An Interview with Lani Guinier

The Harvard law professor and civil rights activist talks about road-tripping with Clarence Thomas, the next generation of lawyers, and what still divides our country

Published in 2015 New England Super Lawyers magazine

By Super Lawyers staff on October 13, 2015


Q: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, yet you turn on the news and it feels a bit like we’re back in 1965. What do you think the country can do to overcome the racial divide?

A: Frankly, I think it’s more than just the racial divide. I think our voting system denies an equal opportunity to poor white people who don’t have access to a car, truck or van—and don’t have access to getting the kind of identification that they need in some of the Southern states—in order to cast a vote.

It’s ironic that the United States after World War II imposed a democratic system on Germany that is so much better than what we have in the United States. Everyone in Germany gets two votes. One vote is for a political party; [one is for] somebody to represent your particular district. As a result, you have people voting more and feeling more represented.

Q: So what can we do to get the disenfranchised more active in the political process?

A: I think it’s time for another social movement like the social movement in 1965. I think Americans are tired with the present system but we are not aware enough of the alternative. So, to me, the first step has to be to educate and to get people to look at what’s happening, not just in Germany, but in Canada. In Canada, when the [census-taker] is going around, they also check to see if you’re registered to vote. If you’re not registered to vote, they register you right there.

Q: Educating people obviously requires access to education. If we don’t have equal opportunity for education, how are we going to have equal opportunity for people to learn what their options are?

A: That’s a nice connection between the two ongoing social movements that are still in early forms. And the two social movements are about: 1) voting rights, and 2) access to education. Particularly higher education, but not exclusively higher education. And not just access to education but to excellent education: to preparing American citizens for the roles that they get to play and inhabit as citizens.

Q: In your book The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, you write about creating education models that lead to a more democratic society. If you were handed a magic wand and could rework the admissions process for higher education, what would be the end result?

A: This is not just about who is admitted. It is also about how we teach those who are admitted and how we encourage those who are admitted to become citizens and leaders of a democracy. So my critique is addressing how they perform upon graduating.

Q: Output. Right?

A: And my concern with the output, in part, comes from an article that was in The Harvard Crimson. It’s an important article because The Harvard Crimson is the student newspaper, and the title is “Show Him the Money.” It’s a critique of the women who are graduating from Harvard College, and the critique is they want to be teachers, they want to be doctors, they want to do things for other people.

And what do the men want to do? They want to make a lot of money. And they’re critical of the women for failing to make the money. They think that there’s a weakness about these women. That really stirred me. To think that these are the kinds of potential leaders that this wonderful university is producing. They were disparaging of women who wanted to be doctors and teachers and wanted to contribute to the larger society, which is much more consistent with the idea of a democracy and with the commitments of institutions of higher education.

Q: If you named one person as your mentor, who would that be?

A: Elaine Jones. She worked a significant period of time at the NAACP legal defense fund; and she was the director-counsel of that organization. I first met her with Clarence Thomas, of all people. He and I were at Yale Law School together and Elaine was speaking at a conference in Philadelphia.

So I told him I was driving down there to hear her because I had heard very positive things about her. And he said he wanted to come. So I  drove down to Philadelphia. Elaine was so powerful that I went up to her afterward and said, “I want to work with you this summer.” And she said, “Well, you find the money and you’re welcome.” At the same time, I helped Clarence get a summer job in Georgia because he wanted to go back and be a civil rights lawyer in Georgia.

Q: You and Clarence Thomas? Interesting.

A: So Elaine was definitely somebody who influenced me from the get-go. Because that summer, I could just follow her around and learn without feeling nervous because I wasn’t then having to “perform” by myself.

Q: Tell me about following your father’s footsteps into law.

A: My father had a hard time because he had been an activist and had run for office on a third-party platform in Manhattan and gotten about, I don’t know, 90- or a hundred-thousand votes. He lost, but he was well-supported. And when I was about 7, he decided he was going to go to law school. We were living in Queens and he had to walk to the bus stop, take the bus to the train, and then take the train to NYU. He would practice some of the cases on me. He would be driving the car and he’d say, “Now, if I were to drive this car and it would hit the car in front of me, but the car in front of me would hit the car in front of it, would I be liable for the car in front of it?”

Q: As a law professor, what do you think about the current graduates coming out of law school? Are they motivated to do good?

A: It’s complicated.

I think they are motivated to do good. And I think that long term, they do good. But it is so expensive to go to law school that they can’t afford to do good because they have to pay back what it costs to become a lawyer in the first place. So, I’d say a large percentage of the students work for a law firm, and there are some good things to say about law firms.

Q: What’s the next book?

A: My next book? I don’t think I’ve finished thinking about this book. The reason I’ve felt strongly about this book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, is the experiences that I’ve had at Harvard Law School as a professor with my students; and what I’ve learned is that my students really learn well teaching each other.

Because it’s not public. It’s not a performance. It’s not something where they’re worried that other people are going to laugh at them if they get the answer wrong. For women in law school, this is an ongoing issue. I read a book called The Female Brain which suggested that part of the reason that women are hesitant is that women’s brains involve stops at different stations in your head. Whereas men’s brains go straight from one place to their mouth.

The interview was edited and condensed.

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