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Lani Guinier drew on her Black and Jewish roots in a life of outspoken activism

Lani Guinier, the daughter of a white Jewish mother and Black Panamanian father whose nomination by President Clinton to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice was opposed by mainstream Jewish organizations, died on Friday.

Guinier, who went on to become the first Black woman on the Harvard Law School faculty as well as its first woman of color given a tenured post, succumbed to complications from Alzheimer’s disease, according to The Boston Globe.

Carrie Johnson, who covers the Justice Department for National Public Radio, tweeted a message from Harvard Law School Dean John Manning confirming Guinier’s death and praising her.

“Her scholarship changed our understanding of democracy – of why and how the voices of the historically underrepresented must be heard and what it takes to have a meaningful right to vote,” Manning’s message said. The dean’s letter to the school community said she died surrounded by friends and family.

Lani Guinier

This undated file photo shows Lani Guinier(C), President Clinton’s nominee to head the U.S. Civil Rights office of the U.S. By LUKE FRAZZA/AFP via Getty Images

Guinier was born in April 1950 to Eugenia “Genji” Paprin, a Jewish civil rights activist and educator, and Ewart Guinier, a Black Panamanian lawyer, union organizer and academic. At age 12, she was inspired to become a civil rights attorney as she watched Constance Baker Motley help escort James Meredith, the first Black American to enroll in the University of Mississippi.

When her former Yale Law School classmate President Bill Clinton nominated Guinier for assistant attorney general for civil rights in 1993, it seemed her dream was being fulfilled. But despite her stellar record as a voting rights activist, her nomination was thwarted by conservative journalists and Republican senators who publicly described her as a “quota queen,” “reverse racist,” and “radical madwoman.”

“I deeply regret that I shall not have the opportunity for public service in the Civil Rights Division,” Guinier said then, according to a transcript on BlackPast.org. “I am greatly disappointed that I have been denied the opportunity to go forward to be confirmed and to work closely to move this country away from the polarization of the last 12 years, to lower the decibel level of the rhetoric that surrounds race, and to build bridges among people of goodwill to enforce the civil rights laws on behalf of all Americans.”

There was notable Jewish opposition to Guinier’s appointment. The American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League declined to endorse Guinier.

“The Jewish press also weighed in with editorials critical of Guinier,” said an article in The Washington Report for Middle East Affairs at the time, citing specifically an editorial in the Forward. It said that the Supreme Court decision upholding the redistricting of Brooklyn “set the stage for the Balkanization of our entire electorate, a process that will accelerate if Ms. Guinier is confirmed by the Judiciary Committee.” and that her logic suggested that “ a democratic system is one in which all ghettos are represented, no matter how small the ghettos might be,” concluding: “What a tragic development if would be were the political party in which most Jews made their home in America to begin erecting political ghettos in the new land.”

It was Guinier’s Jewish mother who helped to inspire her response to the high-profile controversy. According to a 1998 article, “Black writers hail Jewish moms” by Owen Moritz of the New York Daily News, Guinier described how her mother helped her stay cool in the face of public humiliation. “She told me not to project my own anger onto a situation, but to listen closely to hear other people’s anger or feelings,” Gunier was quoted as saying. “It was a way of depersonalizing the situation, getting outside of it. It taught me not to internalize rejection.”

A month after Clinton pulled Guinier’s nomination, she spoke at the 1993 National Association of Black Journalists convention in Tampa, Florida. “We are in a state of denial about issues of race and racism,” she told the crowd. “The censorship imposed against me means that officially, there should be no serious public debate or discussion about racial fairness and justice in a true democracy.”

At the convention press conference, Robin Washington – who is now the Forward’s editor-at-large – asked Gunier how she felt about the attacks on her from Jewish media.

“Your mother was Jewish, right?” he recalled asking her.

“Yes. Still is,” she replied.

“So you would be…?”

“I was raised Unitarian,” Washington recalled her interjecting.

According to Moritz’s Daily News article, Guinier’s mother took her and her three sisters to bar mitzvahs and seders and taught them to see their mixed heritage as enabling them to be “bridge people.”

Prior to Clinton’s nomination, Guinier, a graduate of Radcliffe College, was a tenured law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She had also been a civil rights attorney for more than a decade and served in the Civil Rights Division during the Carter Administration as special assistant to then Assistant Attorney General Drew S. Days.

Clinton’s snub inspired Guinier to use her fame to speak out against racism and sexism and to advocate for more candid public examination of these issues. She wrote several books about her commitment to social justice and equal political participation, including her memoir, “Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice” in 2004, which contributed to the national discourse about the true meaning of democracy. Her most recent book was “The Tyranny of the meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in a Democracy,” in 2015.

Sherfilynn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund where Guinier headed the voting rights project during the 1970s, tweeted “a loss that means to me more than words can say. Civil rights atty, professor, my mentor, member of our NAACP LEF family. A mother of the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act. A scholar of uncompromising brilliance. Rest in Peace and Power, dear Lani. #LaniGuinier.

Guinier’s father forged a path for her historic role at Harvard. In 1929, he was one of two Black students admitted to Harvard College. He had to drop out two years later after being excluded from living on campus and receiving financial aid. Despite those obstacles, he returned to Harvard in 1969 as a professor and the first chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department.

Guinier will long be remembered and lauded for her contributions to civil rights and voting democracy. In November 2021 her alma mater Yale Law School held a symposium to honor her teaching legacy and career achievements. Days earlier, she received the 2021 Award of Merit from the Yale Law School Association, and The Lillian Goldman Law Library displayed her written works of scholarship.

Today Guinier’s son, Nikolas Bowie, continues the family tradition as an assistant professor at Harvard Law School. “My mother taught me from a very age the meaning of courage,” he stated Friday in The Boston Globe. “She taught me that a principle is far more important and courage is far more important than any position someone can give you,” he said.

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