Harvard law professor and icon Lani Guinier died Friday at the age of 71. When I heard the news, I remembered a line from Macbeth: “She should have died afterwards; there would have been time for such a word” — not because I’m a budding authoritarian, but because the line reflects a sadness that mourning a momentous death must be handed in because of an upcoming battle.
President Joe Biden was in Georgia yesterday, belatedly attempting to get the country to fight for fair elections in a desperate rear-guard action against efforts at voter suppression not seen since the civil rights era. This country is about to lose the voting rights that Professor Guinier has defended throughout her career. It seems particularly cruel that this woman, this source of knowledge and memory, is now being taken from us. And yet it is all the more important to draw on her work and make it an inspiration for Democrats to confront the threats she has long warned about.
I feel privileged to have been one of the many students she trained and prepared for this moment. I knew nothing about Guinier when I attended their voting rights seminar my sophomore year in law school. In fact, I only attended her classes because my mother essentially told me to. At that time in my life, I believed that the achievements of the civil rights era were just that: “achievements.” I thought they were permanent. I thought that my parents’ generation had fought and won the battle against Jim Crow. I thought that a suffrage class would be more of a history lesson than survival training.
Professor Guinier ‘schooled’ me both academically, explaining how the laws work, and colloquially, ‘listening to the adults when they talk about how things are’. She was the first person to show me that the laws and principles that women, racial and religious minorities, and LGBTQ communities rely on to stand a chance at fairness and equality constant under attack by the forces of white supremacy. She showed me that the old Confederacy never really gave up—not after the Civil War, not after the Voting Rights Act was passed, not now, never. Up to this point in law school, my other professors had treated law as objective, steadfast, and stable. Guinier framed it as an ongoing dispute, with advocates and activists constantly trying to push it toward or away from equality and fairness.
Guinier not only trained lawyers; she trained fighters. She encouraged robust debate in her class because such debate advances the law. It’s no coincidence that among the people who have had nice things to say about Guinier since her death, there are a few former students like Sherilyn Ifill and former students like Ben Shapiro. This is not because it has cultivated a ‘two-way’ approach to fundamental rights. That’s because she cultivated an environment where people were expected to defend their values using the language of the law. A classmate of mine remembered it Guinier told him“You’re not good at making arguments you don’t believe.” In an environment where arguing against oneself is encouraged and pure sophistry is often praised, Guinier stood out as a person who never wanted, that the students lose sight of the prize.