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Abigail Thernstrom, Scholarly Foe of Affirmative Action, Dies at 83 | Press "Enter" to skip to content

Abigail Thernstrom, Scholarly Foe of Affirmative Action, Dies at 83

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“We do not say that they make no difference whatsoever,” Dr. Thernstrom told The New York Times in 1998. “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.”

Dr. Thernstrom argued that while she had sung along with Pete Seeger as a girl and in 1972 voted for George McGovern over Richard M. Nixon, she hadn’t become a convert from liberalism. (She voted for a Republican for president for the first time in 1992, picking George H.W. Bush over Bill Clinton.)

Instead, she said, she had consistently heeded the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s gospel that people should be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.

Reviewing “America in Black and White” for The Atlantic Monthly, the conservative economist Glenn C. Loury wrote that the Thernstroms’ exhaustive study “tells hard truths unsparingly.” But he also said that it lacked “an appreciation of irony, and a sense of the tragic.”

“Being right about liberals’ having been wrong is an accomplishment, to be sure, but it is no longer good enough,” Professor Loury wrote, adding that the book “contains insights deserving a wide reading, along with unfounded speculations that, in my opinion, are best ignored.”

Other critics invoked President Lyndon B. Johnson’s analogy from 1965 that fairness is not merely taking “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.’”

The political scientist Andrew Hacker also found fault with their argument, telling The Times, “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.’”


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