chicago Tribune, June 04, 1993
  9. ^ Bolick, Clinton (1993) "Clinton's Quota Queens", Wall Street Journal op-ed, April 30, 1993.
  10. ^ FAIR website
  11. ^ "Lani Guinier - 'Quota Queen or Misquoted Queen?'", FAIR, July/August 1993
  12. ^ Clinton, William Jefferson (2004). My Life.  
  13. ^ Leff, Laurel (1993), "From legal scholar to quota queen: what happens when politics pulls the press into the groves of academe", Columbia Journalism Review 32:3 (Sept-Oct 1993)
  14. ^ a b David G. Savage (1993-06-05). "Guinier's Ideas Viewed as Largely Theoretical : Nominee: In her 'academic' article on voting rights, the conclusions she reaches appear to be tentative".  
  15. ^ Notable Quotes for 1993
  16. ^ (1994:14)
  17. ^ Guinier (2001), "Colleges Should Take 'Confirmative Action' in Admissions", Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved on 28 February 2011.
  18. ^ Guinier (2001), "Colleges Should Take 'Confirmative Action' in Admissions", Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved on 9 December 2008.
  19. ^ Harvard Law School - Lani Guinier publications

External links

  • Guinier's publications at Harvard's website
  • Online links to various articles Substantial list of Guinier's publications
  • Miner's Canary project
  • Racetalks Initiative
  • Interview with Lani Guinier in Dollars & Sense magazine
  • Lani Guinier at the Internet Movie Database
  • Appearances on C-SPAN
    • , June 26, 1994.The Tyranny of the Majority interview with Guinier on Booknotes
    • interview with Guinier, March 1, 2015In Depth
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