An Immigration and Race Scholar Who Bucks Conventional Thought
Sociologists reflect on the influence of Professor Emeritus Richard Alba.
While the image of America as a melting pot of ethnicities has been questioned by many, Distinguished Professor Emeritus Richard Alba (Sociology) has offered compelling evidence that assimilation, as opposed to segregation, remains a potent trend in the United States. The data-driven books he wrote and co-wrote on the topic, including Remaking the American Mainstream. Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration, co-authored with Victor Nee, have shaped the scholarly study of immigration, race, and ethnicity and influenced the careers of scores of sociologists and demographers.
Last Friday, eminent and early-career sociologists who have collaborated with and been mentored by Alba gathered at the Graduate Center to celebrate his work and reflect on his influence as a scholar, teacher, colleague, and friend.
Participants shared the following tributes by email or as excerpts from their remarks:
“Richard and I have long enjoyed a close friendship and co-authorial relationship since we met when I was on leave from UCSB and spending a year at Cornell, where Richard was a junior faculty member. In 1995, when I was at the Russell Sage Foundation, Richard proposed the idea of co-authoring a paper on assimilation. After all, he argued persuasively, the two of us, each from a noodle-eating group, were ideally suited for writing a paper on assimilation. This was at a time when the idea of assimilation was being pilloried intellectually. In undertaking the paper project, we both agreed that we risked being tarred and feathered for the audacity of offering a positive account of why assimilation was still the main current, despite the non-European origins of contemporary immigration. We decided there was enough in it to go on to write Remaking the American Mainstream, which offered a more substantively elaborated synthesis and theory of neo-assimilation. The work we did together formed lasting bonds of intellectual collegiality and friendship, for which I will always remain grateful.”
— Victor Nee, Frank and Rosa Rhodes Professor, Cornell University
“Richard Alba has provided the definitive account of the nature of ethnicity and the process of ethnic and racial change in the 20th and 21st centuries. His scholarship, spanning six decades, is distinctive in that it contains both rigorous original data analyses and pathbreaking theoretical advances. He has contributed to our understandings of the nature of ethnicity among European origin groups such as the Italians, the causes and consequences of residential segregation and integration in our cities, and the integration of immigrants and their children in the United States and Europe. And he has done it all while being a generous and kind mentor and teacher, and a warm and much-loved person. He has influenced so many lives for the better, including my own.
— Mary C. Waters, PVK Professor of Arts and Sciences and the John L. Loeb Professor of Sociology at Harvard University
I can’t resist a few words on Richard’s work and what makes him so special … He was hired, ostensibly, as a demographer, and an outstanding demographer he is. But he was always more than that. His work has always included a rigorous examination of what changing populations in the U.S. (and more recently in Europe) mean for the social, political, and increasingly the cultural nature of those societies. His conclusions have often been unfashionable, not because he is by nature a contrarian, but rather because he brings a clear-eyed understanding of the data and a willingness to follow the implications of his data and his theoretical instincts, no matter where they lead, even when those conclusions put him at odds with conventional wisdom. In recent years this has made him something of — to use an overused phrase — a “public intellectual,” not because he seeks public visibility, but because he does not shy away from it when he feels he has something important to say.”
“With the ‘one or more option,’ the 2000 census marked a major turning point in racial classification. The result was mixed. On the positive side, the one-drop rule was erased; the truth of mixed marriage made clear. On the more problematic side, concern that the country was soon to be majority-minority; confusion over what is a race, what an ethnicity; and, now, white nationalism. An army of social scientists went to work and are still at it. Richard's leadership has been indispensable, time and again carefully documenting the nation’s changing mixed ethno-racial demography and interpreting its consequences. For this, I join others in thanking Richard.”
— Kenneth Prewitt, Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs, Director of The Future of Scholarly Knowledge, and Special Adviser to the President, Columbia University
“Richard Alba had already had a great impact on me before we became colleagues at the Graduate Center in 2008. His work on white ethnicity, especially Italian Americans, on racial patterns of spatial mobility and neighborhood attainment, and on how the concept of assimilation continues to be a viable way to understand how new immigrant groups are faring in the U.S. was infused by empirical rigor, theoretical sophistication, and passion for his subjects. In short, he was and is a model for how we should be doing social science today. It was thus a great relief, as a member of the search committee that brought him to the Graduate Center, that we had attracted an intellectual who was just as towering as the departing founders who had made the Graduate Center such an esteemed node of scholarship. This was only a prelude, however, to becoming his close friend, neighbor, colleague, and collaborator. Truly, he has enriched the lives of all of those of us who have the privilege of working with him closely. His talents are many and sometimes unexpected, such as having a facility with the German micro-census or the ability to criticize without wounding. We members of the Graduate Center social science community are going to be quite reluctant to let him stray far.”
