As many Asian American bloggers have been reporting around the internet and as the University of California, Berkeley has just confirmed, Professor Ronald Takaki has passed away at the age of 70:

Professor Ronald Takaki

Ronald Takaki, a professor emeritus of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and prolific scholar of U.S. race relations who taught UC’s first black history course, died at his home in Berkeley on Tuesday (May 26). He was 70.

During his more than four decades at UC Berkeley, Takaki joined the Free Speech Movement, established the nation’s first ethnic studies Ph.D. program as well as Berkeley’s American Cultures requirement for graduation, and advised President Clinton in 1997 on his major speech on race.

A descendent of Japanese plantation workers in Hawaii, Takaki left the islands in the late 1950s to study at Ohio’s College of Wooster, where he earned a bachelor’s degree. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in American history from UC Berkeley in 1967 and was hired at UCLA, where he taught the campus’s first black history course. He joined Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies department in 1971 and served as chair from 1975-77.

Among his numerous accolades for scholarship and activism, Takaki received a Pulitzer nomination for his book, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Little Brown and Company, 1993); a Distinguished Teaching Award from UC Berkeley and the 2003 Fred Cody Award for lifetime achievement from the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association.

As the Berkeley blurb above points out, Professor Takaki had a long and very distinguished career — he was an active member of the free speech movement in the 1960s, taught the University of California’s first Black History course, and was one of the early pioneers and leaders of UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Department. In short, he was a giant in the field of Ethnic Studies.

He was also one of the early icons and most influential scholars of Asian American Studies as well and it was within this context that I first learned about him, read his work, and eventually met him in person.

In my junior year of college at UC Irvine, I had just begun my minor in Sociology and one of my first courses was “Race & Ethnicity” in which his book Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America was one of the assigned readings. Through his book and the course, I rediscovered my identity as an Asian American and as a person of color, after consciously and unconsciously trying to repress that identity ever since I was a young boy growing up in a predominantly White society.

Through his book and his other seminal book in Asian American Studies Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, I finally saw that being a person of color and an Asian American was not a source of shame or embarrassment but rather, a source of pride, strength, and inspiration — a lesson upon which I have built this website, along with my entire life and professional career.

I finally had the opportunity to meet Professor Takaki in person in 1993, my final year of college, when he came to to UC Irvine to give a talk and promote the release of his book A Different Mirror. Before the lecture, he sat outside at a table signing books for people. I brought along my copy of Iron Cages for him to sign and as he wrote, “Celebrating our different shores” inside the front cover, he asked me my name, what I was studying (Political Science and Sociology), and my plans for the future now that I was graduating.

I told him that after studying Sociology and reading texts like his, I had decided to pursue my Ph.D. in Sociology. A big smile came to his face and he replied, “That’s great, that means that one day we’ll be colleagues!” It took a while, but about ten years later, I finally completed my Ph.D. and he and I finally did become colleagues.

A couple of years ago, Professor Takaki visited this area and gave a talk at Amherst College, sponsored by a colleague in the area (herself one of dozens, if not hundreds, of young scholars that Professor directly mentored through the years) and she invited me to have dinner with her and Professor Takaki before his talk. He didn’t remember me from that day in 1993, but when I told him the story and what he said to me, he again smiled and said, “I’m glad to see that it came true.”

Professor Takaki, thank you for your life of service to American society, to the fields of Ethnic Studies, Sociology, and Asian American Studies, and for inspiring this humble person to be proud to be an Asian American.

Update: The Los Angeles Times has an article that discusses Professor Takaki’s life and career in more detail and also reveals that as a result of his 20-year battle with multiple sclerosis, Professor Takaki took his own life. While some will focus on the way Professor Takaki died, I nonetheless prefer to focus on the way he lived.

Issues related to immigration, particularly undocumented immigration, have always been and continue to be some of the most controversial in American history and society. As I’m sure you’ve seen yourself, such issues easily provoke strong emotions from all sides and can be very divisive between and even within racial/ethnic groups. On top of that, the current recession and fears on the part of many Americans about their financial security only add fuel to the fire.

It’s within this context that many Americans and American institutions look to blame all or part of their problems and difficulties on immigrants. But this immigrant bashing can take many forms — it can be very overt and direct in the form of racial slurs and violence, or it can be subtle and indirect, implicitly supported or set in motion by politicians who are otherwise seen as “liberal” or “progressive.” I would like to explore these different degrees of immigrant bashing as they’ve recently been manifested.

