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Abigail Mann Thernstrom ’58

April 10, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia, of multiple organ failure after lapsing into a coma.

A leading skeptic of affirmative action programs, Abigail supported civil rights, but concluded that color-blind policies worked better than preferential treatment for racial disparities in educational achievement, voting, and employment.

 Born in New York City, she grew up in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, where her father, Ferdinand Mann, helped run a collective farm that was home to left-wing intellectuals, fellow travelers, and Holocaust refugees. Her mother, Helen, was a Jewish émigrée from Germany who later returned to Europe and was active in the Bauhaus art movement. Escaping Nazism, Helen returned to New York and died when Abigail was a teenager.

Abigail graduated from the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School in Greenwich Village. She attended Reed before returning to New York, where she received a bachelor’s degree in European history from Barnard College.

After beginning a master’s program in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard, she switched to constitutional law with an emphasis on civil rights after meeting Stephan Thernstrom, an American history major, on a blind date. Two months later Stephan became her husband. He taught at UCLA and Harvard while Abigail raised their two children before completing her doctorate at Harvard in 1975 and beginning to teach there.

 Abigail said that the “message of racial injustice was extremely important to me.” She and her husband picketed Woolworth stores, protesting the chain’s exclusion of Blacks from lunch counters in the South. But she was a staunch opponent of affirmative action, gerrymandering to create minority districts, and other measures to foster racial preferences. She put forth her arguments in her first book, Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights (1987), which analyzed the effects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Her contention was that a measure crafted to open the polling booths had become a powerful tool for affirmative action in the electoral sphere. “What began as an effort to give minorities a fair shake has become a means of ensuring a fair share,” she wrote. The book won the American Bar Association’s Certificate of Merit, the Anisfield-Wolf prize for the best book on race and ethnicity, and the Benchmark Book Award from the Center for Judicial Studies.

 A second book, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (1997), cowritten with her husband, Stephan, combined historical narrative, data-driven policy analysis, and vigorous social criticism to argue that racial preferences were no longer necessary. Granting that gaps in opportunity still remained, the book contended that creating majority-minority districts marginalized their impact on public policy and empowered white-dominated districts that outnumbered them. The Thernstroms argued that admitting students on the basis of racial preferences could stigmatize minority students and dilute the value of their diplomas. Abigail said they hoped to move the debate about race “off the grounds of anecdote and emoting and onto the grounds of objective reality and fact.” As champions of a colorblind society, the couple appeared on television and wrote essays for publications including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

 Princeton University historian Nell Irvin Painter said in an interview with the Globe that the Thernstroms “exemplify something one often finds among conservative academics, this view that, by virtue of being scholars, they think they know more about being black than black people do. Now that’s not to say that someone of one race ought not to write about another race. But don’t tell me what I should think or feel about being black.”

 After Abigail’s death, Jason Riley, a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board and an African American, acknowledged that Abigail had “put intellectual honesty ahead of political correctness.”

 She became the darling of neoconservatives, making public appearances and quoted in think-tank publications. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed her to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, which she chaired from 2010 to 2012. The Thernstroms also wrote No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (2003). For more than a decade, Abigail was a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

 She is survived by her husband; her daughter, Melanie; and her son, Samuel.

Appeared in Reed magazine: September 2020

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