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We Remember Professor Lani Guinier

Lani Guinier
Author photo: Santa Clara Law

It’s a rough way to begin the new year, mourning an author and an intellectual powerhouse. Lani Guinier, legal scholar, champion for voting rights, and the first woman of color appointed to a tenured professorship at Harvard Law School, joined the ancestors on January 7. She was seventy-one. Although heartbroken about her passing, we remain honored to have published her work, including The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, which she wrote to provide a clear blueprint for creating collaborative education models to strengthen our democracy rather than privilege individual elites. May she rest in power.

Our director and authors offer these words to commemorate her and her work.


Working with Lani Guinier on her last book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, remains one of the great joys and privileges of my many years in publishing. It was a long time in process, some six or seven years, in fact, largely because she was in such high demand as a teacher, lecturer, and commentator. I was competing for her time with her students—and she did not ever stint with her students—her colleagues, the media, and the legal and civil rights community as a whole. She deserved her legendary status, every bit of it, for the courage she displayed in each groundbreaking step of her career. She deserves even more. Her legacy is deep and will be lasting, I’m sure.

But what I want to remember is having the three-hour parking meter run out while I sat in her office at Harvard Law School, just listening, kicking myself for not having a tape recorder (before smartphones), for not taking better notes—but I was too occupied trying to take mental leaps with her. She was so knowledgeable, so perceptive, and yes, so enchanting. Each meeting, every conversation was an illumination. And also fun. Because she had a wonderful sense of humor, a sly one. My colleague, Pam MacColl, recalled so fondly “her quirky observations and hilarious side comments.” I was especially honored that she came back to Beacon for this book, and that she came to my fifteenth anniversary party, where her warmth and generosity were on brilliant display.

Celebrating Helene Atwan’s fifteenth anniversary party at Beacon HQ, 2010. Left: Lani Guinier; center: Anita Hill; right: Helene Atwan.
Celebrating Helene Atwan’s fifteenth anniversary party at Beacon HQ, 2010. Left: Lani Guinier; center: Anita Hill; right: Helene Atwan.

I recently replied to a French cousin who asked: why is merit a tyranny? Lani taught me the intricacies of that formulation over the years, and she was able to persuade anyone who was willing to listen to her or read her work. Michelle Alexander called her vision “transformative,” and Claude Steele named her “one of our nation’s greatest legal minds.” Just as she had taught us about the tyranny of majorities, she showed us how tyrannical the myth of “merit” could be. And she showed us models to do better. But these were just two of her many achievements.

We’ve lost Lani, but her work survives and will guide, I know, generations to come. Rest in peace and power.
—Helene Atwan, director


Mary Frances Berry

Lani Guinier, one of the nation’s leading voting rights scholars and litigators, played a major role in improving the 1965 Voting Rights legislation and its enforcement during her career. When a right-wing political campaign caused President Bill Clinton to withdraw her nomination to serve as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, I told her—based on my own experience after Ronald Reagan fired me—that the episode would only broaden the platform for advancing her work. She was a friend, a colleague, and a tireless fellow traveler on the road toward justice.
—Mary Frances Berry, author of History Teaches Us to Resist


Paul Ortiz

Professor Lani Guinier was one of the most brilliant legal theorists in US history. During an extraordinary scholarly and public career, she demanded that the United State become accountable in ensuring equal access to education and voting rights. Because Professor Guinier demonstrated that racism was a continuing force in American life, she was vilified and attacked by individuals across the political spectrum. Lani Guinier’s towering intellectual accomplishments helped pave the foundation for Black Lives Matter. We are forever indebted to her.
—Paul Ortiz, author of An African American and Latinx History of the United States


Jeanne Theoharis

I met Lani Guinier for the first time in 2013 when she came to a talk I was giving for my new Rosa Parks biography. There she was in the front row. I swallowed hard. The positive reception to the book had meant I was having to do many new and intimidating things, but here was another one. Give a talk with Prof. Guinier, one of the most brilliant legal minds of a generation, in the front row. She smiled and nodded and was incredibly warm and generous afterwards. But what stuck with me was the act of coming—not needing a rarefied private colloquium that most senior scholars would require to engage a new book (or believe they knew enough already), but the generosity of spirit to come to a bookstore talk on a random Friday afternoon. The desire for continued education and the visionary spirit to keep learning, engaging, and changing. May her memory be for a lesson.
—Jeanne Theoharis, author of A More Beautiful and Terrible History

Lani Guinier