Black Jewish History Month: Lani Guinier

Today in Black Jewish History Month, Lani Guinier.

How are YOU Jewish: Matrilineal

Lani Guinier is an American lawyer, scholar and civil rights activist. The first African-American woman tenured professor at Harvard Law School, 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, equity in college admissions, and affirmative action.

Born in New York City, Guinier is the daughter of a Jewish mother, Eugenia Paprin, and the Jamaican-born scholar Ewart Guinier, who also served as Harvard 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 graduating from Radcliffe College in 1971 and Yale Law School in 1974, she clerked for Judge Damon Keith then served as special assistant to then Assistant Attorney General Drew S. Days in the Civil Rights Division in the Carter Administration.  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.

Guinier is probably most well-known as President Bill Clinton’s nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in April 1993. A combination of political factors led to her nomination being withdrawn in June 1993. Others described her views as “anti-constitutional” because of her views on using proportional representation in local elections. In addition, Democratic Senators such as David Pryor of Arkansas and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts informed President Clinton that her interviews with Senators were going poorly and urged him to withdraw the nomination.

According to Clinton’s autobiography, Democratic Senator Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, the only African-American who was serving in the upper chamber at that time, also urged the President to withdraw Guinier’s nomination. President Clinton took the advice of these elected officials and withdrew her nomination, claiming he was unfamiliar with her writing and that he didn’t realize that she advocated pure racial quotas as opposed to affirmative action, as opponents had charged. The charge was false; Guinier had many times explicitly rejected the use of racial quotas in her law review articles.

Guinier’s theories were first presented in law-school publications. They were also aired in part with her 1994 publication, The Tyranny of the Majority. In this work and others, Guinier suggests various ideas to strengthen minority groups’ voting power, and rectify what is, according to her, an unfair voting system. She claims that she is referring not only to racial minorities, but any numerical minority group, such as fundamentalist Christians, the Amish, or in states such as Alabama, Republicans; she also states 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.”

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” is another 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.”

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”.

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.”

Guinier was Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School for 10 years, before being hired by 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, and others. 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’s publications include six books, 29 law review and journal articles. She has also written many newspaper editorials.

Her books are:

    * The Miner’s Canary: Rethinking Race and Power (2002)

    * Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice (Simon and Schuster: 1998)

    * The Tyranny of the Majority (Free Press: 1994)

    * Becoming Gentlemen: Women, Law Schools and Institutional Change, 1995).

This is Black Jewish History Month at Manishtana’s Musings.


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