By JASON L. RILEY
Trayvon Martin. Voter ID laws. Color-conscious college admissions policies heading for the Supreme Court again. It seems like a good time to check in with Abigail Thernstrom, a reliable fount of honesty and uncommon sense on matters racial.
“Did you hear [U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder the other day say how much he loves Al Sharpton?” she asks as we park ourselves at the breakfast table in the suburban Washington, D.C., home that she shares with her husband and sometime collaborator Stephan Thernstrom, a Harvard historian. “This is a very poisonous message. The black leadership is suggesting that George Zimmerman is a typical white. That they’re all alike. Yes, he calls himself a white Hispanic, but they’re suggesting that inside the breast of every white is a willingness to kill a Trayvon Martin. It’s ridiculous, it’s sad, and it’s destructive.”
Ms. Thernstrom currently serves as vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and as an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Throughout her lengthy career as a public intellectual, she has distinguished herself as someone willing to speak truth to a civil rights establishment that regularly puts its own needs before those of the black underclass that it claims to represent.
“Steve and I were on the periphery of the civil rights movement,” she explains. “We were marching around in front of Woolworth’s in Cambridge [Mass.] in the ’60s. We did not go south because my daughter had just been born. But the commitment to racial equality has always been deeply embedded in how I define myself.
“Also, I’m not good at being told what to think. And so when I got into the issue of race—and I didn’t turn to it professionally until I was teaching Harvard freshmen in the ’70s—I looked at the conventional wisdom and read these Supreme Court cases and I said, ‘Wait a minute, this picture is wrong.’”
Ms. Thernstrom took particular interest in the black franchise, which would become the subject of her first book, “Whose Votes Count?” published in 1987. “When I started writing about minority voting rights, it was the most neglected race-related issue,” she says. “Nobody really cared much about it, except for the hard left, who cared mostly about racially gerrymandered districts. The Republicans didn’t care because they were benefiting from them.”