Abigail Thernstrom, a political scientist who was steeped in left-wing politics from childhood but became an influential conservative voice on racial equality, voting rights and education, died April 10 at a hospital in Arlington, Virginia. She was 83.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, author and journalist Melanie Thernstrom, who said that Dr. Thernstrom went into a coma about a week earlier. She had tested negative for the novel coronavirus, and it was unclear what had caused her decline, her daughter said.
Thernstrom was launched to national prominence with the publication of "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible" (1997), an optimistic and polarizing survey of race relations in America written with her husband, Harvard historian Stephan Thernstrom. Across 700 pages thick with charts, graphs and academic citations, they argued that African-Americans had made extraordinary gains over the past five decades, while lamenting that not enough progress had been made.
In television appearances and essays for publications including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the Thernstroms went on to champion a "colorblind" society while opposing the use of racial preferences, which they deemed divisive, inessential and largely ineffective. Their work made them two of America's leading conservative opponents of affirmative action - and stunned former allies on the left, who knew the Thernstroms from their earlier activism on behalf of liberal causes.
Thernstrom, who was raised on a left-wing commune outside New York City, had sung alongside Pete Seeger at the progressive Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village, picketed a Woolworth's department store to protest segregation and campaigned for presidential nominee George S. McGovern, voting for a Republican presidential candidate for the first time in 1988.
A year earlier, she challenged the creation of "majority-minority" electoral districts in her book "Whose Votes Count?," arguing that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 successfully opened polling booths to Southern blacks but should never have been used to create "safe" seats for minority politicians.
The book was later described by the American Prospect as "a virtual bible among conservative jurists, including Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas." But it was far from a right-wing treatise, winning the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (given to works focused on racism and diversity), and marked what Thernstrom described as a continuation of her longtime views.
"I'd say we've stuck to our principles over the years: Don't judge people on the basis of the color of their skin," she told The Washington Post in 1997. It was a shame, she said, that "the classic civil rights message is now called conservatism."
Thernstrom ultimately identified with the neoconservative movement, her husband said, and developed affiliations with a host of libertarian and conservative organizations, including the Center for Equal Opportunity, the Institute for Justice, the American Enterprise Institute and the Manhattan Institute, where she was a senior fellow.
She also served on the Massachusetts Board of Education for more than a decade, championing charter schools and overhauls to state testing, and was vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the George W. Bush administration. In an email, her daughter recalled that Thernstrom "infuriated her fellow Republicans (whom she disliked and referred to as 'political hacks') by voting with the Democrats more than with them."
Thernstrom remained best known for "America in Black and White," which she and her husband described as a spiritual sequel to "An American Dilemma," Gunnar Myrdal's classic 1944 study on race relations. Progress had been made since then, they argued, but "black crime," black nationalism and race-conscious programs such as affirmative action had stalled the march toward racial equality.
"I really believe it is the biggest book on race in a long time," Clint Bolick, then litigation director of the Institute for Justice, told The Post after its release. "I think that it is testimony to the deep substance of the book. They are out to prove their case, not simply throw rhetoric."
Some scholars, including economist Glenn Loury, argued with the Thernstroms' interpretation of crime and education data. Liberal critics said that the authors' opposition to preferences for African Americans ignored the enduring effects of slavery and racial discrimination; others accused them of striking a condescending tone.
"Here are two white people who are essentially lecturing black Americans," political scientist Andrew Hacker told the Times, "saying: 'What are you complaining about? Stop your griping. Here are the data. You're better off than ever before.' "
Thernstrom, who said she had hoped to elevate the national dialogue surrounding race, was invited to a confrontational town hall meeting on race by President Bill Clinton, who sparred with her over abolishing the Army's affirmative-action program and later invited the Thernstroms to the Oval Office for further discussion.
"This is simply an effort to draw a series of maps, to supply data, to teach how to weigh evidence," Thernstrom told The Post in 1997, responding to some of the criticism of her book. "Other people are going to be critics of our analysis. That's great. The data are there for them to analyze."
Abigail Mann was born in New York City on Sept. 14, 1936, and grew up in nearby Croton-on-Hudson. Her mother was a Jewish emigre from Germany, and her father owned a collective farm, home to left-wing intellectuals as well as Holocaust refugees.
"Unfortunately neither he nor any of the other people involved knew anything about farming," Thernstrom's daughter said in a phone interview. "They were all highly educated radicals, with the idea of living on the land and creating this utopia. . . . Animals were always dying, and nothing ever worked out."
Both parents sympathized with the Soviet Union, turning toward secular communism as a replacement for the Orthodox Judaism in which they were raised, and Thernstrom recalled early years "in a very racially integrated scene." She graduated from Elisabeth Irwin High in Manhattan and studied modern European history at Barnard College.
After receiving a bachelor's degree in 1958, she entered Harvard as a graduate student. She soon met Stephan Thernstrom, then a PhD student in American history, and switched from Middle Eastern studies to the government department, with a focus on constitutional law. "We just seemed to magically fit," her husband said in a phone interview, recalling their initial attraction.
They were married in 1959, a few months after they started dating.
While Stephan launched his academic career at the University of California at Los Angeles, Abigail delayed her doctoral research to focus on raising their two children: Melanie, of Palo Alto, California; and Samuel, of Arlington, Virginia. They survive her, in addition to her husband, of McLean, Virginia; and four grandchildren.
Thernstrom received her master's in 1961 and doctorate in 1975. She began teaching in Harvard's social studies program that same year and also reviewed books for the New Republic (then owned by a friend from Harvard, Marty Peretz), wrote for the Economist magazine and published some of her first voting rights articles in the Public Interest, a neoconservative journal.
With her husband, she edited the essay collection "Beyond the Color Line" (2001) and wrote "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning" (2003). She later published the solo volume "Voting Rights - and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections" (2009).
Thernstrom could be mischievous, telling the American Prospect that she and her husband had hung a framed photograph of Thomas, the Supreme Court justice and conservative icon, above their office fireplace "to make reporters faint."
"I've got a problem with being stuffed into boxes," she told the magazine. "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."
This article was written by Harrison Smith, a reporter for The Washington Post.