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Commentary: Our politics are not too polarized for us to talk

SAN DIEGO -- With our politics so polarized and partisan, it is tempting to buy into the idea that you have to agree with people 100 percent of the time to respect their opinion about anything.

But that's just not so.

I was reminded of that recently when two acquaintances from Boston stopped by for a visit with the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom are nationally renowned conservative intellectuals, a husband-wife team with his and her doctorates, and both prolific writers and provocative thinkers.

The Thernstroms also happen to be two of my favorite people. That's not something I could have said a couple of decades ago, when -- because of their opposition to racial preferences and bilingual education -- I might have considered them hostile to minority progress. Only later would I realize I had that backward, and that it was these sorts of programs -- and others cooked up in the laboratory of liberalism -- that kept minorities from progressing.

Abigail is vice chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and a member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education. Stephan is a professor of U.S. history at Harvard University. They've written some important books, both independent of one another and together as part of a formidable team. Their collaborations include "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible" and, more recently, "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning."

They're delightfully interesting folks. And one reason for that is they tackle thorny issues such as race and ethnicity without hesitation, fear or apology. It was Stephan Thernstrom -- as one of my undergraduate professors -- who first taught me that ethnicity and race relations were worthy fields of study, analysis and commentary.

Whenever I get angry mail demanding to know why I insist on writing so much about Hispanic issues, I think of the Thernstroms, who have built the study of such things into a cottage industry.

There's plenty about which we agree.

Such as education: They've figured out that, in our public schools, the interests of students take a back seat to the interests of adults. Speaking to the editorial board, Abigail said about teachers, "They're the problem, not the solution." If it were up to her, she said, she'd "turn every urban school into a charter school with the bucks stopping on the principal's desk."

Or the familiar ring to the anti-immigrant sentiment of today: Stephan insisted that "a great many people forget that, at the turn of the last century ... Italians were part of the Mediterranean race, and those were regarded as definitely inferior." He recalled a book by Henry James where the author describes walking through Jewish neighborhoods in New York and being "appalled at all these people with their ... inferior language." He also recalled the Immigration Restriction League, which was started by a group of Harvard pals and which had as its mission "to stop this new, inferior immigration from coming into the country." That was in 1894.

Bravo. Good points, one and all.

Of course, there were disagreements during our meeting -- such as Abigail's insistence that the doors of opportunity were "wide open" to African-Americans and Hispanics once they acquire the "requisite skills and knowledge." Perhaps that would be the case in a world without prejudice and racism -- but that's not the world we live in.

Or when Abigail refused to join me in characterizing as "racist" the contention of white teachers that they can't teach minority kids who come from families where, the teachers insist, education is undervalued. What else should we call it when someone thinks less of someone else because of race or ethnicity?

Or when Stephan insisted that, in those districts that experiment with non-credentialed teachers, a good way to choose instructors would be "on the basis of knowledge of the subject matter and sheer intelligence." He left out the most important quality, essential to being a good teacher: empathy for those who find it difficult to learn. Really smart people don't always have that.

And, as a Mexican-American, I couldn't buy into the antiquated notion of an America in black and white, as suggested by the title of one of their books. That portrait, I reminded them, is today "as obsolete as black-and-white television."

We could have argued all day about the issues that divided us. Instead, we just enjoyed each other's company while engaging in a fiery but friendly exchange of ideas.

I wonder why so many people in this country find that so difficult to do.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is