Remembering Lani Guinier

As Rick posted yesterday, our colleague Lani Guinier has passed.

Lani was a voting rights scholar.  She was the first Black woman to serve as a tenured faculty member at Harvard Law School.  Her commitment to truth and ideas made her a political target in Washington, DC.  The significance of her visionary work has stood the test of time, particularly in this moment when the future of American multiracial democracy seems so tenuous.

When Bill Clinton nominated Lani to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in 1993, some Republicans dubbed her a “quota queen” due to her scholarship. This was an untrue, unfair, racialized, and gendered label, and illustrated the worst in elected officials practicing “politricks” rather than seriously engaging with ideas. Indeed, Lani’s proposal of cumulative voting was race-neutral and more inclusive of voters from communities of all political backgrounds (including conservative and rural voters) than the status quo (here’s a short essay from Lani explaining that “cumulative voting is more inclusive than winner-take-all-race conscious districting”). Cumulative voting has been used in various localities in several states (e.g., AL, IL, SD, TX) and in shareholder elections at companies like Hewlett-Packard, Sears, and Walgreens.

Rather than defend Lani and use the moment to educate the public about democracy, moderate Democrats backed away and President Clinton withdrew her nomination. It would be another 28 years before the first Black woman would be nominated and confirmed to lead the Civil Rights Division at DOJ-Kristen Clarke.

Lani, however, was so much more than this deliberative failure of our republic, and represented an amazing combination of traits. She was super smart, prolific, creative, and substantive. She was respectful and engaging while also strong and principled. She was committed to empowering community voices and listening to and lifting up others rather than self-promotion.

You can find Lani’s life chronicled in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, CNN, and many other outlets, and statements honoring her life from LDF’s Sherrilyn Ifill, NAACP’s Derrick Johnson, FairVote’s Rob Richie, and many others.

Personally, I benefited from Lani’s generosity when I was a fellow working to become a law professor. She allowed me to teach sessions of her voting rights class at Harvard Law School, and she read drafts of my scholarship and provided insightful feedback. She also consistently told me to smile more! 

Throughout my career as a professor and in leading the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Lani was always available, supportive, honest, and wonderful. 

We were both fortunate to have served as clerks for Judge Damon J. Keith, and I know that there’s great sadness throughout our entire family of Keith clerks and administrators.

Lani was an outstanding mentor and model to me and to many others, and her guidance shapes my work and life to this day.

We will miss her.

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