Remembering Legal Scholar Lani Guinier

Scholars paused over the weekend to remember Lani Guinier, one of the nation’s foremost legal scholars on race and civil rights.

Guiner died on Friday at the age of 71.

A fierce proponent of affirmative action and diversity, Guiner was a trailblazing educator, scholar, civil rights lawyer whose research focused on voting rights.

“Lani Guiner’s career as a civil rights lawyer and the example she set as an advocate was instrumental to inspiring countless attorneys, including myself, to continue building on the path she trailblazed,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “She was not only an indefatigable leader in the hard-fought quest to perfect our democracy, but also a teacher of many who have gone on to do that work. I am privileged to count myself in that number and will always remember Professor Guiner as an icon and a great American.” Lani GuinerLani Guiner

Ifill credits Guiner with training her as a voting rights lawyer and setting the “example for me of our obligation to respect and elevate the voices of our clients in our work. She set the standard as an intellectual, a scholar, and a civil rights advocate.”

A former LDF litigator, Guiner was born in New York City on April 19, 1950, to activist parents—Eugenia Paprin and Ewart Guiner.

Guiner earned her bachelor’s degree from Radcliff College and her J.D. from Yale Law School. She later interned at LDF under the leadership of Elaine Jones, who was the organization’s first female Director-Counsel.

After law school, she held jobs in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and was later nominated in 1993 by Bill Clinton to serve as the Assistant Attorney General of Civil Rights. Following a wave of attacks by conservatives, Clinton later withdrew the nomination.

In 1988, Guinier joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania where she would teach for a decade before being joining Harvard Law School in 1998, becoming the school’s first Black woman to be granted tenure.

Attorney Amos Jones, who is also a professor of media law, was a student of hers. Guiner supervised his third-year paper. Jones was later hired to serve as Guiner’s research assistant.

"Lani Guinier was an inspiring teacher and a brilliant reformer," he said in an interview with Diverse. "I've adopted pedagogical techniques from her 'Law and the Political Process' class, especially political role playing, in my teaching, and students love them. The world has lost a great promoter of fairly reflective democracy."

A prolific author, Guiner wrote a number of books including The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America, and The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy, with Gerald Torres, a professor at Yale Law School. 

During a 2016 panel held at the National Action Network convention in New York City, Guiner—who was the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard University before she retired—told moderator Dr. Jamal Watson that when she was in fourth grade in Queens, New York, she encountered a white teacher, Mrs. Buxton, who seemed to resent her very presence in the class, as Guinier had skipped third grade. This did not dissuade her from being inquisitive, asking probing questions and demanding responses. When a group of Black students joined the class, she also learned her role was getting others to learn and explore new ideas.

“I would challenge Mrs. Buxton and give her details that I thought she was overlooking, such as asking about George Washington’s slaves,” Guinier said during the Q&A with Watson. “That was the beginning of my realizing that if I wanted to be a good citizen, I needed to respond to Mrs. Buxton and, in the process, enable some of the students in the class to learn things that they hadn’t been thinking about.

“What I learned in fourth grade I think is very relevant to what the question is on the table here,” she added. “We need to talk to each other, but we also need to read what other people are writing. We need to be able to interpret it, but also to critique it if we don’t agree with it. Be engaged with the ideas so that we feel confident that when we’re making a speech or when we engaged in a conversation that there’s merit to what we are saying.”

Walter Hudson can be reached at whudson@diverseeducation.com