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The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections
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"Abigail Thernstrom is simply the best writer and thinker we have on voting rights in America. Voting Rights--And Wrongs, the culmination of decades of research and thinking, is the watershed book that will reframe our thinking on minorities and the vote." --Shelby Steele, Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution
Praise for Voting Rights–and Wrongs
Voting Rights–and Wrongs is a “meticulously researched and forcefully argued book….Thernstrom’s book is the best guide to where we are now, how we got here, and why it is a bad place to be.”
–Stuart Taylor, Jr., in a review for The New Republic
“Abigail Thernstrom is simply the best writer and thinker we have on voting rights in America. Voting Rights–and Wrongs, the culmination of decades of research and thinking, is the watershed book that will reframe our thinking on minorities and the vote. This book is grounded in an irony: that race-specific voting policies designed to achieve racial equality in fact perpetuate racial inequality. And now fate has conspired to reinforce Thernstrom’s thesis. Barack Obama’s election makes it clear that minorities can now win in a political open market. This is the book we need to understand voting rights in post-Obama America.”
“Abby Thernstrom has studied issues relating to race throughout her illustrious and academically productive career. America in Black and White, co-authored by her husband Stephan Thernstrom, is the gold standard for those who want to trace racial progress in America. Voting Rights–and Wrongs: The Elusive Quest for Racially Fair Elections will stand honorably alongside America in Black and White as an invaluable contribution to how Americans evolve in their thinking about race. With the election of Barack Obama and reconsideration of the Voting Rights Act, this new work of scholarly excellence could not come at a better time.”
“It has become a shibboleth of moral fiber in America to support ‘upholding the Voting Rights Act’ as if forty-five years after 1965, there are still grimy bigots waiting to bar blacks from the voting booth as soon as the Feds turn their backs. Abigail Thernstrom makes a clean argument that the Voting Rights Act is today a brake on the progress that the civil rights movement is supposed to be about.”
“No one is better suited to evaluate the Voting Rights Act than Abigail Thernstrom. She shows how the act successfully and rapidly eliminated barriers to voting in the 1960s–and how it has become a barrier to racial harmony today.”
“Thernstrom argues that the Voting Rights Act has been corrupted in ways that no one dares to challenge. Showing not a hint of cowardice, she is unsparing in her condemnations of everyone who had a hand in turning a badly needed and extraordinarily well-designed statute into an anachronistic and despotic instrument of segregation.”
–David McFadden, in a review for the Republican National Lawyers Association
The 1965 Voting Rights Act is the crown jewel of American civil rights legislation. Its passage marked the death knell of the Jim Crow South. But that was the beginning, not the end, of an important debate on race and representation in American democracy. When is the distribution of political power racially fair? Who counts as a representative of black and Hispanic interests? How we answer such questions shapes our politics and public policy in profound but often unrecognized ways.
The act’s original aim was simple: Give African Americans the same political opportunity enjoyed by other citizens—the chance to vote, form political coalitions, and elect the candidates of their choice. But in the racist South, it soon became clear that access to the ballot would not, by itself, provide the political opportunity the statute promised. Most southern whites were unwilling to vote for black candidates, and southern states were ready to alter electoral systems to maintain white supremacy.
In this provocative book, Abigail Thernstrom argues that southern resistance to black political power began a process by which the act was radically revised both for good and ill. Congress, the courts, and the Justice Department altered the statute to ensure the election of blacks and Hispanics to legislative bodies ranging from school boards and county councils to the U.S. Congress. Proportional racial representation–equality of results rather than mere equal opportunity–became the revised aim of the act. Blacks came to be treated as politically different–entitled to inequality in the form of a unique political privilege.
Majority-minority districts that reserved seats for blacks and Hispanics succeeded in integrating southern politics. By now, however, those districts may perversely limit the potential power of black officeholders. “Max-black” districts typically elect candidates to the left of most voters; those officeholders rarely win in majority-white settings. Such race-conscious districting discourages the development of centrist, “post-racial” candidates like Barack Obama (who was defeated when he stood for Congress in one such district).
The Voting Rights Act has become a period piece that today serves to keep most black legislators clustered on the sidelines of American politics–precisely the opposite of what its framers intended. A radically revised law would better serve the political interests of all Americans–minority and white voters alike.
Abigail Thernstrom is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, vice-chair of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and a member of the board of advisers of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
Juan Williams, author of the foreword, is one of the nation’s leading journalists. He is a senior correspondent for National Public Radio and a regular contributor to Fox News Sunday.
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