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The legacy of Lani Guinier

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to spend the next few minutes remembering two people who passed away this week who each in their own very different ways contributed to the ongoing struggle to advance human and civil rights for all. We're going to hear more about the actor and director Sidney Poitier in just a minute. But first, we want to spend some time remembering Lani Guinier. She was a legal scholar whose prominent work on voting rights and systemic bias left a lasting legacy. She died last night at the age of 71. Guinier rose to prominence as a legal theorist in the 1980s with a particular focus on electoral systems. She argued that existing voting structures often serve to suppress the interests of minorities and that alternatives should be explored to give marginalized groups more opportunities to influence voting outcomes.

Her concerns were not limited to racial minorities, but when then-President Bill Clinton, a former colleague and friend from Yale Law School, nominated her for the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights in 1993, her academic writing as well as her character and even her hairstyle came under withering attack by critics. In the face of those attacks, President Clinton eventually withdrew her nomination. Later, in 1998, Guinier became the first woman of color appointed to a tenured professorship at Harvard Law School, where she continued her forward looking work.

To reflect on Guinier's legacy, we've invited Spencer Overton to join us. He is a professor of law at George Washington University Law School, a longtime mentee and friend of Lani Guinier, and himself a longtime theorist and activist in the area of voting rights. He's with us now via Skype. Professor Overton, thank you so much for being with us today, although I'm sorry for the occasion and the loss of this significant thought leader and friend.

SPENCER OVERTON: Well, thank you for remembering Lani and her important work.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit, if you would, about her legal work. I mean, she's considered sort of a pioneer in some of these areas, for example, championing cumulative voting, which was as, you know, implemented in New York City in its a mayoral election just last year. So could you just talk a little bit about her legal theories, and why did they attract the kind of animosity, I guess would be the way to describe it, that they did?

OVERTON: Well, Lani argued that merely having a vote was not enough for Americans. That's because districts are drawn in ways that either separate voters of color so they can't elect the candidate of their choice or districts are drawn so that voters of color are packed into one district and they don't have influence over others. Another problem is winner-take-all politics. Forty-nine percent of the voters in a district can go unrepresented simply because they didn't have 51% of the votes.

To deal with these problems, Lani proposed alternatives like cumulative voting. So, for example, if you had a race for four congressional candidates in a state and each voter got four votes that they can - could distribute any way they wished, voters of color would be empowered because they could either put down all four votes in favor of one candidate or they could spread their four votes out among several candidates.

And it wouldn't just apply to voters of color. That would allow all voters - Trump voters, various voters, no matter where they live, no matter their politics, to have influence on the four seats. It could reduce political polarization because all candidates would have incentives to be more responsive to all voters rather than ignore particular voters. It would also allow the voters to select the elected officials rather than the current situation now that we have where elected officials essentially select the voters through gerrymandering.

MARTIN: As you certainly recall, you know, conservative journalists and Republican senators mounted this kind of vicious campaign against her nomination when she was Bill Clinton's nominee for assistant attorney general for civil rights. In April of 1993, for example, she was dubbed quota queen by an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by a Reagan-era Justice Department official, which is obviously a term that many people consider to be racially charged, given that the sort of term welfare queen had been previously in use. So why do you think it is that it attracted this kind of visceral response?

OVERTON: Well, unfortunately, this is one of the situations where politics in Washington, D.C., was totally disconnected from the reality. I think this is a situation where Republicans thought that they could slight - some Republicans thought that they could slight a Black woman who was a nominee as a quota queen and that people wouldn't go deeper. They connected it somehow to affirmative action. And, in fact, her take was that drawing these districts in a race-based way actually was disfavorable to Black folks and other Americans. So to a certain degree, she said this was a basically race-neutral way to enhance representation for everyone.

MARTIN: So I think you can argue based on what has happened since then that she was perhaps before her time in advancing some of these issues. You work extensively in the field of voting rights and electoral systems. In what ways do you think that the conversations that ensued since that time reflect the seeds that she planted decades ago, perhaps even in your own work?

OVERTON: Certainly. Lani described her voting rights work as her intellectual, professional and spiritual cause. And her visionary work on multiracial democracy has stood the test of time. The January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was an attack on our multiracial democracy, and that attack continues today through schemes to restrict the freedom to vote in states throughout the nation. Lani's ideas really would have ensured a seat at the table for everyone. It was flexible and big enough to ensure that everyone would be represented, including communities of color, including Trump supporters, a variety of people.

Now, in this day, when certain communities feel marginalized, where they feel like they have to engage in violence, unfortunately, to be represented, they do so in part - it's certainly wrong, but it's in part because our existing system and our existing democracy does not allow for the types of representation that Lani was pushing for. So right now, on the federal level, the most important thing we can do to start to honor Lani's legacy is for the Senate to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.

Now, we'll need to do much more to recognize Lani's bold vision, including real structural change, not dealing with the margins, but real structural change to ensure that people can actually participate and different coalitions can come together and be heard. But acting in the Senate over the course of the next couple of weeks, that's an important start.

MARTIN: So Lani Guinier is sometimes remembered for - particularly, let's just say in Washington, D.C. - for former President Clinton's withdrawing her nomination as assistant attorney general. And that was obviously kind of a very bitter moment. But her life's work went on after that. So what are the accomplishments that you think we should be focusing on right now as we remember her?

OVERTON: Well, Lani was the first Black woman to be a tenured professor at Harvard Law School. And since then, many more have joined the faculty. She was respectful and engaging, but then also strong and principled. She was committed to empowering community voices and lifting up others rather than self promotion. She was always available, supportive and honest. She was an outstanding mentor and model to me and many others, and again, just an American visionary who was an important voice, especially in this moment where multiracial democracy is under attack.

MARTIN: That was Spencer Overton, professor of law at George Washington University Law School. He is also the president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, founded in 1970, which is a research organization dedicated to the particular interests of African Americans. Spencer Overton, professor Overton, thank you so much for talking with us today.

OVERTON: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.