On the more blatant and overt side, we see time and time again that racial prejudice and economic instability often lead to violence. However, the second step in this kind of blatant immigrant bashing is when the criminal justice system fails to deliver justice for the immigrant victim. This was evident is the recent acquittal of two White teens on hate crime charges in the beating death of a Mexican immigrant in Pottsville, PA:

The [all White] jury found the teens innocent of all serious charges, a decision that elicited cheers and claps from the defendants’ families and friends – and cries of outrage from the victim’s. . . . Prosecutors cast Ramirez as the victim of a gang of drunken white teens motivated by a dislike of their small coal town’s burgeoning Hispanic population. But the jury evidently sided with defense attorneys, who called Ramirez the aggressor and characterized the brawl as a street fight that ended tragically. . . .

The case exposed ethnic tensions in Shenandoah, a blue-collar town of 5,000 that has lured Hispanic residents drawn by cheap housing and jobs in nearby factories and farm fields. Ramirez moved to the town about seven years ago from Iramuco, Mexico, working in a factory and picking strawberries and cherries.

Sadly, violence like this only seems to be more common recently, evidenced by a similar case in New York in which another group of men bludgeoned an Ecuadoran man to death with a baseball bat:

The two men accused of fatally beating an Ecuadorean immigrant with a bat and a bottle after shouting epithets about Hispanics and gays face 78 years to life in prison if convicted on charges handed up by a Brooklyn grand jury and unsealed on Tuesday. The two suspects, Keith Phoenix, 28, and Hakim Scott, 25, are charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and assault, all as hate crimes, for the Dec. 7 attack on the immigrant, Jose O. Sucuzhañay, and his brother Romel, who survived. . . .

The beating, coming soon after the killing of another Ecuadorean immigrant on Long Island, jangled nerves in immigrant and gay and lesbian communities. . . . Witnesses have described part of what happened next, beginning with slurs shouted from the car about Hispanics and gays. “Suddenly, Hakim Scott jumped out armed with a beer bottle,” Mr. Hynes said. “The two brothers tried to flee, but Scott caught up with Jose and slammed him across the head.”

Mr. Phoenix “rushed from the S.U.V. armed with a baseball bat, ran over to Jose, and repeatedly beat him,” Mr. Hynes said, adding that as Mr. Phoenix walked back to the car he noticed that the victim was still moving. “Phoenix immediately went back to where Jose was laying and slammed him several more times on the head with the baseball bat until his victim was motionless,” Mr. Hynes said.

This kind of sentiment is also reflected in the recent swine flu outbreak. Since the swine flu originated in Mexico, inevitably this has led many to engage in blatant stereotyping and racial profiling against anything and anyone linked to Mexico:

“No contact anywhere with an illegal alien!” conservative talk show host Michael Savage advised his U.S. listeners this week on how to avoid the swine flu. “And that starts in the restaurants” where he said, you “don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands!” And Thursday, Boston talk radio host Jay Severin was suspended after calling Mexican immigrants “criminalians” during a discussion of swine flu and saying that emergency rooms had become “essentially condos for Mexicans.”

That’s tepid compared to some of the xenophobic reactions spreading like an emerging virus across the Internet. “This disgusting blight is because MEXICANS ARE PIGS!” an anonymous poster ranted on the “prison planet” forum, part of radio host and columnist Alex Jones’ Web site. . . . Savage speculated that terrorists are using Mexican immigrants as walking germ warfare weapons. “It would be easy,” he said, “to bring an altered virus into Mexico, put it in the general population, and have them march across the border.”

[T]he growing public health concern has also exposed fear and hate. . . . Fearmongering and blame are almost a natural part of infectious disease epidemics, experts say. “This is a pattern we see again and again,” said Amy Fairchild, chair of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. “It’s ‘the other,’ the group not seen as part of the nation, the one who threatens it in some way that gets blamed for the disease.”

These acts of racial hatred, violence, and blatant stereotyping are undoubtedly tragic. Unfortunately, they are only one example within the range of immigrant bashing. Other examples do not involve physical violence committed onto the immigrant, but nonetheless show the same kind of callous indifference to their histories and experiences. This is exemplified by the case of a Korean Canadian student who stood up to racial taunts and slurs from a bully but was punished for defending himself (tip to AngryAsianMan for covering this story first):

The 15-year-old was suspended for four weeks from Keswick High School over a fight that he says began when another student racially abused him and punched him in the mouth. The boy, who has a black belt in tae kwon do, fought back with a single punch that broke his antagonist’s nose.

