The Thernstroms in Black and White
To The Editors:
We knew we were taking a gamble when we allowed Adam
Shatz into our house ["The Thernstroms in Black and White," March 12-26,
2001]. After all, we were aware that The American Prospect is not
sympathetic to conservatives, but we did think it was worth taking the time to
talk to Mr. Shatz because we believe in the value of honest debate and the free
exchange of ideas. We also thought, obviously naively, that the magazine, while
perhaps a bit dull, was a serious intellectual enterprise, and that our
willingness to discuss our ideas with Shatz would be rewarded with an objective,
albeit critical, evaluation.
We are chagrined to have been proven to be so wrong. Adam Shatz's article
is an astonishingly nasty piece, filled with gross factual errors, some of which
we tried to correct when he was with us and in a subsequent phone conversation,
others that we had no chance to correct since he did not show us the courtesy of
simply asking about them.
There are far too many serious errors in the article for us to spend the time
to set the entire record straight, but even setting aside the nasty personal and
political slander, we would like to make one general comment and then address
just a few of the worst errors.
The whole article rests on the assumption that racial preferences are a moral
matter beyond debate. But in The New Democrat not so many years ago,
The American Prospect's co-editor, Paul Starr, sharply questioned the
"general policy of group preferences in school, jobs, contracts, and other
areas." Starr has not been alone among liberals in challenging racial
classifications, which have had a rotten history in our too-race-conscious
A few of the errors: Abigail Thernstrom did not vote for Bill Clinton in 1992;
she was home sick and never made it to the polls, but in any case, she had
publicly expressed grave doubts about Clinton on numerous occasions, much to the
annoyance of some Cambridge friends. Nor did she ever want a college teaching
job, as she told Shatz in the interview, since she likes to write and doesn't
particularly like to teach. We sensed that he didn't believe us, and thus in a
subsequent phone conservation, we invited him to ask the Department of Government
at Harvard whether she had ever created a job placement file and collected
recommendations in order to secure a position. He could have asked, say, Nathan
Glazer whether she had ever requested a recommendation. Shatz would have soon
discovered the idiocy of the psychobabble he cooked up.
Shatz was told that she had an adjunct position at the Boston University
School of Education only in order to arrange funding to support a book she
planned on the BU Chelsea schools project. She was delighted when the Manhattan
Institute offered to make her a senior fellow instead, since she had lost
interest in the Chelsea book. If she had wanted to teach at BU, there was an
opening in the political science department for which she could have applied; she
didn't want the job, and strongly recommended a friend.
A.T. is a strong proponent of both racially integrated education and of school
choice, and thus has never opposed METCO, which is a voluntary urban-to-suburban
busing program. But on numerous occasions, she has called for an evaluation of
how well it has worked, since it now has a 35-year track record, from which we
could all learn much. Shatz quotes Muriel Cohen, who claims she remembers A.T.
making a bigoted statement with respect to METCO; Cohen's memory is incorrect. It
is simply disgraceful journalism that Shatz never presented that alleged
quotation for A.T. to comment on--particularly given the fact that he knew our
anger at the continuing black-white test score gap and the failure of most
schools to address the problem effectively.
Shatz says Stephan Thernstrom lacks the scholarly qualifications to testify in
voting rights cases. S.T. is hired as an expert witness because he has devoted
much of his scholarly career to answering precisely the sort of questions he
testifies on--for instance, whether current socioeconomic disparities in a
particular community can be legitimately viewed as "vestiges" of past
discrimination. And his batting record exceeds .900. He isn't paid to be an
amateur who loses cases.
Much more could be said, but it hardly seems worth the time, since it is
clear that The American Prospect is incapable of listening with an honest
and open mind. We will leave it with this one thought: It's a sad sign of
intellectual bankruptcy when the magazine avoids engaging us in intellectual
debate and stoops to the level of a smear campaign.
The "errors" cited by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom in
their intemperate letter are not errors at all. Let me respond to their
allegations, point by point:
1. Abigail Thernstrom told me on tape, and to her husband's evident
astonishment, that she voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. I was simply reporting
what she told me.
2. Whether Abigail Thernstrom ever wanted a tenured position only she knows.
In my article, I quoted Orlando Patterson's assertion--an assertion echoed by
other sources--that Abigail felt she deserved a more prestigious university
appointment than her adjunct teaching job at Boston University. But I also wrote
that Abigail "insists she was never interested in being a full-time professor."
This seems to me more than fair.
