Lani Guinier is best known as the first African-American woman to make tenure at the prestigious Harvard Law School. Today, Ms. Guinier is the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at the institution, and has devoted much of her career to a variety of causes and how they relate with the laws of the land. But she is also remembered for the 1993 controversy that derailed her nomination to a high-ranking federal position.
Guinier was born April 19, 1950 in New York City to a Black Panamanian father, Ewart Guinier, who was raised in Jamaica, and a White Jewish mother, Eugenia Paprin. Mr. Guinier was one of the first two Black students admitted into Harvard College in 1929. He eventually had to drop out of the school, but returned there as a professor in the late ’60’s.
Guinier graduated from Radcliffe College in 1971, and Yale Law School. She was a clerk for Detroit civil rights hero and United States Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit Senior Judge Damon Keith. Guinier also worked as an assistant to Drew S. Days III, the first African-American Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division during President Jimmy Carter’s administration.
Guinier says she knew she wanted to to become a civil rights lawyer from the age of 12 after she watched NAACP Legal Defense fund lawyer Constance Baker Motley escort James Meredith into the University of Mississippi on television.
In 1981, Guinier followed in Motley’s footsteps, becoming an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) and eventually heading the NAACP’s Voting Rights Division.
Despite her stellar career, Guinier became the center of controversy when former president Bill Clinton nominated her for the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in 1993. Some of Guinier’s past writings and opinions about voting districts and Blacks came under attack by conservative critics.
Clinton eventually withdrew the nomination on the advice of Carol Mosley-Braun, Ted Kennedy and others but the move was viewed harshly in progressive circles who felt Guinier was unfairly targeted.
Guinier was a professor of the University of Pennsylvania Law School from 1988 until joining Harvard’s faculty in 1998/ Guinier’s academic focus includes areas such as race and gender, voting rights, civil rights, college admissions, and affirmative action.
Guinier is also the author of five books, including her latest title, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in a Democracy released at the top of the year.