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Legal pioneer, scholar Lani Guinier dies at 71

Tori Bedford
Legal pioneer, scholar Lani Guinier dies at 71
Lani Guinier began teaching at Harvard Law School in 1993 and joined the faculty in 1998. PHOTO: STEVEN RUBIN

Lani Guinier, a civil rights lawyer, scholar and the first Black woman to be appointed to tenured professorship at Harvard Law School, died Friday at an assisted living facility in Cambridge, Mass., at the age of 71. Her legacy — as a monumental presence in the legal world and a voice against racial discrimination — lives on in the people she inspired and the policy changes she helped shape during her career.

“She was so insightful. She had this brilliant mind, and she was always forward-thinking on how to make ours a better society, how to make ours a better democracy,” Margaret Marshall, the first female Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, told GBH News. “She was a brilliant scholar, way ahead of her time. And also the most warm, generous, fun-loving, embracing person.”

As a professor, Guinier inspired her students to consider the power of their own lived experiences and the importance of applying those perspectives as leaders, according to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who studied under Guinier at Harvard Law School in 2010.

“Professor Lani Guinier changed my life. She really opened my eyes to how much impact we can have just from the mere fact of recognizing how interconnected we are and that we have the power collectively to shift our systems,” Wu told GBH News. “I, like generations of students before and after me, are part of her legacy of really investing in young people and making sure each and every one of us had the chance to deeply reflect and step into our own impact.”

Guinier became the first woman of color appointed to a tenured professorship at Harvard Law School when she joined the faculty in 1998. She came from the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania’s law school, where she taught for a decade. She had previously led the voting rights project at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 1980s and served during President Jimmy Carter’s administration in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which she was later nominated to lead. She died due to complications with Alzheimer’s disease, according to her cousin, Sherrie Russell-Brown.

“I have always wanted to be a civil rights lawyer. This lifelong ambition is based on a deep-seated commitment to democratic fair play — to playing by the rules as long as the rules are fair. When the rules seem unfair, I have worked to change them, not subvert them,” Guinier wrote in her 1994 book, “Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Fairness in Representative Democracy.”

Guinier joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1981, eventually becoming head of its Voting Rights Project. At the LDF, Guinier won 31 of the 32 cases she tried, according to the NAACP, and worked on the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982. She was renowned for her scholarship at Harvard, including “The Tyranny of the Meritocracy,” “The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy,” “Lift Every Voice” and “Becoming Gentlemen: Women, Law School, and Institutional Change.”

President Bill Clinton nominated Guinier to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in 1993, but he withdrew her nomination just two months later after conservative critics called her views “extreme” and “hostile” and labeled her “the quota queen.” Though Guinier said she had been mischaracterized, Clinton said he hadn’t read her academic writing before nominating her and wouldn’t have done so if he had, describing her views as “anti-democratic” and “very difficult to defend.”

“She was a target of just the most evil right-wing voices, and yet she never cracked. She just held her head high with the kind of elegance and grace that I recall decades later being so impressed by,” Marshall told GBH News. “She rejected the criticism that was leveled against her, and she never apologized, never went back and said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t understand the full implications of what I was writing.’ In other words, she wasn’t arrogant. She just knew what her values were.”

Guinier described enduring “the personal humiliation of being vilified as a madwoman with strange hair — you know what that means — a strange name and strange ideas, ideas like democracy, freedom and fairness that mean all people must be equally represented in our political process,” in an NAACP address one month after her nomination was retracted. “But lest any of you feel sorry for me, according to press reports the president still loves me. He just won’t give me a job.”

Guinier’s views have become more mainstream in recent years, including anti-bias measures, implicit bias training and the role of representation as more than just putting Black faces in positions of leadership.

“Black electoral success theory romanticizes Black elected officials as empowerment role models. By ignoring problems of tokenism and false consciousness, the theory promotes Black electoral success in order to legitimize the ideology of ‘equality of opportunity,’” Guinier wrote in a controversial article from 1991, calling on Black elected officials to demonstrate solidarity with the Black community. “Even in jurisdictions with proportionate Black representation, Black electoral success has neither mobilized the Black community nor realized the promised community-based reforms.”

Boston City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune says having Guinier as a professor at Harvard Law School in 2013 shaped the ways she approaches leadership as an elected official and as a Black woman in politics.

“It’s one thing to have a professor who’s studied voting rights and who has thought about it. It’s another thing to have a professor who, as a Black woman, has faced the challenges of being historically excluded and really is trying to think outside of the box about what representation should look like, what it could look like and how we sort of bind ourselves to these systems even when they’re imperfect,” Louijeune told GBH News. “She taught me how to be imaginative about creating structures that give voices to people who have been historically excluded.”

As the first woman of color elected mayor of Boston, Wu says she continues to apply lessons from Guinier into the ways she approaches policy-making and connecting with communities across the city.

“Our public services that we offer, the programs and supports and policies that we’re implementing, often aren’t meeting people where they are, and are often forcing people to leave behind parts of themselves and their lived experiences and not reaching all parts of our community,” Wu told GBH News. “When we think about that from all directions and really understand how intersectional our challenges are and our communities are, it actually can deliver the changes that we need.”

NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund head Sherrilyn Ifill called Guinier “my mentor” and a “scholar of uncompromising brilliance” in a tweet on Friday.

“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. It also transformed our understanding of the educational system and what we must do to create opportunities for all members of our diverse society to learn, grow, and thrive in school and beyond,” Manning, the Harvard law dean, said in a message to the Harvard community.

Penn Law Dean Emeritus Colin Diver, whose time as dean overlapped with Guinier’s time on the faculty, told the Associated Press she “pushed the envelope in many important and constructive ways: advocating for alternative voting methods, such as cumulative voting, questioning the implicit expectations of law school faculty that female students behave like ‘gentlemen,’ or proposing alternative methods for evaluating and selecting applicants to the Law School.”

Carol Lani Guinier was born April 19, 1950, in New York City. Her father, Ewart Guinier, became the first chairman of Harvard University’s Department of Afro-American Studies. Her mother, Eugenia “Genii” Paprin Guinier, became a civil rights activist. The couple — he was Black and she was white and Jewish — was married at a time when it was still illegal for interracial couples to marry in many states.

“She was a woman who came from two groups of people who often have faced incredible obstacles,” Louijeune told GBH News. “It takes a lot of courage to do that, to fight for ideas that may not be mainstream ideas, but you know you’re doing it for the right reasons.”

Lani Guinier, who graduated from Harvard’s Radcliffe College, is survived by her husband, Nolan Bowie, and son, Nikolas Bowie, also a Harvard Law School professor, as well as her stepdaughter, daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

“My mom deeply believed in democracy, yet she thought it can work only if power is shared, not monopolized. That insight informed everything she did, from treating generations of students as peers to challenging hierarchies wherever she found them. I miss her terribly,” her son wrote in an email.

“Even if people may not know her name, her legacy is often seen on a ballot or on the outcome of the ballot,” Louijeune told GBH News. “And in her students, in the work of the Legal Defense Fund and her son, her legacy truly, truly endures.”

Tori Bedford is a reporter at GBH News. She primarily covers Dorchester and the surrounding neighborhoods. The Associated Press contributed reporting to this article.

Lani Guinier