The Thernstroms in Black and White

That's our dear friend Clarence, whom we adore," Abigail Thernstrom
said, proudly showing me the framed photograph of Supreme Court Justice
Clarence Thomas that hangs above the fireplace in the office she shares
with her husband, Harvard University historian Stephan Thernstrom. She
added mischievously: "It's there to make reporters faint." Abigail
Thernstrom, a fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute and one of
America's most influential conservative intellectuals, had been talking
to a lot of reporters that week, frantically "doing press" for another
"dear friend"--Linda Chavez, whom George W. Bush had nominated to be his
labor secretary. Just a few days before I arrived at the Thernstroms'
red colonial house in Lexington, Massachusetts, Chavez had withdrawn her
nomination, under fire for hiring an illegal immigrant in her home.

Abigail Thernstrom, who serves on the board of Chavez's Center for
Equal Opportunity
, an anti-affirmative action "research group" in
Washington, was still fuming: "She did not employ that woman. She
took in this--this was a battered woman! Linda is such a giving
person--you can't imagine. She's always taking people in, people in
trouble. I could never do what she does. Every summer, she hosts these
Fresh Air Fund kids and pays for their Catholic-school tuition."

Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom are best known as the authors of
America in Black and White, a 700-page tome on race relations that
identified racial preferences and black militancy as the main barriers
to achieving a colorblind society. Their new book, Getting the
Answers Right: The Racial Gap in Academic Achievement and How to Close
which will come out next year from Simon and Schuster, is almost
certain to be read by Rod Paige, President Bush's secretary of
education. "We're letting another generation of black and Hispanic kids
go by horribly educated, and I'm on a moral tear about that. I mean, it
just makes me furious," Abigail told me. A Marshall Plan for urban
schools, then? "No, you'd just be pouring money down the same sinkhole,"
said Abigail, who prefers the usual conservative medicine of vouchers
and draconian standards.

Lined with books and flooded with newspapers and magazines, the
Thernstroms' study has a messy vitality; it conveys a powerful
impression of intellectual camaraderie, the bedrock of their marriage of
over 42 years. But for this room, nothing in the house would suggest
that Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom are deeply intertwined in debates
over the future of affirmative action. Their walls are decorated with
modern art and pictures of their children: Melanie, the author of two
books of nonfiction, and Sam, a speechwriter for New York Governor
George Pataki. Their life in Lexington--an affluent, largely white
suburb of Boston that was covered in a blanket of snow when I visited
them in mid-January--could hardly seem more distant from the problem of
the color line.

Abigail--a short, bespectacled woman with gray hair--looks as if she
stepped out of an Edward Koren cartoon. She's highly excitable, acerbic
and fretful by turns, with a voice that warbles nervously from a throaty
bass to a falsetto screech. The day before I met her, Justice Ronnie
White had testified in the John Ashcroft hearings, which she said she
didn't want to "sound off on" because she hadn't been following them too
closely. "I caught a little bit of Ted Kennedy," she said, "and I just
wish he'd lower the decibel level." Abigail had recently returned from
Tallahassee, Florida, where, as a member of the United States Commission
on Civil Rights
, she was investigating charges of irregularities at the
Florida polls in election 2000--irregularities that many believe cost
thousands of African Americans their votes and Al Gore the presidency.
"Mistakes were made, and there are better ways to run elections," she
said. "But do I think there was some deliberate effort there to keep
black voters from the polls? No, absolutely not."

Abigail's 1987 critique of the Voting Rights Act, Whose Votes
Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights,
is a virtual
bible among conservative jurists, including Supreme Court Justices
Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas. A frequent visitor in Thomas's
chamber, Abigail has testified several times in the House against the
creation of "majority-minority" districts by the Justice Department.
Other voting-rights experts, notably Harvard Law School professor Lani
, have raised concerns that majority-minority districts result in
racial gerrymandering and have suggested new mechanisms like cumulative
voting. Abigail, however, has distinguished herself with her hostility
toward any method of promoting black and minority representation.

"Doors are wide open to black candidacies today," she claims. "Our
problem is not bigoted white voters (a relatively small minority), but a
paucity of black candidates willing to test the biracial electoral
waters." It is "racist," she says, to suggest that "only black
officeholders can represent black interests." When Bill Clinton
nominated Guinier to be his assistant attorney general in 1993, Abigail
called Clint Bolick, her friend at the conservative Institute for
. Within hours, Bolick was smearing Guinier in The Wall Street
as a "quota queen" with "breathtakingly radical views."
Before Guinier had a chance to correct these distortions, Clinton
dropped the nomination.

In addition to her affiliation with the Manhattan Institute, Abigail
serves on the boards of numerous other think tanks, including the
Institute for Justice and the Citizens' Initiative on Race and Ethnicity
(whose founders include Chavez and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao). She
sits on the Massachusetts State Board of Education, a predominantly
white group opposed to heroic efforts to overcome de facto public school
segregation. "How can we expect these kids to compete with my children?"
she told Boston Globe education reporter Muriel Cohen over lunch,
explaining her opposition to METCO, a program that buses 3,000
children--mostly blacks and Latinos--to suburban public schools like the
ones her children attended in Lexington.

Stephan Thernstrom, a tall, ruddy-faced man with a thick mustache,
has a softer disposition than his wife, who, as he puts it, "is fonder
of talking than I am." He's a self-described "lone wolf," a reader of
mystery novels who avoids faculty meetings and seldom ventures to
Harvard when he's not teaching except to go to the library or the squash
court. Reclining in an Eames chair with a Grateful Dead mug, he cuts a
retiring profile. Yet he is no less involved than his wife in the
campaign to roll back racial preferences. Ever since 1988, when he was
accused of insensitivity by a black student at Harvard, he has been
crusading against affirmative action as if it were a cancer eating away
at the sacred body of meritocracy. He has a lucrative side-gig as an
expert witness who argues against the expansion of what he regards as
minority entitlements in the drawing of electoral districts and in
school admissions. In 1996 he was deposed by the Center for Individual
--a right-wing litigation group that has received money from the
eugenicist Pioneer Fund--in Hopwood v. State of Texas, the case
that struck down affirmative action in higher education in Texas,
Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Stephan told me test scores and grades alone should decide whether
students are admitted to college. But when I mentioned that George W.
Bush, whom he supported for president, was a poor test taker and an even
worse student, he said that Dubya's detractors "greatly exaggerate the
importance of academic intelligence and IQ."

