In memory of Ron Takaki

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Ronald Takaki, a gifted and enormously productive scholar and teacher died last month. The press reported that his death was a suicide, following a 20-year struggle with multiple sclerosis.

Ron Takaki was a gentle unassuming man, a remarkable lecturer with a sometimes whimsical sense of humor. As a scholar and teacher, he played a major role in the development of ethnic studies and a multicultural approach to understanding the United States as a civilization and its place in the world. For some, including many academics, multiculturalism, cultural pluralism, diversity, are concepts to either be attacked, ignored, or paid lip service to in an attempt to get some funding for this or that program. For Ron Takaki, they were essential to both understanding and changing U.S. society.

Ron sometimes, in remembering his youth in Hawaii, liked to call himself a “surfer boy.” He was a third-generation American, the grandson of Japanese immigrants who were agricultural plantation workers. As a graduate student at Berkeley in the first half of the 1960s, Ron surfed in a sea of civil rights movement and free speech movement activity. It was there that this grandson of Asian immigrant plantation workers began a doctoral dissertation on American slavery. “I was born,” he later said, “intellectually and politically in Berkeley in the 1960s.”

The Los Angeles Watts riot of 1965 led UCLA to establish a course in black studies the following year. Although I am sure that the university program administrators saw Ron as a safe choice when they asked him to teach the course (a Japanese American version of the Swedish scholar Gunnar Myrdal, who authored a classic study of U.S. race relations in the 1940s), it turned out to be a great choice. When a student asked him, “Professor Takaki, what revolutionary tools are we going to learn in this course,” he answered “We are going to study the history of the U.S. as it relates to African Americans. We are going to strengthen our critical thinking skills and our writing skills. These can be revolutionary tools if we make them so.”

After teaching at UCLA for five years, Ron went back to Berkeley as a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies which he would help to build at UC Berkeley along with similar programs nationally. His most important general course (from my understanding) was “Racial Inequality in America: A Comparative Perspective.” Through his scholarship and teaching, one of Ron’s most important contributions to American culture was to the long and honorable school of anti-racism, which is never out of date, since racism comes back in new forms after it has been defeated and discredited in old ones.

Ron wrote many books, works of history primarily, which, to use his words, could become “revolutionary tools” to — as an old grass roots civil rights activist once said — help America become “an actual democracy.” For me, as a scholar and teacher of history, these three of his books, “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America,” “Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian-Americans” and “Double Victory: A Multi-Cultural History of America in World War II” are his most valuable works. But there are also “Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth Century America” and “Ethnic Islands: The Emergence of Urban Chinese America,” along with other works.

Ron Takaki made a central contribution to Asian American history and studies, so much so that it is impossible to see it existing as it does today without him. Asian Americans had been “invisible” in the U.S., in a different way than African Americans, but still invisible. Thanks to Ron Takaki’s work, research into and teaching about Asian American history and culture is now a vital and growing part of multicultural education in the U.S.

But Ron’s work was never about any ethnic “pecking order,” never about playing one group against another, but about understanding their interactions and their relationship to a larger context. At Berkeley in the 1980s, he played a pioneering and leading role in making Ethnic Studies a PhD program at a time when Ronald Reagan, as president, was proclaiming that it was “morning in America,” an America filled with happy blond suburban children and no one else. Later Ron Takaki played a major role in making multicultural courses one of the graduation requirements at Berkeley, which other universities have followed in recent years.

U.S. universities have long had as the dominant force on their governing boards anti-intellectual businessmen (something that doesn’t exist anywhere else, in any public university system, at least). From both my understanding and also sad experiences, I know that, in recent years, university administrators, as their salaries and “compensation” have risen while their universities de facto decline, have come to largely identify with and act like anti-intellectual businessmen, rewarding those who bring money into universities, nurturing academic Babbitts whose work they invest in and whose manufactured prestige they use as a rationale for their own privileges.

In short, they act like good capitalists, for whom all learning and culture, like everything else, is a commodity to be measured in exchange value.

Ron Takaki never called himself a Marxist to my knowledge, but his scholarship was the opposite of that commodity-exchange business view. His scholarship had and has enormous real use value. His teaching also touched generations of students and opened their minds to an America that they didn’t know existed, an America that, whatever their own backgrounds were, included them.

In the tributes that former students and colleagues gave to him on the Internet, one from Brenda J. Rodriguez summed it up best: “ Ron, your lessons moved me and forced me to think outside of the small world I created, your teaching will be passed on to my son and his children.” In all of his work, especially in “A Different Mirror,” and in “Stangers From a Different Shore,” Ron Takaki will continue to influence Americans and contribute to the democratizing of American civilization for generations to come.

Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.