Ronald T. Takaki, 70, prolific scholar of ethnic studies, dies

Ronald T. Takaki, 70, a prolific and controversial scholar who helped pioneer the field of ethnic studies and wrote animated histories about blacks, Asians, Hispanics and other marginalized Americans during four decades on the University of California, Berkeley faculty, has died.

Takaki killed himself at his Berkeley home on Tuesday, his son Troy said.

The scholar had struggled for nearly 20 years with multiple sclerosis, a potentially debilitating neurological disease for which there is no cure. “He couldn’t deal with it anymore,” Troy Takaki said Thursday.

Takaki was the author and editor of more than 20 books, including “Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th Century America” (1979), “Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans” (1989), “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America” (1993) and “Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II” (2000).

He established UC Berkeley’s doctorate program in ethnic studies, the first of its kind in the nation, and gave prestige to the program by drawing top-notch scholars to teach in it.

“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,” Don T. Nakanishi, director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center, said Thursday.

Takaki, the grandson of Japanese immigrants, was an activist as well as a scholar. He was a vigorous proponent of multicultural education and a vocal opponent of Proposition 209, the 1996 California ballot initiative that rolled back affirmative action policies in state-funded institutions.

His work often invited controversy. He earned some of his most favorable reviews for “Strangers From a Different Shore,” which covers the long history of Asian immigrants’ odysseys to America, starting with the Chinese who arrived in the 1850s and ending with the Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia of the 1980s. “A superb balancing act,” Jon Foreman wrote in The New York Times’ review.

But the book was roundly criticized by some Asian American studies scholars, who cited instances of plagiarism and raised questions about his research methods and treatment of women. Perhaps a measure of his influence, an entire issue of the scholarly journal Amerasia in 1990 was devoted to critiques of the work. The charges of plagiarism were investigated by a UC Berkeley administrative officer, but Takaki was cleared.

His focus on the pluralism of America began in the ethnic stew of Hawaii, where he grew up. Born in Honolulu on April 12, 1939, he was the grandson of a Japanese immigrant who went to Hawaii in 1886 to work in the sugar cane fields. After his father died when Takaki was 7, he was raised by his mother and Chinese stepfather, who ran a Chinese restaurant in Honolulu.

“I grew up peeling shrimp, cutting onions and reading ‘Moby Dick,’” he told the Times in 1989.

Nicknamed “Ten-toes Takaki,” he was a fearless surfer who was indifferent to school. But in high school, a Japanese American teacher urged him to try college and wrote him a recommendation to the College of Wooster in Ohio, which accepted him. One of three children, he was the first in his family to attend college.

His years at Wooster, where he was one of two Asian Americans on campus, gave him a new awareness of himself as an ethnic American. One of his professors “asked me how long I’d been in this country, where did I learn to speak English. I told him I was from Hawaii and he says, ‘But how long have you been in this country?’ I guess I didn’t look American,” he recalled in an interview in the Lincoln Journal Star in 2000.

He graduated from Wooster in 1961 with a bachelor’s in history. At UC Berkeley he received a master’s in 1962 and a doctorate in 1967 with a dissertation on the history of American slavery.

His doctoral work caught the attention of UCLA. Takaki was hired and in 1967 taught the university’s first African American history class.

When the young Japanese American, sporting a crew cut, walked into the classroom for the first time, the students, some wearing Afros and dashikis, fell silent. One student finally spoke up. “Well, Professor Takaki,” the student said in a challenging tone, “what revolutionary tools are we going to learn in this course?” 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.’ “

The class and its unlikely professor became hugely popular. “He won the hearts of the students, the African American and the many white students who were interested in black history in those days,” recalled UCLA history professor Gary Nash. Members of the campus’ Black Student Union, which asked Takaki to be its adviser, later joked that it was “just like a white university to find a yellow man to teach black history,” Nash said.

Teaching the class, which drew students of various ethnicities, led Takaki to begin to reformulate race as “more than just a binary of black and white.” It inspired him to develop a course on the comparative history of racial inequality.

UCLA dismissed him in 1970 after he openly criticized the university’s hiring policies. He wound up at Berkeley in 1972 and taught the course there for 28 years, often turning students away for lack of seats. “If he wanted to, he could have had 1,000 students each term,” said retired ethnic studies professor Roberto Haro, who had taught with Takaki at Berkeley.

Takaki’s first books focused on black history, such as “A Pro-Slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade” (1971), which examined the impact of abolition on the South’s economy.

In the 1980s he began to focus on Asian American history, such as in “Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii” (1983). That book was his first attempt at writing narrative history, emphasizing the voices of his often obscure or unknown subjects to give “the eye-level view of working in the cane fields, feeling the heat, breathing the red dust.”

He continued to refine that approach in later books, such as “Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II,” which draws from letters, songs, poetry and other sources, and “A Different Mirror,” which told stories about minorities’ struggles, such as the Japanese and Mexican farmworkers in California who united under the same strike banner in the early 1900s.

Takaki is survived by his wife, Carol Rankin; sons Troy of Venice, Calif., and Todd of El Cerrito, Calif., daughter Dana of Chester, Conn.; a brother, Michael Young, of Thousand Oaks, Calif.; a sister, Janet Wong, of Chatsworth; and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned at UC Berkeley at a later date.

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