Sunday, May 20, 2012
Abigail Thernstrom On Race
THE WEEKEND INTERVIEWMay 18, 2012, 6:58 p.m. ET Abigail Thernstrom: The Good News About Race in America The 1965 Voting Rights Act has been a huge success. So why are black activists keen to press the discrimination button on issues like voter ID? By JASON L. RILEY McLean, Va. 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." The objective of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was to ensure black access to the ballot, especially in the South, where violent white resistance was not uncommon. In 1961, the year President Obama was born, most Southern blacks were still disenfranchised. But that was then, and the goal of the law has long since been realized. In 1964, fewer than 7% of eligible blacks in Mississippi were registered to vote. Two years later, it was 60%, the highest in the South. Today, Southern states have higher black voter-registration rates than states outside the region. "Sometimes good legislation works precisely as initially intended," writes Ms. Thernstrom in her 2009 book, "Voting Rights and Wrongs." The problem, she contends, is that amendments have turned "the law into a constitutionally problematic, unprecedented attempt to impose what voting rights activists, along with their allies in Congress, the Justice Department and the judiciary, view as a racially fair distribution of political power." In 1966, the Supreme Court signed off on the constitutionality of Section 5 of the law, an "emergency" provision that says any changes in voting practices in certain (mainly Southern) jurisdictions must be cleared in advance by the Justice Department. This provision, which also has led to racially gerrymandered legislative districts that ensure the election of black and Hispanic candidates, has been repeatedly extended, most recently in 2006 for another quarter-century. Never mind the absurdity of pretending that black voters still need "emergency" protections when a black man occupies the Oval Office and another runs the Justice Department. Yet there was Mr. Holder telling an Austin, Texas, audience in December that photo-ID requirements hurt minorities and are driven by racial animus, not by any legitimate concern for ballot integrity. "Are we willing to allow this era—our era—to be remembered as the age when our nation's proud tradition of expanding the franchise ended?" said Mr. Holder. "Call on our political parties to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes." What has Mr. Holder on edge is the possibility that the Supreme Court might soon have the opportunity to rule on the continued constitutionality of Section 5. The Obama Justice Department blocked a voter-ID law in South Carolina, and the state has filed a federal suit to overturn the decision. A separate challenge has been brought by Shelby County, Ala., which argues that it can be trusted to run elections fairly without strict federal oversight. Yesterday, a divided panel of judges on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the county and upheld Section 5. Both cases are high-court possibilities. But Ms. Thernstrom thinks that even if Section 5 can survive a new round of judicial scrutiny and the oversight continues, there are demographic reasons for liberals to be worried. "The civil rights community—they aren't idiots," she says. "They know the clock is ticking. If you don't have black ghettos—if 50% of the black population has moved to the suburbs, which is the accurate figure—you've got a problem creating a safe black seat." She notes that suburban America has been dramatically altered by the changes in immigration law in 1965. "You've got Asians. You've got Hispanics. And none of them are residentially clustered enough so that you can draw neat little lines around them and create reserved seats for members of minority groups. Residential integration is not in the interest of voting rights advocates." Zina Saunders Besides, she says, racially tailored districts leave ambitious black politicians (and political discourse generally) worse off, insofar as they eliminate the need to build multiracial coalitions capable of winning broad support. It's not unusual for the entire Congressional Black Caucus in a given year to sport a more liberal voting record than the average white Democrat, which can limit the appeal of a black candidate to white voters. Republicans have tended to play along with racial gerrymandering because concentrating minority voters in a few districts can result in other districts with large concentrations of nonminorities, where GOP candidates believe they have a better chance of winning. "So you end up with these black districts in which only blacks run for office," says Ms. Thernstrom. "The turnout is fairly low, and those who tend to win are the most strident, the most left, the most race-conscious. They're those who play the race card best. Is it true in every one of these districts? No. There are some exceptions. But there aren't enough exceptions." What suppresses minority turnout, she says, is not voter-ID laws but racial gerrymandering. "Turnout is very low in these safe black and Hispanic districts. And why shouldn't it be? There's no real competition." Ms. Thernstrom says that the evolution of the Voting Rights Act fits a familiar pattern. "This is the usual civil rights legislation story. It starts out being about opportunity and ends up being about results. We see that in any corner of the civil rights picture that you want to zero in on." She adds: "I think there's a running assumption through all of the writing on the left about racial issues that, were it not for racism, you would have random distribution of racial and ethnic groups in education, employment, contracting, elections—whatever you're looking at. But the notion of random distribution of blacks, Latinos, Jews, Armenians or whomever is absurd. It's indifferent to the reality of society. That's just not how people distribute themselves." In February, the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in a case about whether the University of Texas could use race as a factor in admissions, and Ms. Thernstrom couldn't be more thrilled. "It's a myth that in the elite schools you would have almost no black or Hispanic students" but for racial preferences, she says. After the passage in 1996 of California's Proposition 209, which banned the use of race and ethnicity in public university admissions in that state, "the system as a whole did not lose blacks, and minority graduation rates went up. Nobody wants to talk about that. All that counts as far as these schools are concerned is what the freshman class looks like. They don't care what the senior class looks like." "America in Black and White," the masterful 1997 tome that Ms. Thernstrom co-wrote with her husband, is by and large a good-news story of racial progress in America. It bothers her deeply that so many black leaders have a vested interest in playing down the socioeconomic advancement that has occurred among blacks over the past half-century. "They have a whole list of ways in which America hasn't changed" for blacks, she says. "For their policies to make any sense, they have to pretend that progress isn't being made or that it's too little progress to matter." Most of the Voting Rights Act is permanent, which means that, notwithstanding Mr. Holder's scaremongering, elimination of outdated provisions like Section 5 will not threaten the black franchise or leave the U.S. on the cusp of a return to Jim Crow. Asked why the administration of the first black president is so keen on keeping racial issues on the front burner, Ms. Thernstrom replies that "they obviously think it's good politics. If they looked at the data, though, they would see that it's 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.' The picture is so heartening, even in the South. In fact, the South is in some ways the vanguard." Ms. Thernstrom believes that the administration's identity politics may be a miscalculation if Mr. Obama's race is no longer foremost on voters' minds. "My sense is that when Americans look at the president today, they look at a man who has not exactly solved our economic problems, who has gotten us deeply in debt, and who used up a tremendous amount of time and political capital on legislation—ObamaCare—that Americans don't want," she says. "But I don't think they look at him as a black man who has done these things." Mr. Riley is a member of the Journal's editorial board. A version of this article appeared May 19, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Good News About Race in America.