On Tuesday, May 26, 2009, our nation’s first African American president, who has appointed three Asian Americans to his cabinet, named the first Latina nominee to the Supreme Court. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to Professor Ronald Takaki, whose tireless writing, teaching, and lecturing played a pivotal role in propagating the idea of America as a multicultural nation. Undoubtedly, racism still haunts us in 2009. However, we now have a far greater sense of the United States as a land where all people can achieve their full potential, where the old notion of a white majority nation is rapidly fading, and where a new sense of possibility unbound by the stigma of race has arisen.
This is the America that Professor Takaki helped us to see evolving through the course of history—through the struggles of those who endured racism and discrimination, those who faced the lash of the whip and were forced into chains, those whose fought displacement and resisted genocide, those who came from distant lands and battled exclusion, and all those who rose above the petty concerns of an exploitative and dehumanizing system to fight for social justice.
As I only met Professor Takaki on a few brief occasions, I cannot count myself among those fortunate to claim his as a mentor and friend. Instead, having attended a university that did not offer a single Asian American Studies course in the late 1980s, I am among the tens of thousands whose introduction to ethnic studies was especially shaped by his books and public speaking. Indeed, my entire academic career has been shaped by two of Professor Takaki’s central themes. First, Asian American Studies, born out of struggle, must be at the forefront of the movement to democratize education and the broader society in which we live. And, second, this can only happen when we view Asian American history, culture, and politics within a multiracial context.
As we witness the color lines that defined the 20th century breaking down before our eyes, we can honor Professor Takaki’s legacy by tackling the new and ongoing challenges to humanity that confront us as a multiracial society in the 21st century.
Scott Kurashige, PhD, is an Associate Professor of History, American Culture, and Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies, at the University of Michigan.