Lani Guinier
Stanford Humanities Center

Lani Guinier


Lani Guinier portrait

Lani Guinier is many things. She remains a practitioner of the law. She is an academic specialist engaged in research, scholarly publication and teaching. She is a public intellectual. She is an example of "une vie engagée."

We understand "une vie engagée" in the sense of self-conscious, responsible and deliberate choices that one makes in the social world and how one seeks to influence or shape that world. Guinier's engagement or commitment is clear in her pursuit of multiple audiences in multiple venues in multiple ways as vehicles for the arguments she brings to bear on matters of public policy and public conscience. This manifold of means connects the broad public aspects of her work with that of her specialized scholarly research and classroom teaching as well as her role as a civil rights litigator.

Such commitment is not inborn. In the epilogue of her book Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Fairness in Representative Democracy, Guinier states that "I have always wanted to be a civil rights lawyer." Her family life and early social encounters helped shape the choices she would make. Her father was a lawyer and union organizer, who also was African-American. Her mother was a public school teacher, who also was Jewish-American. The family resided in Manhattan and Queens. The effect of race on her father's education and career and in her youthful interactions in a neighborhood "in transition" demographically, and such events as her recollection as a 12-year old watching on television James Meredith's escorted entry at the University of Mississippi, were all shaping events in her life.[1]

Guinier went on to graduate from Radcliffe College in 1971 and from the Yale Law School in 1974. During the latter half of the 1970s she was Special Assistant to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Carter Administration, where she had substantial responsibility for successfully litigating two of the most significant reapportionment cases involving interpretation and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. In 1984 and 1985 she testified as Assistant Counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the nomination of William Bradford Reynolds as Associate Attorney General, and before the House Judiciary Committee on the Voting Rights Act and the effects of racially discriminatory runoff primaries and registration practices.[2]

By the time of the imbroglio in 1993 regarding Guinier's nomination to head the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (see biographical sources cited in note 1 below), she had attained the goal of being a civil rights attorney, with significant government service to her credit as well as seven and a half years at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. However, it was evident that litigating in the name of social justice, as well as writing a number of scholarly law review articles through 1993 that dealt with inherent structural inequalities of representation for minorities in the electoral system and how to overcome them, were not enough to bring about change. Nor was a collection of her trenchant and radical critiques of the institutions and practices surrounding majoritarianism found in The Tyranny of the Majority (1994) sufficient.[3]

Guinier moved to the University of Pennsylvania Law School and, while retaining her role as civil rights litigator and academic scholar and teacher, began to broaden her audience, her media and the number and kind of social issues spoken to, including race- and gender-based inequalities not only in the institutions, practices, and effects of the electoral system, but in education and a re-examination of what a democratic society based on deliberation and dialogue ought to encompass. As she put it in an interview session (part of a series called "Racetalks" published in the African-American Review), "we are struggling to transform public discourse, particularly about issues of race" from one that is oppositional and zero-sum to one that is deliberative and inclusive.

In 1998 Guinier moved to the Harvard Law School and became the first African-American woman tenured professor in the law school's history.[4]

Over the last 12 years, Guinier has published for, and appeared before, multiple audiences, including a series of articles and interviews between 1996 and 2001 that addressed broader social justice issues beyond those of political participation and political equality, and which focused on equal opportunity and affirmative action. These culminated in the publication of Who's Qualified?: A New Democracy Forum on Creating Equal Opportunity in School and Jobs, published by the Beacon Press in 2001.

What the last decade and more of publications and public speaking engagements demonstrated, in addition to her scholarship and teaching, was Guinier's emergence as a public intellectual, social critic and social activist. As a public intellectual, she has had direct and continuing engagement through appearances, lectures and commentary in the press and magazines. In addition to her continuing engagement in teaching and scholarly publishing in law reviews and scholarly journals, she wrote for Dissent, American Prospect, the Boston Review; created the Racetalks Initiative and Commonplace (a national non-profit) as vehicles for dialogue regarding race and democracy in multiple venues; and appeared on PBS's Frontline. Reflecting the emergence of the Internet, she collaborated in the creation of online venues such as (reflecting the metaphor of her latest book, co-authored with Gerald Torres, The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy), designed for broader engagement of broader audiences for dialogue, reasonable debate, and the organization of public education projects. As a social activist, through Commonplace, op-eds, letters to editors and lectures, she has continued to address several dimensions of the enduring question of race in America (e.g., race and education, race and democracy, race and equality, race and political representation).

The Miner's Canary seeks to remind us as responsible beings, and even as self-interested rational actors, of the necessity of recognizing and dealing with the basso ostinato of racial inequality as it exists along multiple dimensions of social life. Indeed, Lani Guinier's entire "projet," beginning from her watching James Meredith's passage on television, might be seen as one of dealing intellectually and socially with the issue of racial inequality.

She essentially rejects the concept of our living in a post-civil rights world. She rejects the common phrase "Get over it!" used by some European Americans regarding African Americans because the statistics of difference are so pervasive. She rejects the idea that "color blindness," or the ignoring of racial difference in social and economic terms, is a viable way to deal with social problems in any society that regards itself as democratic. She believes that race and power are inextricably linked at all levels of social life from congressional districts to professional sports to classrooms to courtrooms to hiring and firing. Her notion of "political race" implies Foucault's notion of the historical pervasiveness of power and its perpetuation of social hierarchies, but, unlike the relativism that some conclude from Foucault and other post-modernists, she believes in Edward Said's dictum of "speak truth to power."

Neither inherited institutional structures of power that produce deliberate or unintended inequalities nor the political cultures and forms of discourse that sustain them are immutable or "natural." Rather, one can and should expose the contradictions of inherited power and do so in the "public" of the academy, in the "public" of "le publique cultivé," and in the public of us all.

Only by actively confronting and talking about the reality of race and of racial difference in the distribution of rewards and deprivations can one then move toward a construction of transracial coalitions that effect change that is mutually beneficial. First you must argue, insofar as argument precedes understanding and the possibility of reconciliation.

But, even before that, you must talk.

[1] Much of this biographical information is derived from an interview with Lani Guinier by Brian Lamb reviewing Tyranny of the Majority on the C-Span program Booknotes on June 26, 1994 (, and from the entry on Lani Guinier in the African-American history archive The History Makers at Guinier also took inspiration from Constance Baker Motley, then an attorney for the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, who was Meredith's escort. To wit: "I said to myself, 'I can do that, I can be a woman lawyer in the cause of civil rights.'" See

[2] See U. S. House. Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. Voting Rights Act: Runoff Primaries and Registration Barriers. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1985 (Y4.J89/I:98/119), and U.S. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary. Nomination of William Bradford Reynolds to be Associate Attorney General of the United States. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1984 (Y4.J89/2:S.hrg.99-374).

[3] While Tyranny of the Majority brought together 6 of her scholarly journal articles on the problems of single-member districts and winner-take-all contests, its publication by Simon & Schuster shifted her audience to a broader, non-technical and non-specialized readership.

[4] Loc.cit. The History Makers at

Text by Tony Angiletta,
Morrison Curator for the Social Sciences.

Stanford University Libraries ©2005.


Top of Page || Home Page || Stanford University Libraries || Stanford University