It would be hard to imagine a more extreme transformation than the
Thernstroms'. In the 1960s, Stephan and Abigail were left-liberals who
identified passionately with the civil rights movement. Today, they're
soldiers in the political and judicial assault on civil rights policies
designed to redress the effects of past discrimination. The Thernstroms
insist, however, that they have remained true to their ideals as
"colorblind" integrationists. "We haven't changed," Stephan told a
reporter for The Washington Post. "It is liberalism that has
evolved." His wife, who often describes herself as "an old bleeding
heart," told the same reporter, "I feel sad that the classic civil
rights struggle is now called conservatism." They're on to something: In
less than a generation, the rhetoric of colorblindness has passed out of
the left's lexicon and into the right's. But in parting ways with racial
liberalism--and in promoting the crusade against "reverse racism" as the
cutting edge of a new civil rights movement--have the Thernstroms
simply remained steadfast in their principles?

It's a clever argument but not an especially convincing one. Full
equality and citizenship for the descendants of slaves, rather than
abstract colorblindness, was the overriding goal of the civil rights
movement. While some white liberals initially hoped that the destruction
of legal segregation would produce this outcome, most of them came to
see the need for more radical, color-conscious remedies. As President
Lyndon B. Johnson put it in his Howard University commencement address
on June 4, 1965, "You do not take a person who, for years, has been
hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of
a race, and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and
still believe that you have been completely fair." What is more, there
is little evidence of colorblindness in America in Black and
It is a book that seems consumed to the point of obsession
with the purported sins of black Americans: their educational failings,
their profligate rates of illegitimacy, their propensity toward crime,
their dependence on bloated government programs, their conspiracy
theories about white power, their hate-whitey rhetoric.

Liberalism has evolved, to be sure; but so have the Thernstroms.

Intellectual Partners

To understand Abigail Thernstrom's politics, the first thing you have
to know is that her parents were Jewish fellow travelers. Born in 1936,
Abigail Mann was raised in Croton-on-Hudson, 30 miles north of New York
City, on Finney Farm, a left-wing sanctuary that John Reed repaired to
on his return from the Soviet Union. Her father was an unsuccessful
businessman who "never made a dime," while her mother was slowly dying
of breast cancer. Educated at schools for red-diaper babies, she speaks
bitterly of her parents' Stalinism, their "willful denial" of Soviet
realities. But her parents were right about one thing, and that was
race. "I grew up in a very racially integrated scene, and that was one
of the very good things about communism."

When Abigail sings the praises of Finney Farm, she sounds almost like
William Bowen and Derek Bok, her adversaries in the war over affirmative
action, who argue that white college students benefit from racial
diversity as much as minorities do. "I lived in a cocoon in which race
didn't matter, and I think that was very influential in terms of the way
I think about racial issues. I'm in deep rebellion against race
consciousness." In fact, as Abigail herself acknowledges, Finney Farm's
racial integration was a triumph of color-consciousness on the part of
the Communist Party, which through an affirmative action program of its
own had vigorously recruited blacks and promoted them to positions of
leadership since the 1930s.

After graduating from Barnard College, Abigail arrived at Harvard as
a graduate student in Middle Eastern studies and later migrated to the
government department; she was "desperate to get away from anything
having to do with my family," and looking for a husband. "My daughter
would kill me if she heard me say that, but it's true." In the fall of
1958, she was set up on a blind date with Stephan Thernstrom, a
reserved, pipe-smoking graduate student in American history. Born in
1934 to Scandinavian-American parents in Port Huron, he was raised in
Battle Creek, Michigan, a town where there were hardly any Jews, much
less communists. Stephan's father, a telegraph boy with an eighth-grade
education, worked his way up the ladder to become a railway manager.
When Stephan was radicalized as an undergraduate at Northwestern, his
father, a stalwart Republican, told him, "If you're a communist, I don't
want you in my house."

Abigail Mann and Stephan Thernstrom met for their first date at an
I.F. Stone lecture. Two and a half months later, they married.

From the start, theirs was a political and intellectual partnership
as well as a romantic one. Stephan was a leader of a New Left club, a
group of Harvard graduate students that included Martin Peretz, now
owner of The New Republic; Michael Walzer, now a political
philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Study; and the radical
historians Gabriel Kolko and Barton Bernstein. In offices scattered
throughout Harvard's campus, a dozen or so young men and women--some
liberal, others radical--met to discuss the Cuban revolution, the Bay of
Pigs, nuclear disarmament, and, above all, civil rights. Nothing
captured the group's imagination, or the Thernstroms', as much as the
struggle for racial justice in the South. In 1961 the New Left club
protested outside of Woolworth's in solidarity with the sit-ins. Three
years later, the Thernstroms made plans to organize blacks in the South
with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a trip they
were forced to cancel when Abigail became pregnant with their daughter

Stephan's first priority, however, was his academic career. Like most
of his Harvard classmates, he was extremely ambitious. His adviser was
the eminent immigration historian Oscar Handlin, whose 1951 study The
helped establish ethnicity as a major field in American
history. Stephan chose a thesis topic that could not have been closer to
his mentor's heart: New England's immigrant working class in the late
nineteenth century. He was interested in the sociologist Werner
Sombart's classic question, "Why is there no socialism in America?" And
as the son of a worker who'd become a manager and a Republican, he
suspected that "socialism had a hard time in America because workers
didn't remain workers over time." Surveying the lives of hundreds of
laborers--mainly Irish Catholics--in the industrial city of Newburyport,
Massachusetts, Stephan found that while few of them entered the middle
class in the first generation, many of them bought houses, and, just as
important, many of them moved. When his book Poverty and Progress
was published in 1964, it was widely praised for its innovative analysis
of social and geographical mobility and for its sophisticated use of
quantified data.

