Thernstrom Discusses Race, Politics

GOP GALA
Alexander B. Lemann

Winthrop Professor of History Stephan Thernstrom speaks at the Harvard Republican Club’s Lincoln Day Dinner in Eliot House last night.

Discussing conservative approaches to fighting racial inequality in education, Winthrop Professor of History Stephan Thernstrom addressed a receptive audience last night at the Harvard Republican Club’s (HRC) 2nd Annual Lincoln Day Dinner.

In his speech entitled “Race and the Republican Party,” Thernstrom promoted the use of voucher systems and charter schools—both backed by the Bush administration—as potential solutions for narrowing the racial achievement gap.

Thernstrom also criticized what he described as the Democrats’ strategy of consistently pumping money into low performing schools—an approach he labeled “the bigger the budget, the better the school.”

An audience of about 80 people sat attentively in Eliot House Dining Hall at tables sprinkled with patriotic stars and pennies—featuring the bust of the event’s namesake, Abraham Lincoln.

HRC spokesperson Lauren K. Truesdell ’06 said Thernstrom confirmed last month that he would attend the event, which follows the October publication of his new book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning.

Thernstrom was scheduled to appear last night with his wife and co-author, Abigail Thernstrom, who was unable to attend the dinner.

Truesdell said Thernstrom’s “expertise in issues of race and history” made him an appropriate choice for the event’s speaker.

The Lincoln Day Dinner is an annual event hosted nationwide by Republicans to recognize advances within their party.

In introducing Thernstrom, HRC President Mark T. Silvestri ’05 stressed that “Republicans do care about minorities.”

“Republican officeholders are terribly nervous when the issue of race comes up,” Silvestri said.

Harvard Republican members said they enjoyed the opportunity to socialize with fellow Republicans and listen to a speaker who shared their views.

“It’s always nice to know that the ideologies may match up better to your own than on the campus at large,” said HRC member Julia E. Cassis ’06.

And Thernstrom said he appreciated addressing an audience of people who held most of his views, but joked before the speech that “it can be boring to preach too much to the converted.”

Still, Thernstrom acknowledged that his opinions would likely be met with a wide range of views, as evidenced in the question and answer session which followed the speech.

At last night’s speech, Thernstrom also criticized affirmative action policies, specifically the recent Supreme Court decisions that allowed for the continued use of race as a factor in university admissions.

Thernstrom questioned the validity of the term diversity, which he called “totally undefined.”

The professor asked whether the University of California schools, most of which have high Asian student populations, could be called diverse.

“UCLA—unhappy Caucasians, lost among the Asians,” Thernstrom said, garnering giggles in the audience by facetiously redefining the acronym for the Los Angeles school.

At times, Thernstrom was subtly critical of the Bush administration.

He also referred to former Senator Trent Lott’s 2002 scandal as “a disgusting affair.”

“[I saw] his groveling performance on BET, which I forced myself to watch,” Thernstrom said, referring to Lott’s high-profile cable-TV interview.

Candice Chiu ’04 said she enjoyed listening to Thernstrom’s speech on race.

“It’s a topic a lot of Republicans avoid addressing,” Chiu said.

—Staff writer Faryl W. Ury can be reached at ury@fas.harvard.edu.