He was initially the only person investigated, and police charged him with assault causing bodily harm. But 400 of his fellow students walked out of class this week to denounce the racist bullying that preceded the punch, and the outcry reached newspaper front pages. In response, York police reopened the case, and assigned a special investigator to probe whether a hate crime was committed. . . .

The 15-year-old said he regrets throwing the punch, but felt he had no choice after the other boy called him a “fucking Chinese” and punched him in the face, cutting his mouth. His father said the school doesn’t seem to understand the impact of the racial comment. Afterward, a vice-principal asked his son why a Korean was upset about being called Chinese.

“Probably they don’t realize how much it hurts when someone makes a racist comment,” his father said. “My son said, ‘I felt all the way down, like I am nothing, on the floor. Like they’re the master and I’m the slave.’ “

As an update on this case, the school board has reversed the initial actions of the school’s administrators and have reinstated the student, removed the suspension from his record, and canceled the expulsion proceedings. The Korean Canadian student and the bullying student have met face-to-face and have apologized to each other.

This is a small but significant victory for victims of racial taunting and bullying but in the initial actions of the school’s principals and administrators, we once again see the evil twins of immigrant bashing — the first is the physical act itself, in this case the racial slurs, bullying, and first punch directed at the Korean Canadian student. But the second and equally appalling part are the lack of understanding, indifference, and outright hostility of our social institutions to respond to such immigrant bashing. In this case, the school officials initially blame the Korean Canadian student for the entire incident and wanted to expel him not just from the school but also from the entire school district.

Clearly, these officials just don’t get how racism works, most likely because as a White person, they’ve never experienced being called a racial slur, or had their group’s history or experiences denigrated, or had their distinct physical appearance mocked in public.

Unfortunately, examples of immigrant bashing do not end here. The entire range of such sentiments also includes official acts of government supported by politicians who we normally consider to be friends and allies of the immigrant population. One example is the federal “Troubled Asset Relief Program” (TARP) legislation that was passed in February to help bailout struggling financial institutions. One provision of the TARP act requires banks that receive federal bailout money to hire American workers over immigrants. As many community and business leaders argue, such a broad generalization against immigrant workers leads to some very troubling consequences:

In Sacramento, business leaders are worried about completing projects without the specialized expertise of consultants from foreign countries. . . . In California, foreign nationals helped create more than half of the startup companies in Silicon Valley, according to a Duke University study. In 2007, foreign nationals accounted for nearly two-thirds of all engineering doctorates awarded from the University of California and California State University systems, the study found. . . .

Wadhwa, an engineering professor at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke and a researcher at the Harvard Law School, said some of his students are getting employment offers withdrawn, while others are frustrated and ready to move back home. He says it’s part of a troubling pattern in the United States: “Whenever there’s a downturn, you start blaming foreigners.”

In this example, I understand the need to make sure that federal money is used to help out Americans first. The problem with this is the assumption that immigrants are not Americans. Instead of seeing immigrants as productive Americans who pay American taxes, who buy American goods and services, and who contribute (many times disproportionately) in so many other ways to the economic health of the country — whether they are citizens, permanent residents, or even undocumented — immigrants are the first scapegoats when our country experienced difficulties.

Rather than looking deeper and more reflectively at the institutional issues that caused the current economic crises, such as high-risk loans and excessive greed on the part of financial institutions, we sadly and instinctively look to those living around us who seem to be different from us and based on this “Us versus Them” mentality, who we perceive to be not real, legitimate, or genuine Americans, and therefore, are somehow benefiting at our expense and therefore need to be vilified, dehumanized, and attacked — through our fists or our laws — as the cause of our problems.

Despite — or perhaps because of — Barack Obama’s election as President, affirmative action remains one of the most controversial and divisive issues in American society today. It’s an issue that can divide not only different racial/ethnic groups, but even members of a single racial group like Asian Americans. In fact, some of the most heated arguments I’ve had with people over affirmative action has been with other Asian Americans.