From there, Stephan's rise was rapid. In 1967 he got a job at
Brandeis University; two years later he moved with Abby and their two
young children to Los Angeles, where he had been hired by UCLA for a
"hugely higher salary." In 1973 he returned to Harvard as a full
professor. That same year, he published The Other Bostonians, an
exhaustive study of social mobility among Boston's working class from
1880 to 1970. It was a book in the Handlin mold, sober in its sifting of
data, dispassionate in tone: a work of social science as much as
history. Compared to the work of his New Left peers, The Other
was decidedly muted. And yet the book contained a distinct
undertone of social criticism. Stephan depicted the American class
system as one of both unique fluidity and appalling inequality that
offered "substantial privilege for the privileged and extensive
opportunity for the underprivileged." And he was particularly scathing
in his treatment of American racism.

In one chapter, "Blacks and Whites," he eviscerated the view (most
vividly expressed in Irving Kristol's 1966 New York Times Magazine
article "The Negro Today is the Last of the Immigrants") that the
experience of blacks in northern cities differed only in degree--and not
in kind--from the poverty and social exclusion suffered by the European
immigrants who arrived before them. This argument lies behind a great
deal of white opposition to special remedies for black poverty (if
blacks are merely one in a line of immigrant groups that had to overcome
poverty and discrimination, then why do they merit special treatment?),
and it powerfully informs the Thernstroms' America in Black and
in which blacks are frequently and unfavorably compared with
industrious immigrants. Back in 1973, however, Stephan was pointing out
that second-generation blacks in Boston "did only a shade better than
migrants from the rural South--unlike most European migrants including
the Irish," while even third-generation blacks were consigned to menial
labor. Turning next to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's argument that blacks
had been increasingly held back by a self-reproducing "culture of
poverty," he concluded that "the main barriers to black achievement
have been not internal but external, the result not of peculiarities in
black culture but of peculiarities in white culture."

Mrs. Thernstrom Goes to Washington

While Stephan made a name for himself as a bright young scholar,
Abigail raised their two children, putting aside her graduate work from
the time she became pregnant with Melanie until 1973, when the family
settled in Lexington. She completed her dissertation in 1975, entitled
"The Left Against the Court: The Supreme Court and Its Critics,
1900-1937"; it was, she laughs, "the world's worst dissertation." Still,
it landed her a job teaching in the social studies program at Harvard,
and she started reviewing books for The New Republic, now owned
and edited by her old friend Marty Peretz.

One day in the spring of 1978, the Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer,
who had recently published Affirmative Discrimination, the ur-text
of affirmative action opponents, took her to lunch. (Glazer has since
declared his support for a soft form of affirmative action.) Glazer,
whom Abigail describes as "the single most important intellectual
influence in my life," told her to "stop taking care of the kids and get
to work." His advice was to "become the world's greatest authority on
some one little topic." That summer, while reading one of the landmark
cases on voting rights--the United Jewish Orgs. v. Carey, a
redistricting case involving Hasidic Jews--Abigail discovered her one
little topic. When she bumped into Glazer, he encouraged her to write
on voting rights for The Public Interest, a recently established
neoconservative journal.

The following spring, she published her findings in an article
called "The Odd Evolution of the Voting Rights Act." The evolution was
"odd" because the act was no longer being applied to eliminate obstacles
that disenfranchised black voters--its original and sole purpose, in
her view. The Voting Rights Act was being used instead to ensure that
blacks and "language minorities," such as Mexicans, were elected to
office according to their numerical strength.

Abigail wasn't entirely wrong: The focus of the act had shifted
since blacks won the ballot, and civil rights attorneys were calling
attention to more subtle forms of disenfranchisement, such as at-large
electoral systems that effectively deprived blacks and other minorities
of a say on city commissions and school boards. By "diluting" the votes
of blacks who might otherwise have been able to elect candidates of
their choice to single-member offices, at-large voting often had the
same effect as outright disenfranchisement. In March of 1969, the civil
rights community received powerful support from Chief Justice Earl
Warren of the U.S. Supreme Court. In the majority decision in Allen
v. State Board of Elections,
Warren argued that "the right to vote
can be affected by a dilution of voting power as well as by an absolute
prohibition on casting a ballot." The federal government could step in
to prevent such dilution, he ruled, under Section 5 of the act--the
"preclearance" provision forbidding changes in electoral arrangements
without the approval of the Court or attorney general.

This was, in Abigail's view, a promiscuous extension of preclearance,
which until then had only protected blacks from purposeful
disenfranchisement. Justice Warren's decision, she wrote in her
Public Interest article, "permanently blurred the distinction
between disenfranchisement and dilution, and between equality of
political opportunity and equality of electoral result." And so Section
5 of the Voting Rights Act had become "a tool for guaranteeing minority
groups maximum electoral effectiveness." In its zeal to guarantee that
votes cast by minorities were not "diluted," the Justice Department was
creating a "ward system" of "proportional representation" for
minorities--affirmative action in the electoral realm. The act's "main
accomplishment," she concluded darkly, may be the "political
polarization of the society along racial and ethnic lines... . If our
aim is to create one society--not two or four or twenty--is this the
direction in which we want to go?"

