She Pushes All to Not Stop There

Most people who cross barriers of race, religion, sex, gender, or any other category discover not only that is it difficult to simply move into the position they were once denied, but that even those they thought had their backs will criticize. Activist and academic Lani Guinier learned that, but she has not let it keep her down.  

Photo credit to Harvard Law School

Photo credit to Harvard Law School

When Guinier was born on April 19, 1950, she joined a family of barrier breakers. Her mother, Eugenia "Genii" Paprin, was a Jewish woman who made the radical choice to let her heart lead her to marry a black man. Over time, Genii became a powerful civil rights activist, fully embracing the racial identity of her husband and their daughters. Guinier’s father was Ewart Guinier, who was a trade unionist, ran for political office, broke racial student barriers at Harvard, and went on to head that university’s Afro-American Studies program.

You might think that Guinier didn’t have a choice other than to become an activist, but she says that the law became her focus when she was 12 years old. It was 1962, and Guinier watched as Constance Baker Motley, the civil rights attorney, escorted James Meredith to class at the University of Mississippi after the Brown vs. the Board of Education case at the Supreme Court. The law called to Guinier, and she applied herself so that she graduated near the top of her 1000-student high school class. By 1974 she had a law degree from Yale.

Earning a law degree and getting hired or opening a legal firm are not the same thing, though. Guinier first clerked in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which oversees parts of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. Then she was a special assistant to the Assistant Attorney General of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Carter. With the election of Reagan, Guinier went to work in the NAACP and became the head of its Legal Defense Fund and then its Voting Rights Project.

Controversy changed the way Guinier practiced law. It is difficult to say what was more offensive -- her race, her gender, or the president who chose her -- but her barrier-breaking nomination to be the head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice in 1993 was short lived. Conservatives declared her dangerous because of her previous work, and instead of letting Guinier defend herself before Congress, President Clinton withdrew her name a few months later. Guinier turned from government and public organizations to academia.

However, instead of toning down her assessments of American society, academia allowed her to continue, arguably giving her more authority from which to speak and more access to other ideas to examine. According to her CV, at Harvard Guinier first joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned tenure in 1992. Next she took a full professorship at Harvard, where she is still the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law, Emerita. She has also held visiting professorships at several leading American universities.

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Guinier continues to speak out, not shying away from controversy, as evidenced by her publications. Some of her works are updates of previous texts, because for all of the progress we have made, many of the same challenges remain. Her books are written for the layperson so that all of us can have a bit more understanding of how race, law, and democracy interconnect. She challenges the basic structures of how things work by pointing out the inequalities and the ways that injustice is allowed to seep into changes we make even when we think we are making progress. That deep grasp of how difficult change truly is can be inspiring to some as well as terrifying to others. 

Lani Guinier continues to challenge her students, her colleagues, and the rest of us, to never settle, to never “stop there,” because equality is not reality yet.