Lani Guinier was the first black woman professor to be tenured at Harvard Law School. Her father, Ewart Guinier, was the first director of Harvard’s African American Studies program. She was better known, however, as a controversial nominee for assistant attorney general during the Clinton Administration.
Carol Lani Guinier was born in New York City on April 19, 1950 to Ewart and Eugenia Paprin Guinier. She decided to pursue a legal career after following the work of civil rights attorney Constance Baker Motley in the 1960s. Guinier graduated from Radcliffe College and Yale Law School (where she was a classmate of Bill and Hillary Clinton), before becoming an assistant legal counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1974. During the Carter Administration, she worked as a special assistant for Assistant Attorney General Drew S. Days in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. She was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania from 1988 to 1998.
Guinier advocated a number of controversial political policies including the use of proportional representation in local elections and the expansion of affirmative action programs. In April 1993, soon after President Bill Clinton took office, he named her a candidate for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. The Wall Street Journal attacked the appointment and nicknamed her the “Quota Queen” for her advocacy of racial quotas in academic affirmative action programs. Both her supporters and detractors likened the term to the derogatory nickname of “welfare queen,” which was often used in political campaigns to describe poor black women and undermine support for those politicians who supported policies that assisted them.
In June 1993, bowing to the political pressure of Democratic Senators Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, David Pryor of Arkansas, and Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, President Clinton withdrew her nomination, claiming that he was unfamiliar with her direct advocacy of racial quotas. In his autobiography My Life, the former President described his withdrawal of Guinier’s nomination as a “sad story” and stated that he still admires her and regrets that he “lost her friendship.” Following the incident, Guinier wrote that she “was barely given the opportunity to defend” herself and that she felt she had been “abandoned by the President.”
Many of her supporters charged that Guinier was scapegoated by the Clinton Administration which was concerned about attacks from political conservatives, and that her title “quota queen” was undeserved since Guinier had often argued against the use of quotas in her legal writings. She maintained, however, her belief in affirmative action, arguing that educating more minority students enhances the education of all students and the overall effectiveness of the university system, a notion that she christened “Confirmative Action.”
In 1998, Guinier was hired by Harvard Law School, where she eventually earned tenure. She was also a visiting professor at both Stanford and Columbia University. Her credentials include six books and nearly thirty law review and journal articles. She helped found two websites, minerscanary.org and racetalks.org, both of which aim to encourage open discussion about racial issues.
Lani Guinier passed away on January 7, 2022 at an assisted living facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The cause of death was complications from Alzheimer’s disease. She was 71 years old. She is survived by her husband, Nolan Bowie; her son Nikolas Bowie; her stepdaughter, Dana Rice; and three sisters, Clotilde Guinier Stenson, Sary Guinier, and Marie Guinier.