Abigail's article caused a stir in conservative intellectual circles.
Her writing was brash and forceful, and the "irony" she
underscored--that the Voting Rights Act now posed a direct threat to the
fragile fabric of race relations--was eagerly seized upon by the act's
conservative critics. A year later, one such critic--Ronald
Reagan--became president of the United States. A fervent opponent of
affirmative action and a self-proclaimed supporter of a colorblind
America, Reagan named a rabid conservative, William Bradford Reynolds,
as his assistant attorney general for civil rights. Suddenly, Abigail
Thernstrom had a hot subject on her hands--and a perspective that made
her a potentially valuable asset to the conservative movement. If the
1960s had been a time of opportunity for liberal critics, the 1980s were
boom time for critics of liberalism. "The Reagan era was a godsend for
her," said Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, who has known the
Thernstroms for three decades. "There was an opening for more rigorous
critics of affirmative action, people who could offer a principled
critique. Abby moved in to fill that slot, and it very rapidly gave her
a national voice."

The tide seemed to be turning in her favor in the courts as well. Six
months before Reagan was elected, the Supreme Court's ruling in
Mobile v. Bolden offered a striking confirmation of Abigail's
views on voting rights. The case involved a challenge by black
plaintiffs to the at-large method of electing the city commission of
Mobile, Alabama. The racially discriminatory impact of the system,
founded at the end of Reconstruction, was undeniable: Although African
Americans made up more than a third of Mobile's population, none had
ever been elected to the commission. The Fifth Circuit had held for the
plaintiffs, but the Supreme Court reversed the decision, asserting that
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act required proof of discriminatory
intent, a notoriously difficult thing to establish. The strict
standard of intent adopted by the Court (hailed by Abigail Thernstrom as
"simple, principled, and tight") made it much harder for minorities to
win in voting-rights cases.

A sense of alarm spread through the civil rights community, since the
special provisions of the Voting Rights Act, including Section 5, were
due to expire in August 1982. In the spring of 1981, a group of
voting-rights experts hunkered down in the capital to draft an
amendment to Section 2 that would make impact rather than intent the
main basis for determining discrimination, and thereby override the
Mobile decision. After being awarded a Twentieth Century Fund
grant to write a book on the subject, Abigail followed the voting-rights
experts to Washington.

"She was very charming," recalls Laughlin McDonald, the director of
the southern regional office of the American Civil Liberties Union
in Atlanta and one of the amendment drafters. "She told me she'd
gone to Barnard and she said, 'I'm an old SNCC person.'" She became a
fly on the wall of the offices of voting-rights activists. She listened
as they plotted strategy, and she took notes for her book. In
retrospect--if one considers the stakes involved--the degree of access
she was granted seems astonishing. After all, she had become
increasingly cozy with critics of the Voting Rights Act, particularly
Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and his staff.

In the fall of 1981, Abigail made her first trip down south. The
civil rights attorneys she met there, she says, envied her ease among
blacks. "There was a level of comfort on my part in moving in an
interracial setting that wasn't true for these lefties, these white
lefties, who were saying, 'How come you're spending all this time with
blacks, you know, and they're having completely forthright
conversations with you? And you're having a grand time, and, you know,
they love you, and you love them.' It was precisely their race
consciousness that created a barrier for [them]. And again I had such a
history and a level of comfort you know, hangin' around with blacks,
that it stood me in very good stead."

The "white lefties" who showed her around the South have different
memories of her visit. "She came into our offices and said, 'This is the
first time I've been in Atlanta,'" McDonald told me. "This sounded
strange to me, since the headquarters of SNCC were in Atlanta and she
said she was an old SNCC person." The voting-rights historian Peyton
McCrary, who received Abigail in Mobile a few weeks later, says, "It was
like she was in a foreign country. She seemed naive. I mean, everyone in
Mobile understood that if you changed from at-large to district
elections, blacks would get elected, and a lot of whites considered that
a bad thing."

Abigail told McDonald she wanted to speak to his clients in Rogers
v. Lodge,
a districting case in nearby Burke County. "I told her we
didn't want anyone talking to our clients with litigation pending.
That's just legal theory 101, because people say things to the press
that come back to haunt you." According to McDonald, Abigail took her
complaints to Morris Abrams, a civil rights attorney whose views on race
had become increasingly conservative over the years. Abrams then wrote a
letter to ACLU President Norman Dorsen in which he accused the
organization of betraying its commitment to freedom of the press.

It wasn't the last time Abigail deployed this tactic. In early 1982,
she asked J. Morgan Kousser, a voting-rights historian at the California
Institute of Technology, to help her arrange an interview with the
plaintiffs in Mobile v. Bolden, which was being tried on remand in
an Alabama court. According to Kousser, who had been friendly with the
Thernstroms since their days in Los Angeles, "She made a statement which
I took to mean that if she weren't given access, she would testify
against the amendment to Section 2 in the Senate. So reluctantly,
thinking that it might cause my friends to distrust me for the rest of
my life, I called Jim Blacksher, an attorney for Bolden who'd argued the
case before the Supreme Court." When Armand Derfner, a prominent South
Carolina voting-rights attorney, heard that Abigail was coming down to
Mobile in the fall for an interview with the plaintiffs, he nearly
exploded. "You've got to be crazy!" he remembers telling Blacksher.
"She's one of the generals in the fight to make sure Section 2 doesn't
get amended, one of the generals in the fight against the Voting Rights
Act! How do we know she's not going to report back to the other side?"
Blacksher withdrew the offer, telling Abigail she was welcome to look at
his public documents but that she couldn't talk to his witnesses until
they'd testified.

She was livid. Derfner, she complained to Kousser, was stonewalling
her research. Kousser was frightened that she'd strike back. Abigail
didn't testify against Section 2 at the 1982 hearings. But it appears
she chose a more revealing form of revenge. On March 19, 1982, an
editorial by John H. Bunzel, a fellow at the Hoover Institution,
appeared in The Wall Street Journal under the title "Hardball
Voting-Rights Hearings." Without identifying any of the parties by name,
Bunzel wrote that some long-time supporters of the Voting Rights Act, who were invited
to testify before the House or Senate Judiciary subcommittees, were
subjected to harassment and intimidation.... A recognized authority on
the Voting Rights Act, scheduled to testify on the opening day of the
hearings, had planned a research trip this fall to a Southern city. In
preparation for the trip, she called an attorney (and a friend), who
said he would help set up some interviews with politically active
blacks. But a week later she was told that non-cooperation had been
ordered by a leading strategist working closely with the Leadership
Conference on Civil Rights, unless she backed out of the Senate
hearings. It was also made clear that no one else active in civil rights
in the South was likely to help her as long as she planned to testify.
She withdrew as a witness.

