Jennifer Lee

Ph.D., Columbia University, 1998
immigration, race/ethnicity, social inequality, asian american studies

SSPB 3253 | 949-824-7011

Professional Bio

Jennifer Lee is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, who received her B.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University. Her research projects stem from her theoretical interests in the intersection of immigration, race/ethnicity, and culture. Much of her work has focused on the ways in which contemporary immigrants affect native-born Americans, and also, how native-born Americans affect patterns of immigrant and second-generation incorporation. More than any other scholar, Lee has expanded the discussion of race/ethnicity, immigration, and culture beyond the Black/White binary to include America’s largest minority groups — Blacks, Latinos, and Asians.

She is author of Civility in the City: Blacks, Jews, and Koreans in Urban America for which Lee received Honorable Mention for the Thomas and Znaniecki Distinguished Book Award from the International Migration Section of the American Sociological Association, and co-author of The Diversity Paradox: Immigration and the Color Line in 21st Century, which earned the 2011 Otis Dudley Duncan Award from the Population Section of ASA. She is also co-editor of Asian American Youth: Culture, Identity, and Ethnicity, which was named the 2006 Outstanding Book Award from the Asia and Asian America Section of the ASA. She has also authored dozens of articles about race/ethnicity, immigration, and the second generation.

Lee has also been awarded numerous prestigious grants and Fellowships. She was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago, a Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, and a Fulbright Scholar to Japan.

Lee established her career with Civility in the City, published by Harvard University Press. In Civility in the City, she sheds new light on the topics of immigrant entrepreneurship and interethnic relations. By going beyond the single group study implemented by prior scholars, and instead comparing Koreans with Jewish and African American merchants, and also contrasting two different urban environments (New York and Philadelphia), Lee shows just how ethnicity and nativity matter, demonstrating also the ways in which the environment generates conflicts, but also how those conflicts are managed and negotiated to produce civility in everyday life. Her findings dispel the popular myth of the ubiquity of interethnic conflict, and show that social order, routine, and civility are alive and well in America’s inner-cities.

In The Diversity Paradox, Jennifer Lee and Frank D. Bean take two poles of American collective identity — the legacy of slavery and immigration — and address the question of whether today’s immigrants are destined to become racialized minorities akin to African Americans or whether their incorporation into U.S. society will more closely resemble that of their European predecessors. They also tackle the vexing question of whether America’s new racial/ethnic diversity is helping to erode the tenacious Black/White color line. For the first time in 2000, the U.S. Census enabled multiracial Americans to identify themselves as belonging to more than one race, and eight years later, African American Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. For many, these events give credibility to the claim that America is now a “post-racial” society.

In this major contribution, Lee and Bean recast our understanding of race, and in particular Blackness, by doing something that previous generations of scholars had mostly avoided: studying Blacks in relation to Latinos, Asians, and Whites. By doing so, they provide insight into the unique plight of Black Americans. Asians and Latinos are much more likely to intermarry with Whites, and their unions are understood by each partner and other observers as intercultural unions rather than interracial ones. Differences between Asians and Latinos on the one hand, and Blacks on the other are framed through an immigrant narrative — a considerably smoother and easier path of understanding, and one that is less fraught with the tension and potential for conflict than the slavery narrative that characterizes differences between Blacks and Whites. Moreover, through captivating in-depth interviews, they deftly show how multiracial Asians and Latinos are little constrained by racialization processes that force Blacks into discrete racial categories through the legacy of the “one-drop rule. Boundary crossing at the individual level does not lead to the shifting of racial/ethnic boundaries at the group level for Blacks.

Consequently, we appear to be entering a new phase in the U.S. system of racial/ethnic relations, in which the boundaries of the dominant group appear to be expanding to encompass populations historically excluded from the ranks of the accepted, all the while maintaining the boundary that has kept Blacks as perpetual outsiders. These rich findings say much about racial inequality in the United States and the existence of a racial hierarchy, in which Blacks are far more likely to find themselves in positions of exclusion than Asians and Latinos — pointing to a persistent pattern of “black exceptionalism.”

Jennifer Lee’s newest book, titled, Asian American Achievement Paradox, will be published in June 2015. In the book, she and Min Zhou tackle the vexing question: Why do second-generation Asians exhibit exceptional academic outcomes, even when controlling for socioeconomic factors like parental education, occupation, income, and residential segregation? They bring culture back into the debate about second-generation outcomes and address the “Tiger Mother” controversy head on by bridging research in immigration, race/ethnicity, and social psychology in a novel way.

Building on the cultural concept of frames, they explain how Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant parents and their children frame success, how “success frames” differ by ethnicity, and how frames are supported by institutional and ethnic resources. Greater access to resources help second-generation Chinese and Vietnamese from disadvantaged class backgrounds override their low parental human capital. Moreover, Asian American students benefit from a “stereotype promise” — the promise of being viewed through the lens of a positive stereotype that leads one to perform in such a way that confirms the positive stereotype, thereby boosting performance. As a result, Asian American students gain an advantage over their non-Asian peers in the context of U.S. schools. No other scholar has been as vocal nor as effective as Jennifer Lee in refuting the fallacious claims about the superiority of Asian culture or the simplistic argument that Asian Americans value education more than other groups.

Lee is strongly committed public sociology. She has written opinion pieces for The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Seattle Times, The Guardian, and TIME, and has done interviews for NPR, CBS2 News, Fusion TV, and Tavis Smiley. In addition, her research has been featured in NBC News, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Globe and Mail, The China Daily, International Business Times, Slate, Buzzfeed, and a number of other media outlets.

Jennifer Lee has appointed to the Editorial Boards of the University of California Press, the ASA Rose Series, and the International Migration Review. She has recently served as an elected Council Member-at-Large of the American Sociological Association, and has been elected to the Councils of the Inequality, Poverty, and Mobility Section, International Migration Section, and the Asia and Asian American Section of the ASA. She has also served on the Editorial Board of the American Sociological Review.