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Certainly, her remarkable visibility in the past decade as an activist and expert speaking out on voting rights, the theory of democracy, affirmative action, the politics of gender, and the law is evidence that her analysis has merit. Guinier's eloquence about her experience doesn't only serve to explain herself but also to further her goals. "This failure theory of success is a critique of the excesses of radical individualism, right? Because radical individualism says, If you really work hard and if you are really a good person, you will succeed. But it has no explanation for when you fail except that there's something wrong with you. When everything is a function of the individual, the individual succeeds because the individual is great; the individual fails because the individual is a failure." She laughs. "No! When people fail, it's often a function of their relationship to other structures, and it can be a lens on a larger set of dysfunctions, deficiencies, or problems."

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The lessons she learned from her Jewish mother were potently reinforced by her black father's experience. A brilliant student, he was admitted to Harvard but not granted financial aid (the reason given, she says: He "hadn't submitted a photograph with his application!"), not allowed to live on campus, not spoken to by his white classmates, and never called on in class. He dropped out after two years, lacking the funds to continue, and responded to an earlier job offer from The New York Times for former high school newspaper editors. When he appeared at the Times, the position offered was operating the freight elevator. He accepted. "He was poor," Guinier explains. "But he used the job to read the paper cover to cover every day. It became one of his most cherished habits."

Ewart Guinier eventually finished his education at Columbia and New York universities and became a union leader. After a difficult period during the McCarthy era in which he lost his job after his union came under attack, Ewart became the first chair of Harvard's Department of Afro-American Studies. "No, I wouldn't say he was devoid of bitterness," Lani Guinier acknowledges. "But he didn't obsess about things. He was much more of a fighter. His view was: This is an injustice that has to be rectified—not necessarily for him but for the larger community."

In her 1998 book, Lift Every Voice, which recounts the circumstances surrounding her nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights and what she came to call her "dis-appointment," she writes about how one of the most nightmarish aspects of it all was her sense that she was reliving some of her father's worst experiences, a sense of not being allowed to defend herself, of being betrayed and humiliated by people she had thought were friends, including the president of the United States.

What of her own bitterness? She had gone to Yale Law School with Bill and Hillary, and they were guests at her wedding. She hasn't heard from them since 1993, except for official Christmas cards and a mistaken letter of condolence (no one had died) sent to her mother's house.

Does she carry a grudge, or has she found a way of forgiving?

"Well, you know...forgiving..." she muses. "I think I'm more of the school of forgetting. That is, you move on. It's not that you forgive, it's that you don't dwell on it. Well, it could be that as I get older..." She laughs. "I used to have a fabulous memory...so that's convenient. The slights don't resonate for me over time. They become less interesting. There are so many other things happening. That's not to say you truly forget, but you don't invest the memory with the same overwhelming significance."

Next: Why we need to hear about failure

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