The subject of--and source for--this could only have been Abigail

For Abigail, the sense of hurt, of betrayal, is still raw. "I was a
good liberal Democrat, and the Democrats and civil rights attorneys
treated me like dirt. Meanwhile, the Republicans, who knew perfectly
well I was a good liberal Democrat--the Republicans, for instance, on
the Hill--were delighted to let me see material and talk to me. These
were the people who kept teasing me about my politics but were
completely open to me. I mean, it was just ridiculous. Whereas the
Democrats couldn't have been more hostile. And this was a very
important fact in my evolution."

In June of 1982--with overwhelming support from the Senate and the
House--the amendment to Section 2 passed and Section 5 was upheld. And
thanks in large part to Peyton McCrary and J. Morgan Kousser, the
historians who demonstrated the discriminatory intent behind the
adoption of at-large elections in Mobile in 1874, an agreement was
reached ending at-large elections. Curiously enough, Bolden's victory
received not a single mention in Abigail Thernstrom's 1987 book Whose
Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Rights.
Featuring a
blurb by her friend Michael Walzer and dedicated to her husband,
Whose Votes Count? was an elaboration of the arguments Abigail had
made in her Public Interest article. Likening the Voting Rights
Act to "a curfew imposed in the wake of a riot--an emergency measure
taken with the expectation that it would be lifted as soon as conditions
allowed," she declared that it was time for the Justice
Department-imposed curfew to be lifted.

Some of her criticisms were legitimate. By carving districts composed
primarily of black voters, the Justice Department had "whitened"
adjoining districts, thus leaving them vulnerable to Republican
takeover. As Abigail noted, "When whites on a city council or other
legislative body owe nothing to black support, blacks in the minority
may find themselves consistently outvoted and thus isolated." But her
tone was so shrill and her treatment of black claims of discrimination
was so dismissive as to distract attention from the book's merits. The
"appalling level of black teenage pregnancy," she wrote, "is not an
argument for creating a maximum number of 65 percent black districts."

Not surprisingly, the book was skewered by the voting-rights
advocates Abigail had met and interviewed. In a withering critique
published in The Journal of Law and Politics in the spring of
1988, Peyton McCrary and Pamela S. Karlan argued that "Whose Votes
so distorts the evidence that it cannot be taken seriously as
scholarship." They continued: "It is ironic that Thernstrom insists that
at-large systems adopted years ago--when blacks were largely
disenfranchised--are the product of democratic process, while recent
local decisions to adopt systems that more accurately reflect the
political strength of minorities are not."

Abigail says she took such criticism in stride: "I knew what was
coming by then. But, you know, I'm very stubborn, and I don't let people
push me around. It's what I believe. And all this race-conscious stuff,
I don't believe it's in the public interest, I don't think it's in the
interest of black Americans, and I think it's going to walk us down the
same wrong road. It's not what I grew up with, and I've never changed my
view on that."

By this point, Abigail also, she says, "had a name." But even with
her new reputation, tenure eluded her; she ended up in an adjunct
position in Boston University's school of education. She insists she was
never interested in being a full-time professor. According to Orlando
Patterson, however, "Abby is as invested in academic life as Steve is,
and it basically hasn't worked out for her. I suspect there's some
bitterness there, and I think that factor has played into her sense of
grievance and driven her to take an even stronger position against
affirmative action."

The "Rape" of Stephan Thernstrom

Stephan Thernstrom's rage against liberalism, like his wife's, is a
profoundly personal conviction that reflects an acute sense of
victimization. Like his wife, he sees himself as an embattled
intellectual who has suffered for his principles at the hands of an
angry, intolerant left. Abigail's break with the left occurred in
Washington; Stephan's took place painfully closer to home, on the
Harvard campus. While he was in Los Angeles, Harvard had undergone some
of the most divisive battles in its history. There was the struggle for
a separate black studies department, led by the fiery Caribbean lawyer
Ewart Guinier, Lani Guinier's father. There were the anti-ROTC protests
by Students for a Democratic Society, which culminated in the April 1969
occupation of University Hall. And then came feminism.

To Stephan's closest friends at Harvard--men like Oscar Handlin and
the political theorist Harvey Mansfield, men who had supported the
Vietnam War and sided with Harvard's administration--this was all very
frightening. The campus wars of 1969 and beyond had driven Handlin and
Mansfield sharply to the right. Stephan still considered himself a
liberal, but like them he was a fierce Harvard loyalist and he abhorred
the left's assault on the university and its values. In 1979, as a
visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge, he saw "social democracy
in action" and concluded that Margaret Thatcher was "injecting some
bracing, and long overdue changes in English government." And though he
didn't vote Republican until 1988, he found himself "very irritated at
the Harvard conventional wisdom about Reagan--'Ha, ha, ha, he's so
stupid!' when, as we looked around, it seemed to us that he was doing
some things quite successfully."

On campus, Stephan struck some of his colleagues as isolated and
embittered. In Mandarin fashion, he enjoyed poking fun at examples of
"political correctness"--a poisonous influence, he thought, on the life
of the mind. In February 1988, a black woman attending his class on "The
Peopling of America" took offense at a passing remark he made about
black men abandoning their wives and children. She told some friends of
hers in the black students' organization; they proceeded to file a
complaint with Harvard's Committee on Race Relations. One day, Stephan
opened The Harvard Crimson to find himself a man on trial, charged
with racial insensitivity by an anonymous accuser.