3. Abigail Thernstrom has been quoted attacking METCO for allegedly
discriminating against poor white students. In America in Black and White,
she refers to METCO as "a vehicle for 'black flight' from a public school system
disrupted by busing, and one fully subsidized by Massachusetts tax payers" [p.
336]. That doesn't sound like a supporter's description to me.
4. Stephan Thernstrom may have a "batting record that exceeds .900" as an
expert witness, but that does not make him an academic expert on voting rights,
nor does it change the fact that he has been handsomely rewarded for testifying
in court about ethnic groups that he himself admits he knows nothing about.
As for the suggestion that my piece "rests on the assumption that racial
preferences are a moral matter beyond debate," my article notes that some of
Abigail Thernstrom's criticisms of majority-minority districts were "legitimate"
and that African-American scholars like Lani Guinier have subsequently "raised
concerns that majority-minority districts result in racial gerrymandering. In
summarizing Glenn Loury's Atlantic Monthly review of America in Black
and White, I mention Loury's praise of the book as well as his criticisms. I
gave the Thernstroms their due. My piece is critical, but it is no more a smear
than Loury's review, which led the Thernstroms to cut off relations with an old
To the Editors:
Peter Schrag did a fine job of describing what went
wrong with the deregulation of California's electricity industry ["Blackout,"
February 26, 2001]. However, his implication that there are better ways to
deregulate--such as in Pennsylvania, or deregulation of the telephone and airline
industries--is inaccurate. More important, his fear that deregulation cannot be
reversed is unwarranted.
The Pennsylvania experiment proves that keeping retail prices high enough
will bring about a little bit of competition in only some parts of the state, and
at high prices. Now that deregulated wholesale market prices for Pennsylvania
continue to rise, competitors are fleeing. Deregulation in Pennsylvania never
lowered prices below those regulation would have set.
Deregulation of formerly regulated industries hurts average Americans.
Telephone deregulation brought a 50+ percent drop in the price of long-distance
service, mostly used by businesses. The price of the local service that makes up
the bulk of most residential bills went up 50 percent.
Airline deregulation dropped prices for certain kinds of travel on certain
routes, in exchange for cramped seating and fewer meals. But the price of a
last-minute cross-country trip for a personal emergency can top $2,000, and
prices generally have increased as much as 26 percent at the increasingly
common airports that are dominated by one or two airlines.
Restoring the benefits of the regulated electricity regime is not that hard to
imagine. Indeed, California is well on the way. California utilities already own
about half the generation they need. All the state must do is reimpose price
The deregulated wholesale market needs to be disciplined the same way OPEC was
in the 1970s: with massive doses of efficiency investment. California has begun.
To further discipline the wholesale market and restore the long-term planning
that regulation provided, the state should build (or order utilities to build)
state-of-the-art efficient power plants. A California public power authority has
been proposed by the governor and, at this writing, approved by the senate.
In the interim, low-income families need such additional protections as larger
rate discounts and extended shutoff moratoria. California has taken some of these
As one California senator said, "deregulation in the state of California is
officially dead." Even the great deregulator, Alfred Kahn, concedes that
electricity "may be the one industry in which it [vertical-integration monopoly
ownership of distribution and generation] works reasonably well."
Deregulation of the electricity industry was undertaken at the behest of
industrial customers who hoped to lower their own prices at the expense of
residential customers. More states should follow the example of Connecticut and
freeze the residential-industrial electricity price gap.
Peter Schrag Responds:
A good argument can indeed be made that deregulation
will never be successful in the electricity market, and my piece cited one such
argument at some length. I also agree that there are serious questions to be
raised about the success claimed for the restructured Pennsylvania market. But I
don't know what Mr. Oppenheim means when he says that in order to restore
regulation, all California needs to do is reimpose price regulation. The state
has no control over the wholesale prices charged by private marketers and
generators. They're within the province of the Federal Energy Regulation
Commission, which, as the article indicated, refuses to do any such thing. On the
broader question of re-regulation, the issue in California is not what happens
three or four years from now, when new plants will be online, but what happens
this coming summer and, maybe, in the summer of 2002. For that period, there
seems to be no alternative to radical demand reduction, combined with unusually
mild weather, chronic rolling blackouts, or both.
Lani Guinier has sent us a revised version of the first
paragraph of her article "What We Must Overcome" [March 12-26, 2001]. The revised
article appears on our Web site. Owing to a computer error, the lead paragraph
of the published article inadvertently duplicated three sentences from an article
she had previously published.
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