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Affirmative Action’s Unlikely Foes
One Academic Couple, One Critical Book and Plenty of Salvos
By STEVEN A. HOLMES
LEXINGTON, Mass. — At first glance, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom would seem an unlikely pair to lead the conservative charge against racial preference in America.
In earlier times, Mrs. Thernstrom, now 61 and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, attended the "little Red schoolhouse," an elementary school for children of a leftist community in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.; sang songs with Pete Seeger, and voted for George McGovern for President.
In earlier times, Mr. Thernstrom, now a distinguished 63-year-old history professor at Harvard, participated in Marxist study groups as a graduate student there, challenged loyalty oaths and other features of the McCarthy era, and protested the Bay of Pigs invasion.
By all rights, then, the Thernstroms would more likely be champions of affirmative action and all manner of other liberal causes.
Instead, they have emerged as influential voices on the right, thanks to their much talked about new book on race, "America in Black and White" (Simon & Schuster, 1997), and Mrs. Thernstrom's much noticed appearance in December at President Clinton's town hall meeting on race in Akron, Ohio.
The couple are much in demand on the conservative talk show circuit, where they forcefully argue that racial preferences are wrong, divisive and, as a tool to help minorities, overrated. They serve on the boards. of conservative and libertarian public policy institutes and acknowledge that in recent years they voted for Republican Presidential candidates for the first time in their lives— Stephan in 1992, Abigail in 1996.
"Abby and Steve Thernstrom grew up on the left and went through a kind of disillusionment and came to the view that there was something canned and ideologically repressive about the left on race," said Jim Sleeper, an ideological soul mate who is the author of "Liberal Racism" (Viking, 1997).
While some may see a remarkable journey in all this, the Thernstroms say the truth is that they never left home. When it comes to race, they say, the issue is not how much they have changed, but how much the left has shifted from colorblindness to color consciousness.
Seated on a sofa at the couple's home here in Lexington and stroking his ink black cat, Aslan (named for a character in C. S. Lewis's "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe"), Mr. Thernstrom recalled that in the early 1960's, he supported a bill in the Massachusetts legislature to eliminate all references to race, including the use of photographs, on applications for admission to state colleges.
"That seemed to me then absolutely the ideal—you admit people without any reference to their race," he said. "And it still seems to be the ideal to me. What's different is that it was a radical idea in 1963; and now it's a so-called conservative idea."
In the 700 pages of their book, thickly packed with charts, footnotes and other references, the Thernstroms juxtapose criticism of racial preferences with an exposition of the remarkable progress they say blacks have made since the 1940's, when Gunnar Myrdal published his classic study "An American Dilemma," on the plight of African Americans.
The Thernstroms' book argues not only that preferences are divisive but also, implicitly, that they are no longer necessary.
"We do not say that they make no difference whatsoever," Mrs. Thernstrom said. "We do say that they haven't made as much difference as is widely attributed to them and that they carry with them a very high cost. When it comes to race, the test of any public policy is, Will it bring us together or divide us? Preferences flunk that test."
Since publication of the book, the attacks from some on the left have been unrelenting.
Christopher Edley, a Harvard Law School professor who is a consultant to the President's race relations initiative, called the book a "crime against humanity" (a remark he now terms "regrettable"). Although Mr. Edley says he is eager for diverse voices to be heard in the race relations debate, he acknowledges that he strenuously (and unsuccessfully) lobbied to exclude the Thernstroms from a White House meeting that Mr. Clinton held with conservatives in December.
"My whole pitch," Mr. Edley said, "has been the search for the kernel of truth in what the other side is saying. But I think there are some participants, on the far left and the far right, who are too shrill and ideological to be helpful."
Some critics contend that the Thernstroms, in trying to demonstrate dramatic black progress and a lessening of white prejudice, misinterpreted the mountain of data in their book.
Andrew Hacker, professor of political science at Queens College and author of "Two Nations Black and White: Separate, Hostile and Unequal" (Ballantine, 1995), said:
"Here are two white people who are essentially lecturing black Americans, saying: 'What are you complaining about? Stop your griping. Here are the data. You're better off than ever before.'"
Suffused throughout much of their opponents' criticism is a notion that the Thernstroms' work is essentially payback for slights they have endured over the years from those they consider the liberal guardians of racial orthodoxy.
"I think their fixation on the culture wars of the last decade and proving their enemies, the racial liberals, are wrong has in some way distorted their vision and had consequences in the way they interpreted data," said Glen C. Loury, a professor of economics at Boston University.
Mrs. Thernstrom says that in the early 1980's, intimidated by a lawyer working for what she calls a mainstream civil rights organization, she was compelled to decline an invitation to testify at a Senate hearing on extending the Voting Rights Act.
At the time, Mrs. Thernstrom was researching her first book, "Whose Votes Count?: Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights" (Harvard University Press, 1987), a critique of the drawing of election districts with large majorities of blacks in order to promote the election of black lawmakers. By her account, the lawyer, whom she declines to identify, told her that if she testified against these so-called majority-minority districts, he would block access to people and data in the South that she needed to complete her book.
"I backed down," Mrs. Thernstrom said. "I never testified."
And in 1988, Mr. Thernstrom, who was among the first historians to use data like bank and home ownership records to trace the social mobility of ethnic groups, was accused by black students of making racially insensitive remarks in his lectures. Although cleared of any wrongdoing, he felt that Harvard's hierarchy had not adequately defended him.
But the Thernstroms vehemently deny that any past indignities influenced their latest work.
" We had. some thoughts about writing such a book earlier," Mrs. Thernstrom recalled, "and I said to Steve on a number of occasions, 'You have to get beyond your anger about that situation before you touch this subject.' "
And while acknowledging that the tone of their book may at times be polemical, Mr. Thernstrom said it was difficult to quibble with their empirical findings.
" Whatever the possible truth of the psychological argument," he said, "it's really totally irrelevant to the truth claims of the book."
Yet colleagues and opponents alike say the Thernstroms, especially Mrs. Thernstrom, can be thin skinned and at least one former friend says they have a tendency to lash out when criticized.
Mr. Loury, once a close friend of the couple, says the relationship became strained in recent years as he moved somewhat to the left and they, in his view, moved more to the right.
Last year The Atlantic asked him to review their book, and he sent them a draft, which was critical. They sent back a note, he says, that called the review "morally reprehensible, intellectually dishonest and indefensibly nasty."
Mr. Loury and the Thernstroms stopped speaking to each other, although in recent weeks they have begun trying to patch things up.
Asked about Mr. Loury's review, Mrs. Thernstrom said: "I won't talk about Glen Loury, because I don't think it's a story about our book. I think it's a story about our relationship. And that's all I will say."
When her husband started to add something, Mrs. Thernstrom aimed her stocking foot at his shin.
"And," she said forcefully, "I am not going to talk about it."
©1999 The New York Times
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