"What Steve said about black men was statistically true," Orlando
Patterson says. "The problem was the way he'd said it, the tone."
Patterson found out who the student was and met her for coffee. "She
went back to Steve and said she understood that it wasn't a racist
remark and they shook hands. So I thought things had settled. But Steve
was convinced that this was a clear case of academic freedom. When his
colleagues decided this wasn't a battle they wanted to wage, I think he
felt betrayed. The whole thing was blown way out of proportion." A month
after the incident, Dean of Faculty Michael Spence issued a statement
assuring that Stephan's academic freedom would be protected, but it was
too little, too late. "I felt like a rape victim," Stephan said in
Dinesh D'Souza's 1991 anti-PC diatribe, Illiberal Education.

For Stephan, Harvard's tepid defense of his academic freedom was bad
enough. Now that his reputation was stained by an accusation that he was
a racist, he felt shunned by his colleagues. And where were liberal
friends like Michael Walzer? As an old comrade, Stephan thought he
deserved an outpouring of support, a letter-writing campaign to Harvard
that would testify to his antiracist credentials, his record of liberal
activism. "After that episode, he and Abby just withdrew from the
university," Patterson remembers. "Steve felt that all his colleagues
had abandoned him. I thought I was a friend of Steve's. We'd been
visiting fellows at Cambridge together. And then suddenly, boom! It was
the same with all his other friends. He and Abby just withdrew to a
whole new group of people, mainly conservatives."

The Scourge of Racial Preferences

Meanwhile, even though the country seemed to be moving in one
direction, electing Bill Clinton, a vocal supporter of affirmative
action, to the presidency in 1992, the Rehnquist Court was moving in
another, solidifying the Reagan-era backlash against the gains of the
civil rights movement. Pilloried by voting-rights advocates when it was
published, Abigail Thernstrom's Whose Votes Count? began to enjoy
a new lease on life in the courts.

In the 1993 case of Shaw v. Reno, the Supreme Court made the
first in a series of rulings invalidating majority-minority districts as
an unconstitutional form of racial gerrymandering. As a result of the
creation of these districts (all drawn after the decennial census of
1990), 39 blacks were elected to Congress in 1992, up from 24 in 1988.
Black politicians won in states where not even one African American had
been elected to Congress since Reconstruction--Alabama, Florida, and
Louisiana. But in the majority opinion in Shaw v. Reno, Justice
Sandra Day O'Connor, in effect quoting Abigail Thernstrom, declared that
"racial classifications of any sort pose the risk of lasting harm to our
society" and that black-majority districts bear "an uncomfortable
resemblance to political apartheid." Two years later, the Court struck
down Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney's district in Georgia; in June of
1996, it nullified majority-minority congressional districts in Texas
and North Carolina.

McKinney ran again and won--a victory that Abigail held up as
evidence that there are no longer barriers to black candidates in
majority-white settings in the South--but most voting-rights experts,
and McKinney herself, believe she owed her victory partly to incumbency.
Douglas Wilder, the first black governor of Virginia and a politician
Abigail promotes as a model for his ability to appeal to white voters,
won his first campaign in a majority-black district, as have a number of
other successful black politicians in majority-white districts.

"Abby's thinking has given a scholarly covenant to the five-member
majority on the Court," says J. Morgan Kousser. "Abby is the first
scholarly citation in Clarence Thomas's concurrence in Holder v.
which is the most extreme statement on voting rights that
anyone has made since '69. In fact, it directly calls for overturning
the '69 Allen ruling [regarding preclearance]."

Despite the growing influence of her book, Abigail Thernstrom has
appeared only once in court as an expert witness--unlike her husband, an
expert witness for hire who is paid $200 an hour for his services even
though he has no academic expertise in voting rights. It's a strategic
division of labor. In 1986 Katharine Butler, a conservative law
professor at the University of South Carolina, asked Abigail to be an
expert witness in a redistricting case in Georgia. "My line from the
very beginning," Abigail remembers, "was, 'Get Steve. He'd be much
better at this than I am.' He went to college on a debate scholarship,
with a B.S. in public speaking, of all things, and he's fast on
his feet verbally, and he also has an ability to go through mounds of
material very fast. I don't have those talents, so he does the
voting-rights stuff rather than me." Since then, when school boards and
city commissions have found themselves challenged in court by minorities
claiming they've been denied a voice in local affairs, Stephan
Thernstrom has readily made himself available.

In the spring of 1997, for example, after a two-week vacation in the
Galápagos Islands, he squared off with Laughlin McDonald, Abby's
old adversary, in a courtroom in Montezuma, Colorado. (Actually, Stephan
testified by phone, having never set foot in the town.) McDonald was
representing a group of Ute Mountain Indians as they challenged the
at-large method of electing the local school board. The Utes, who
comprised nearly a fifth of the county's population, had been entirely
excluded from the process. Stephan had been hired by the school
board--at a fee of nearly $10,000--to refute an expert report filed on
behalf of the Utes by a historian of the American West.

Under cross-examination, Stephan admitted not only that he had done
no primary research on the history of American Indians, but that before
he was hired by the school board he "had never heard of the Ute Mountain
Indians specifically, though a mention or two of them appear in a book I
edited, The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups." Asked
about the level of support Indian candidates had received from Indian
voters in past elections, he drew a blank: "Two weeks in the
Galápagos, where the airport was closed by snow, et cetera,
I'm--this all seems very remote to my memory now." The court ruled in
favor of the Utes.

