Ronald Takaki, pioneer and legend in ethnic studies, dies at age 70
| 28 May 2009
BERKELEY — Ronald Takaki, professor emeritus of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and a preeminent scholar of U.S. race relations who taught the University of California's first black history course, died at his home in Berkeley on Tuesday, May 26, at age 70. He had struggled for years with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune condition that attacks the central nervous system.
(Jane Scherr photo)
Although Takaki retired from UC Berkeley in 2003, he was frequently seen on campus, delivering guest lectures to standing-room-only audiences or joining marches about social justice, with his shock of silver hair, trim runner's body and professorial spectacles.
"When I think of Ron, the words that come to mind are: solidarity, justice, easy-going, self-effacing, generous, creative," said Beatriz Manz, chair of UC Berkeley's Department of Ethnic Studies. "He poked fun at himself and had a contagious laugh. He embodied kindness."
During his more than 40 years at UC Berkeley, Takaki established the nation's first ethnic studies Ph.D. program as well as UC Berkeley's American Cultures requirement for graduation, and advised President Clinton in 1997 on his major speech on race. In his books, such as "Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb," "Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth Century America" and "Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii," Takaki tracked the history of racist attitudes not just about Asian Americans, but about all minorities, using real people's stories to touch all readers, not just scholars.
"Ron Takaki elevated and popularized the study of America's multiracial past and present like no other scholar, and in doing so had an indelible impact on a generation of students and researchers across the nation and world," said Don Nakanishi, director of and professor at UCLA's Asian American Studies Center and a longtime friend of Takaki's.
"He had a very special gift of bringing to life - through his oratory and his voluminous writings - the dynamic interconnections between major historical and structural trends and the often unheard voices of ordinary people," Nakanishi added.
"He wanted to influence public discourse," said Michael Omi, an associate professor of ethnic studies who had also been Takaki's student. "He really was a pioneer in comparative ethnic studies."
Takaki's 1989 book, "Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans," was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
A descendent of Japanese field workers in Hawaii, Takaki spent his childhood in the Palolo neighborhood of Honolulu and surfed almost every day. From an early age, he was acutely attuned to the inequities in Hawaii's tough and ethnically divided plantation system, said Takaki's close friend, Roberto Haro. They met while teaching in Southern California in the early 1970s.
"He saw how people of color were put to work for long hours in the hot and humid sugar cane factories," said Haro, who joined the UC Berkeley ethnic studies faculty in 1977 and went on to become the campus's assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate studies before leaving in the 1990s.
Takaki went on to earn a master's degree in 1962 and a Ph.D. in history in 1967 from UC Berkeley, where he became drawn to campus activism, including the Free Speech Movement. "I was born intellectually and politically in Berkeley in the '60s," he told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter in 2003 after winning the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association's Fred Cody Award for lifetime achievement.
In 1966, he was hired to teach UCLA's first black history course in the wake of the explosive Watts riots. "I can still remember the smoke rising from Los Angeles and the sound of gunfire - it was a war zone," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in that same interview.
When a student in the black history class asked him which revolutionary tools he could teach them, Takaki replied: "We're going to study the history of the U.S. as it relates to African Americans. We're going to strengthen our critical thinking skills and our writing skills. These can be revolutionary tools if we make them so."
After five years at UCLA, Takaki returned in 1971 to UC Berkeley as the Department of Ethnic Studies' first full-time teacher. He became wildly popular, filling auditoriums with hundreds of students hungry for perspectives on the struggles of America's minority groups, and went on to win the campus's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1981.
"His perspective and his analysis of history is unique. Although he definitely has a 'viewpoint' which is clearly expressed, he in no way demonstrates any sort of bias. Rather, his lectures constantly challenge the student and force the student to reexamine his own biases," wrote Ling-chi Wang, now a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of ethnic studies, in his letter nominating Takaki for that award.
Takaki served as chair of ethnic studies from 1975-77, and in the mid-1980s established at UC Berkeley the nation's first doctorate program in ethnic studies. He then turned his attention to ensuring that each student satisfy an American Cultures requirement to graduate. His overall mission was to make UC Berkeley's curriculum more multicultural and diverse.
"Ron wanted to make certain that the voices of the people who really matter would be heard," Haro said. "Most historians take a dispassionate approach to history, but Ron thought the only way this country could mature was to allow the voices of slaves and minorities to be heard, and so he did that."
Haro and Takaki were jogging partners, took spear fishing trips to Hawaii and attended numerous parties. Haro said Takaki was a sought-after celebrity scholar, appearing on national TV shows and speaking at least once a month at major universities and conferences around the world.
"He was a wonderful guest. He worked the room and encouraged people to share their experiences," said Haro, who lives in Marin County. "Privately, he disliked intolerance and individuals who had talent and wasted it. I don't think I ever heard him utter a word of anger."
"He was always bigger than life," Haro added. "He was always very much ahead of his time."
Takaki is survived by his wife, Carol; his three children, Todd of El Cerrito, Calif., Troy of Los Angeles and Dana of Chester, Conn.; and several grandchildren.
Takaki has donated his research and published papers to the Ethnic Studies Library at UC Berkeley. His family asks that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made in Takaki's name to the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco.
Plans for a campus memorial service are pending.