The issues and controversies surrounding affirmative action are not going to be resolved any time soon and perhaps not even in my lifetime. For now, I hope that we can all look at the issues from a more sociological and objective, rather than personal, point of view and at least understand each side’s positions, even if we don’t agree with them. To help in that process, MSNBC as an article that does a nice job at describing the current state of affirmative action in the U.S. in an objective and balanced way:

Strict racial quotas were unconstitutional, the court said — affirmative action was not. But that ruling far from decided what many considered the big-picture issue: Does protecting minorities discriminate against the majority? More than 30 years [after the famous Bakke v. University of California lawsuit], and scores of lawsuits later, the question remains unanswered. . . .

“The laws that Congress wrote are clear — everyone is protected from racial discrimination,” said Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that advocates eliminating race and ethnic considerations. “Not just blacks, but whites. Not just Latinos, but whites.”

Those who favor affirmative action say race divisions still exist in this country, 40 years after the civil rights movement. “Race so permeates society that you can’t ignore it,” said Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Project. . . .

Twenty years later, a more conservative court declared that public school systems cannot try to achieve or maintain integration based on explicit race rules. . . . At issue in the case were programs in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., that tried to maintain racial diversity by limiting transfers and admissions.

“The Supreme Court case law isn’t clear. There aren’t bright lines and clear guidance,” said attorney Deborah Archer, director of the Racial Justice Project at New York Law School. “It’s very difficult to extract a rule from those cases that can be applied across the board.” Instead, “they have tended to be concerned with a specific aspect, and the decisions are made on case-by-case basis,” said Archer.

To summarize, through the years, the Supreme Court has basically ruled that consideration of an applicant’s race/ethnicity is legal, if there is a direct and specific reason supporting it, which includes the goal of creating a racially and ethnically diverse student population at colleges and universities and in private sector companies. However, the Supreme Court has also ruled that blanket policies such as quotas and allocating points to minority candidates are illegal and unconstitutional.

As the article also mentions, the Supreme Court is not likely to make any broad or sweeping decisions on affirmative action in general any time soon, instead preferring to make judgments about specific programs and policies on a case-by-case basis.

Within this ongoing debate about affirmative action, MSNBC has another recent article that seems to coincide with arguments of affirmative action supporters — that racial inequalities continue to persist in terms of pay between Whites and Blacks/Latinos even among workers with similar educational qualifications:

Blacks and Hispanics lag behind whites for higher-paying jobs at the largest rates in about a decade . . . Blacks overall slightly narrowed the gap in 2007 with whites in average salary, but the pay disparity widened for blacks with college degrees. Blacks who had a four-year bachelor’s degree earned $46,502, or about 78% of the salary for comparably educated whites.

It was the biggest disparity between professional blacks and whites since the 77% rate in 2001, when the U.S. fell into a recession due to the collapse of the tech bubble and the Sept. 11 terror attacks. College-educated blacks had previously earned as much as 83% of the average salary of whites in 2005.

Hispanics saw similar trends. . . . Hispanics with bachelor’s degrees had an average salary of $44,696, amounting to roughly 75 cents for every dollar made by whites — the lowest ratio in more than a decade — after hitting a peak of 87 cents to every dollar in 2000.

The numbers highlight some of the barriers for minorities, said Mark Mather, a demographer for the Population Reference Bureau. He said the pay disparities could widen further since blacks and Hispanics tend to be relative latecomers to the professional world and thus more vulnerable to layoffs in the current recession.

This finding that Blacks and Latinos are especially vulnerable in times of economic recession has been consistently documented. Some of this disparity has to do with the fact that many Black and Latino college-educated workers have less seniority and overall years of experience than many White workers, and therefore earn less.

At the same time, as social science research has also shown, even among workers in the same occupation and same area of the country with almost identical educational qualifications and years of experience, Blacks and Latinos still lag behind Whites in terms of pay. As many sociologists argue, once you control for all these variables that might affect differences in pay, the only thing left to explain such disparities and pay inequalities is racism, pure and simple.

On the flip side of this issue about affirmative action, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the University of California has officially approved changed to its policies on eligibility for admissions (i.e., on who qualifies to be considered for admissions, not who actually gets admitted). Many Asian Americans and other people of color argue that these changes will disproportionately hurt the chances of Asian American applicants and other applicants of color and that these policies basically amount to “affirmative action for Whites.”

All of these developments illustrate the complex and often contradictory nature of this issue. Like I said, as a sad legacy of our country’s racialized history, it’s an issue that will unfortunately continue to perplex use for years and likely generations to come.