Nothing has engaged Stephan's energies as an activist more intensely
than the scourge of racial preferences in college and high school
admissions. From his home office in Lexington, on Harvard University
stationery, he has written to dozens of schools, requesting that data on
grades, test scores, and family income be sent to Linda Chavez's Center
for Equal Opportunity (CEO). The CEO scours the data for evidence of a
minority quota system in violation of the 1978 Regents of the
University of California v. Bakke
decision. The schools in question
can either curtail their affirmative action programs (as the University
of Massachusetts did after receiving a letter from Stephan in the summer
of 1998) or face a possible antidiscrimination lawsuit. Stephan's 1998
letter was featured in a booklet by the right-wing Center for Individual
Rights. Distributed at public colleges in an effort to recruit the
future Bakkes of America, the pamphlet reassured presumptive victims of
affirmative action: "Remember that you do not need proof of exactly how
you have been discriminated against in order to file a lawsuit."

Stephan claims that he has the best interests of black students in
mind and notes, correctly, that their graduation rates at public
universities are much lower than those for whites and Asians. The fact
that Proposition 209 drastically reduced the number of black students
attending Berkeley might actually be a good thing, he says, because
they're better off attending, say, Riverside, where they'll be able to
keep up. But here Stephan has got it wrong: Rigorous schools have
lower dropout rates for black students, because, as James Traub
observed in The New York Times Magazine, "Once you have been
admitted to the rarified community of a Harvard or a Yale or a
Berkeley, you are almost not allowed to fail."

In Massachusetts, Stephan has played a small but significant role in
the politics of secondary education. Since the 1960s, the state has seen
some of the bloodiest battles over school integration north of the
Mason-Dixon line. It was in Boston in 1974 that U.S. District Court
Justice W. Arthur Garrity, Jr., issued the original forced-busing order,
which set off a near civil war as South Boston Irish children threw
rocks and bottles at black children from Roxbury. Today, public schools
in Massachusetts are more segregated than ever, with blacks and Latinos
generally attending the worst ones.

Even so, Stephan thinks minority children in his state are a
privileged class, beneficiaries of unearned preferences. In 1996 he
served as a consultant in the case of Michael McLaughlin's daughter
against Boston Latin, an elite public school in Boston. Julia McLaughlin
was a 12-year-old white girl who until then had always attended Catholic
schools. When she was denied admission to Boston Latin, she sued on the
grounds that the school's 35 percent set-aside for black and Latino
applicants violated her civil rights under the equal protection clause
of the 14th Amendment. The judge presiding in the case was none other
than W. Arthur Garrity, Jr., who on August 29, 1997, decided in favor of
McLaughlin. And while the ruling was a shock to those who remembered
Garrity as the liberal judge behind court-ordered busing, it was in step
with other decisions handed down in recent years. The Rehnquist Court
may eventually rule that consideration of race in school assignment is
unconstitutional and effectively override Brown v. Board of
For fear of inviting such a decision, Boston school
officials declined to appeal Garrity's ruling. When I asked Stephan
about his role in the case, he described it as "pro-bono," although
Michael McLaughlin later asked the court to pay the witness $14,050--a
request Garrity denied, characterizing Stephan's long sessions coaching
Michael and Julia McLaughlin as "an odd exercise whose purpose eludes

America in Black and White

In 1997 the Thernstroms' magnum opus, America in Black and
was published by the Free Press. The product of seven years of
research, it was written with the support of several right-wing think
tanks and foundations, including a $180,000 grant from the John M. Olin
Foundation. A hymn to racial optimism, America in Black and White
was intended as a sequel, and response, to Gunnar Myrdal's An
American Dilemma.
In the Thernstroms' view, there was no longer an
American dilemma, or at least not the one that Myrdal had described.
African Americans, they demonstrated by way of numerous statistical
charts, were doing better than ever, entering the middle class at
unprecedented speed. Unfortunately, blacks and liberals were continuing
to berate America as if it hadn't changed. "The stereotype [of black
poverty] serves an important political purpose: it nurtures the mix of
black anger and white shame that sustains the race-based social policies
implemented since the late 1960s."

The first section of the book, "History," was a balanced and often
horrifying survey of race in America up to the civil rights movement.
The second, dominant part of the book, "Out of the Sixties," was a tale
of blacks who misbehave and the liberals who coddle them. Downplaying
the significance of black protest, the Thernstroms argued that the
civil rights movement had triumphed because of a "quiet revolution in
attitudes"--white attitudes. When Martin Luther King, Jr., took the
movement north, they wrote, he went too far. He lost the sympathy of the
very whites whose change in attitudes had allowed his cause to succeed.
"From their perspective, the Irish, Italians and Jews had all lived in
their own 'ghettos' when they first settled in American cities; it
seemed to have done them no harm." If blacks in the ghetto complain of
joblessness, that's "in part a consequence of black crime." ("We speak
of black crime as a convenient shorthand, hard to avoid.") As for the
inflammatory Willie Horton ads, they were "factually sound, and they
raised serious policy issues: the risks to the public that furlough
programs entail."

Reading America in Black and White, one cannot help wondering
what, if anything, America owes the descendants of slaves. I asked
Abigail Thernstrom whether the debt had been paid. "Oh, my God. Of
course it owes black Americans something in that there's been a
terrible, horrible history here... . But you know talk of reparations
and so forth is not gonna do anything." So what does the country owe
blacks? "It owes a commitment to racial equality." In retrospect,
however, she says: "There were points [in America in Black and
] that had a backlash tone that I would take out today. I was
very angry at the time. I do think it's more polemical than I would have
made it today." And yet that polemical tone served its purpose: It gave
the Thernstroms a national platform, complete with invitations to the
White House and appearances on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and CNN.

