The voting rights legacy of Lani Guinier

OPINION: The brilliant legal scholar was so much more than her failed nomination to be assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice's civil rights division.

Lani Guinier theGrio
Harvard Law School professor Lani Guinier is shown in her office viewing a piece of mail which is made of wood and was sent to her as a thank you note for a speaking engagement in Wilmington, Del. two years ago. (Photo by John Bohn/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The academic and legal world lost a brilliant mind and an amazing human being when longtime Black scholar and Harvard professor Lani Guinier died on Friday.

Carol “Lani” Guinier was the daughter of the first chairman of Harvard University’s then-Department of Afro-American Studies, Ewart Guinier. He had a huge impact on his daughter, and she followed in his footsteps as a trailblazer in her own right. She became the first Black woman to earn tenure at Harvard Law School and radically reimagined how voting rights and affirmative action could help make America a true democracy.

This is what I wish all of the headlines had led with. Instead, they all focused on Guinier’s “failed nomination” before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1993 to be an assistant attorney general for civil rights. She was so much more than a failed nomination. She was, as one colleague described after her passing, “Her scholarship changed our understanding of democracy—of why and how the voices of the historically underrepresented must be heard and what it takes to have a meaningful right to vote,” said John F. Manning ’85, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. 

“Lani devoted her life to justice, equality, empowerment, and democracy and made the world better as a result,” he continued. “Her voice, her wisdom, her integrity, her bravery, her caring for others, her imagination and rigorous thinking, and her unerring sense of justice will inspire those who knew her and those who come to know of her life and legacy in the years to come.”

But for me, what best summed up Guinier’s life and her scholarship was a February 2018 celebration event in her honor at Harvard Law School. Columbia Law School Professor Susan Sturm reminded the audience that Guinier often used a phrase when prodding her students into pushing harder and thinking deeper: “My problem is, if you stop there….” What a great question. I heard her say those words more than once. I had the great privilege of meeting her when she was a tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1990 when I was looking and interviewing at law schools. 

She was one of the professors I met, and we sat and talked in the Penn library. It was one of the most powerful conversations of my life. I was a young Republican woman of color, an anomaly in my day. I hailed from across the river from blue-collar roots in the Philadelphia suburbs of South Jersey. So talking with her, a woman who looked like me, was like speaking with a legal goddess who sat at the top of the legal profession’s Mt. Olympus.

Lani Guinier speaks at the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 13, 1994, in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi, File)

If only we had more professors and more politicians who dared to push us to dig deeper and to go beyond our comfort zones. That is what she was doing when she proposed “proportional representation” and other scholarly, pro-democracy reforms to help the underrepresented and disenfranchised. 

What I want us to focus on is what made her so amazing. Guinier was the first woman of color to be given tenure at Harvard Law School in 1998. In a speech in 1998 at Harvard, Guinier talked about her father, saying, “he taught me to speak in my own words.” And speak she did. Unafraid. With passion and elegance, which often drew the ire of powerful white men in academia and politics alike. 

It all came to a head when President Bill Clinton nominated Guinier, a Yale Law School classmate and heralded scholar who had become a powerful and well-respected civil rights attorney, to head the civil rights division at the Department of Justice in 1993. That ill-fated nomination sadly defined her career after she was regrettably rejected by Senate Republicans who accused her of pushing racial quotas on affirmative action and said her views on voting rights were too extreme and radical (Clinton would withdraw her name two months after nominating her). The facts are that Guinier had worked in the civil rights division during the Carter administration before helping earn an extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and becoming head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s voting rights project. 

She was more than qualified. But she was very vocal about her opposition to the Reagan years and how she felt Reagan’s civil rights agenda and his assistant AG for civil rights, William Bradford Reynolds, had done great damage to civil rights progress. Reynolds was a point man for the Reagan administration’s so-called “counter-revolution on civil rights“—a phrase she coined. Reagan, a kinder precursor to Trump, bet on a political calculation that many white Americans, seething over issues like affirmative action, thought things had gone too far after the Carter years. Sound familiar?

Guinier’s nomination in April 1993 was seen as groundbreaking. Glass-ceiling shattering. Yet, Guinier faced increased scrutiny and opposition over her academic writings, which explored concepts of quotas in nominations, equitable power within legislative bodies and proportional representation electoral systems. In direct contrast to their content, these writings earned her the labels of “quota queen,” “anti-democratic,” “Looney Lani,” “a reverse racist,” “a madwoman” and “breathtakingly radical” from her political opponents. Tragically, the labels worked. (Sound familiar? Think Neera Tandeen, who was nominated by Biden for Office of Management and Budget director but withdrew her name after opposition from Republicans and some Democrats).

None of how they caricatured Professor Guinier was true, of course. But like most Black women, Guinier caught hell for using her voice and expressing her brilliant opinions. She was a pioneer, a warrior for justice and a thoughtful advocate of moving the democratic process forward responsibly in an era long gone by. Her not being installed as the assistant AG for civil rights was a real setback. That one of her mentees, Kristen Clarke, holds the same office some 28 years later is bittersweet. As we lay her to rest, I hope we will focus more on all the outstanding scholarship she left us versus the ill-fated office that she left behind.

Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor for theGrio. Nelson is a TV commentator and is the author of “The Woman Code: Powerful Keys to Unlock,” “Black Women Redefined.”

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