Death of Lawyer and Civil Rights Advocate Carol Lani Guinier

January 7, 2022

Legal scholar Lani Guinier, at the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington, 1993. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Carol Lani Guinier was an American professor, litigator, and civil rights advocate. She was the first woman of color to become a tenured professor at Harvard Law School, and her scholarship concerns itself primarily with the role of race and gender in legislation and the political process.

Guinier was born on April 19, 1950, in New York City, to parents Eugenia Paprin, a Jewish Civil Rights activist, and Ewart Guinier, one of two black students accepted to Harvard in 1929 and, later, the first chair of the university’s Africana Studies department. Guinier claims she decided her future career path at age twelve after watching Judge Constance Baker Motley escort James Meredith from court after his racial discrimination lawsuit against the University of Mississippi.

Guinier received her B.A. from Harvard University’s Radcliffe College in 1971 and her J.D. from Yale Law School in 1974. She worked in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and, in 1981, was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar Association. During Reagan’s presidency, Guinier became an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, winning all but one of the cases she litigated during that time. The following year, she successfully assisted in extending the Voting Rights Act which amended the original act by claiming the criminality of voting practices that have “discriminatory effects.”

In April of 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Guinier to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Her nomination prompted immediate racist backlash from conservative Republican politicians and journalists. Guinier was also criticized for her alleged support for “race-conscious districting.” Soon after, Clinton withdrew Guinier’s nomination.

Much of Guinier’s political theory addressed the discriminatory practices present in the US voting system. She proposed strategies for uplifting minorities and reinforcing their voting power. She also worked on revising affirmative action, coining the term “confirmative action” as a means of reframing contentious debates about race-conscious admissions. Guinier claimed that confirmative action “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.”

In 1989, Guinier became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she began developing theories about effective reform for the country’s voting system. After ten years at Penn, Guinier joined the faculty at Harvard Law School and became the first woman of color to be granted tenure at the university’s law school.

Guinier received many awards including Champion of Democracy Award from the National Women's Political Caucus; the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award from the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession; and the Rosa Parks Award from the American Association of Affirmative Action.

After struggling with Alzheimer’s disease for several years, Guinier passed away in Cambridge, Massachusetts on January 7, 2022, at 71 years old.

 

Sources:

“Lani Guinier.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, August 9, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lani_Guinier.  

Risen, Clay. “Lani Guinier, Legal Scholar at the Center of Controversy, Dies at 71.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Jan. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/07/us/politics/lani-guinier-dead.html

 “In Memoriam: Lani Guinier 1950 - 2022.” Harvard Law School, 10 Aug. 2022, https://hls.harvard.edu/today/in-memoriam-lani-guinier-1950-2022/.  

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Death of Lawyer and Civil Rights Advocate Carol Lani Guinier." (Viewed on May 22, 2024) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/jan/07/2022/death-lawyer-and-civil-rights-advocate-carol-lani-guinier>.