Embraced by the right, America in Black and White led to a
rupture with the black economist Glenn Loury, one of the couple's close
intellectual friends. A leading architect of black Reaganism in the
1980s, Loury knew that the Thernstroms were drawn to him in part because
of his race, but he enjoyed their company nevertheless. "Steve and Abby
appreciated the difficulties of doing the kind of thing I was trying to
do," Loury remembers. "They understood that I wanted the best 'for my
people,' but that by my lights what I thought was best had put me at
odds with institutions like Harvard and the Ford Foundation. I was
taking a line that had a certain amount of courage, and I was paying a

By the mid-1990s, however, the friendship began to cool. When Abigail
published an article arguing that it was unfair to place the burden of
proof on employers in discrimination cases, Loury wrote her a friendly
letter pointing out her errors. "I told her if the civil rights laws of
1964 are going to mean anything, you can't go around forcing plaintiffs
to prove motives. I think she felt I was pulling rank with her as an
economist." At a barbecue in the summer of 1996, he and the Thernstroms
got into a heated quarrel about the black underclass. "I said we cannot
give up on these people. And they said, 'That's all very well and good,
Glenn, but what do you propose to do? By implication and tone, you
suggest that you care more about this than we do.' Things were smoothed
over a little bit, but there was a clear strain."

Still, the relationship was healthy enough that when the Thernstroms'
publisher asked Loury to blurb America in Black and White, he
agreed, even though he hadn't read it. Shortly thereafter, however,
The Atlantic Monthly asked him to review the book. Loury called
Abigail to ask whether she'd mind if he did the review instead of the
blurb. After speaking with her publisher, who told her that "it's much
better to have Glenn's review in the Atlantic," she encouraged him
to take the assignment.

Loury's review was quietly devastating. Describing the book as "an
important, learned and searching statement on our age-old social
dilemma," he praised his friends for presenting "a wealth of evidence
... on the progressive liberalization of racial attitudes among whites
of the past half-century" and for telling "hard truths unsparingly."
What America in Black and White lacked, however, was "an
appreciation of irony, and a sense of the tragic." "Reading it," he
observed, "one cannot escape the impression that the enemy is being
engaged... . A great many adherents of the civil rights vision remain at
large among us, and the authors seem determined to ferret them out and
prove them wrong."

Loury cited econometric studies showing there was almost no evidence
for the Thernstroms' assertion that "black crime" was a cause of black
poverty. Loury also assailed the Thernstroms' argument that
Afrocentrism and underqualified black teachers were to blame for the low
performance of K-12 black students. Afrocentrism, he noted, remains a
fringe phenomenon in education, while three-quarters of public school
teachers are white.

Most damaging of all, Loury showed that the Thernstroms carelessly
misread their own data in places. Attempting to expose as a liberal
shibboleth the idea that the war on drugs had increased the
incarceration rate among African-American males, the Thernstroms wrote:
"African Americans are a bit less likely to be arrested for drug
offenses than they are for most other crimes." But the table they
referred to, Loury pointed out, "shows no such thing. It provides the
per capita arrest rates of blacks relative to the population as a
whole, for various offenses, allowing one to see, for example, that in
1995 a randomly chosen black person was 2.9 times as likely to be
arrested for a drug offense and 4.3 times as likely to be arrested for
murder as a randomly chosen person from the general population. But this
does not mean that in absolute terms fewer blacks were arrested for drug
offenses than for murder. Indeed, just the opposite is true."

As a matter of courtesy, Loury e-mailed the review to the Thernstroms
before it went to press. "Their response was pure vitriol. They said it
was morally reprehensible and intellectually dishonest, and they refused
to speak to me," Loury says. "I had no sense I was going to end our
friendship by writing this review." A few months later, William F.
Buckley, Jr., and John Newhouse hosted a dinner in New York and invited
Loury. When the Thernstroms learned that Loury would be among the
guests, they boycotted the event. "The Thernstroms' reaction to Glenn's
review showed that they have become as politically correct in their
responses as the left is," Orlando Patterson says. "They brook no

The Thernstroms' rightward evolution has been gradual, so gradual it
surprises even them. When Abigail told me that she voted for Clinton in
1992, Stephan exclaimed, evidently flabbergasted, "Those are grounds for
divorce!" To which Abigail replied: "I voted Republican for the first
time in 1996. Look, I don't think this is political. I think this is
tribal. I identified myself as being a liberal Democrat, and I couldn't
face the fact that's not who I was. That's the group I belonged to."

Leaving the tribe, she says, has not been easy. It has involved not
just a change of mind but the loss of friends. When I mentioned Michael
Walzer, she picked her nails and looked down sadly. "So how are the
Walzers? I think Michael is unhappy about the direction we've taken
politically. Whereas I'm not at all unhappy with his politics. There's a
kind of imbalance. It's a big world. I mean, I just don't understand it.
People differ... . Some of my best friends are liberal Democrats." (The
Walzers and Thernstroms have seen one another just once in the past
decade. For his part, Michael Walzer says, "I've avoided reading their
big book, out of sadness or fear of some kind of final breach.")

Abigail fled from the tribe--the tribe of bien-pensant
Cambridge liberalism--because she found it as stifling as the communism
her parents espoused. "I've got a problem," she told me, "with being
stuffed into boxes. Put me in a room of conservatives and I start
running to the left; put me in a group of liberals and I start running
to the right. I mean, I just have problems with ideologically coercive
environments--I get claustrophobic." That may be true, but if so, her
record of public activism is all the more striking. For the only
positions to which she has advanced over the course of her 20-year
career place her far to the right along the American political
spectrum. No one, apparently not even her husband, would have guessed
that she was still, in her heart of hearts, a liberal Democrat until a
few years ago.

In the end, Abigail Thernstrom has not so much rejected ideological
boxes as she has sought security in another container--one that, unlike
the integrated setting of her childhood in Croton-on-Hudson, is nearly
all white. When I asked the couple whether they were troubled that
hardly any black Americans support their ideas on affirmative action and
racial justice, Stephan said: "Well, look, it's actually more
complicated than that... . The disagreement, I think, has to do with the
fact that not many blacks actually understand the magnitude of the
racial preferences within, for example, higher education--"

Just then, Abigail cut him off: "No, no, Adam's right. Look, I have
to figure out the issues for myself and call the shots as I see them.
Do I wish that I had, you know, more black company? That would be nice,
but at the end of the day, I'm me, and I can't be anybody else."