— John Mollenkopf, CUNY Graduate Center Distinguished Professor (Sociology, Political Science, International Migration Studies, Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences); Director of the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center
“Richard Alba is one of the most important immigration scholars of our time. His work on integration of immigrants in the United States and Europe is pathbreaking. As his former student I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from him and work alongside him. I wish Richard all the best in his retirement. He and his work will not soon be forgotten.”
— Amy Lutz, Associate Professor of Sociology, Syracuse University
“I am honoured to have the opportunity to state my gratitude to Richard Alba for his massive contribution to scholarship on the occasion of his retirement, both for myself and on behalf of others. Richard undoubtedly stands as one of the most influential figures of the postwar period with his intellectual contribution importantly shaping debates and empirical understandings of the radical transformations of our societies. Viewed from the European side of the Atlantic, Richard has played a pivotal role in generating important comparative conversations between North America and Europe about the similarities and differences between experiences of immigration, race, and migrants’ lives. Beyond his scholarly grandeur, Richard has always been kind, open to ideas, and generous to academics at all stages of their careers. We are indebted to the optimism he brings through his perspective and vision of the future.”
— Paul Statham, Professor of Migration (Geography), University of Sussex; Director of Sussex Centre for Migration Research; former Distinguished Fellow at Advanced Research Collaborative at the CUNY Graduate Center
“Richard Alba has made a huge contribution to sociology in general and the sociology of migration and integration in particular. Without downplaying the short-term experiences of diversity and alienation of both immigrants and natives, Alba stresses the importance of long-term processes of integration and assimilation, in the long run resulting in living together without experiencing such differences anymore.
Moreover, Alba uses empirical data to counter dangerous ideas regarding the disappearance of the mainstream and the alleged ‘replacement’ of white Americans. He convincingly shows that sociological facts are on the side of those who want to defend liberal democracy and its institutions that help newcomers find their places in our societies. Alba’s long-term sociology can be reassuring, can prevent moral panics, has a message of moderation, and of trust in the resilience of society.”
— Jan Willem Duyvendak, Director of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS-KNAW) and Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Amsterdam; former Distinguished Fellow at the Advanced Research Collaborative at the CUNY Graduate Center
“Richard and his career embody the best of what we do as academics: learn and teach. Using what he has learned from his research, Richard, perhaps more than anyone, has taught me about how immigrants, their descendants, and the existing populations shape each other's lives. His empirical work and theorizing have, from the beginning of my career, shaped how I think about immigrant integration, race, ethnicity, and nationalism. Richard has also taught me how to approach my academic work and career. He has never been blown by the winds of what is politically popular or academically trendy. Instead, he fashions accounts about how the world works from what he has observed from careful empirical observation. And he has done all of this with kindness and generosity. Richard has never been on my dissertation committee, never been my adviser, and I've never taken a class with him. But he has always treated me like I am one of his own. I honor Richard for what he has taught me about how the world works and for how he has shown me to be in the world as a scholar, colleague, and friend.”
— Tomás R. Jiménez, Professor of Sociology and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Stanford University; Director of the Qualitative Initiative in the Immigration Policy Lab
“I am fortunate and honored to have been one of your last students and I carry your legacy, Richard, as a mentor and teacher with me. I aspire to be as great a mentor to my future students as you have been to me. Engaging with them as intellectual equals, matching encouragement with honest feedback and investing in their paths.
And finally, I hope you don’t think you are getting rid of me. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a ‘former’ student. I know I have so much more to learn from you and I look forward to many more years of coffee in the neighborhood and our exchange of ideas.”
— Mara Getz Sheftel (Ph.D. ’21, Sociology), Postdoctoral Scholar at the Population Research Institute at Pennsylvania State University
"I came to know Richard Alba mostly after I arrived at the Graduate Center. I had heard of him when I was at Hunter College and knew he was a well-known race, ethnicity, and immigration scholar, but it was only after I arrived at the Graduate Center that we became colleagues and little by little friends.
For the last five years now that I have been executive officer (EO) of the Graduate Center Sociology program, Richard’s office has been right next door to mine, and he would consistently greet me with a cheerful and enthusiastic “hello Lynn!” whenever I passed by.
Sitting in the EO’s office means I frequently talk to Sociology Ph.D. students about their experiences with professors and mentors, and it is hard to count the number of times I have heard students highly praise the intellectual and professional attention and care they received from Richard at the Graduate Center … Thank you, Richard for all the wonderful things you do, have done, and will keep doing as a great friend and sociologist."
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