Guinier’s Public Career Not Over Yet

Major Cox and Lani Guinier. Martha's Vineyard, August 1993.

Major Cox and Lani Guinier. Martha's Vineyard, August 1993.

Since Lani Guinier’s failed nomination for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, she has become a celebrity. Ms. Guinier has become so famous that she hired an agent to manage her celebrity.

According to an article in the Washington Post, she receives 15 to 20 speaking requests per week. She discusses her ideas on talk shows and speaks on college campuses. Her writings frequently appear on Op-Ed pages and her book, Tyranny Of The Majority, is in book stores throughout the nation. At 43 years of age, this University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor is a renowned voting rights expert.

Few people outside the legal profession had heard Lani Guinier’s name before she became the focus of controversy after her nomination. Now, anyone not living in a cave recognizes her name. What some people might not know is that Ms. Guinier is following the path of her father, Ewart Guinier.

As one of three daughters growing up in the Guinier’s pre-civil rights household, she watched her father recover from much greater political rejections. When he entered Harvard University in 1929, the university denied him financial aid because only one Negro could receive it at a time, and someone already had filled the quota. Two years later, Ewart Guinier dropped out of Harvard for lack of finances. His daughter, Lani, recently told this story and described her father as the victim of a “quota of one.”

After dropping out of Harvard, Ewart Guinier joined the labor movement. During the 1940s as secretary-treasury of the American Public Workers Union (APWU), Guinier fought for and won the first skilled positions ever held by black employees at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Because of his union work and his association with Paul Robeson and other individuals accused of being Communists, he became the subject of a congressional investigation. These McCarthy Era investigations by the Senate Judiciary Committee for “un-American and subversive activity” would destroy both Guinier and his union.

In the early 1950s, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, APWU’s parent organization, expelled it for being “communist controlled.” After his union work, Guinier graduated from law school and passed the New York Bar, but was denied admittance because of “bad character.”

Politically and professionally abandoned, Ewart Guinier sold real estate¼Lani says they struggled throughout her childhood. Her mother, Genii Guinier, white and Jewish, taught her daughters to see themselves as “bridge people.” She raised them in the black world of their father, teaching them how to “endure slights, racial or otherwise,” without becoming angry, a lesson Lani Guinier learned from her mother well.

Her reaction to rejection by her law school buddy, President Clinton, has been calm, reasoned and sane. She continues to express confidence in the President even as she tells her side of the story.

Two of her ideas, “cumulative voting” and the concept of a “supermajority” lie at the heart of the controversy. Today as Guinier speaks and writes about these ideas, she is convincing more and more Americans of better alternatives… other than race conscious districts…for opening up our democracy so that individuals within minority groups may participate and present their views democratically.

For example, in Mobile, Alabama, after finding deliberate discrimination against black voters, a federal judge approved a settlement that required a supermajority of five to pass legislation on the city council consisting of four white members and three black members.

In Chilton County, Alabama a judge used the concept of “cumulative” voting as a remedy in a voting rights case. In this case, the judge ordered all candidates for the county commission to run at-large instead of by districts, with each voter casting as many votes as there were positions. So if any individual voters felt strongly about a particular candidate, they could cast all their votes for that candidate. In Chilton County, this system produced the election of not only the first black to the county commission, but also a woman and a Republican in a predominately white, heavily Democratic county.

Do not count Lani Guinier out. She is walking in the path of her father, Ewart Guinier, who rehabilitated his damaged career before his death in 1990. Harvard University hired him as a full professor in 1969, while his daughter, Lani, was there as a sophomore on full scholarship. Shortly after signing on at Harvard University, Guinier received reconsideration from the New York Bar and was admitted to practice law. Washington D.C. has not seen the last of Lani Guinier.

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Originally Published: 6 April 1994, Montgomery Advertiser

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