Sociology Professor Jennifer Lee – DT001
Dean’s Table Podcast Episode
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About the Episode
Dean Harris speaks with Jennifer Lee, Professor of Sociology and a core faculty member at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. Professor Lee is a leading expert on immigration, the new second generation, education, and race relations. She is the author of multiple award-winning books, including The Asian American Paradox (with Min Zhou), Civility in the City: Blacks, Jews and Koreans in Urban America, and The Diversity Paradox: Immigration and the Color Line in 21st Century America (with Frank D. Bean).
On the podcast, Professor Lee reflects on her trajectory through Columbia as both an undergraduate and graduate student, as well as a faculty member. She recalls her work with esteemed sociologists Herbert J. Gans and Robert K. Merton. And she shares her thoughts on contemporary issues facing the Asian American community, including the Tiger Mother thesis and the ongoing affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard University.
Professor of Sociology
Sociology Professor Jennifer Lee – DT001
Theme intro music
Welcome to The Dean’s Table, a podcast featuring the scholarship, lives, and imaginations of social scientists at Columbia University in the City of New York. I’m your host Fredrick Harris, professor of Political Science and Dean of Social Science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. My guest today is Jennifer Lee, professor of Sociology here at Columbia. Jennifer is a leading scholar on race, ethnicity, and immigration, and an expert on Asian American immigration in particular. She is the author of several award-winning books, including The Asian American Achievement Paradox, and is a well beloved faculty member on the Columbia campus. But accolades aside, I was excited to speak to Jennifer because I think her work can really help us to understand some of our current policy debates — like our ongoing debate around affirmative action. I’m thrilled to have her to join me in conversation. Welcome to The Dean’s Table, Jennifer.
Jennifer Lee: Thank you so much for having me. This is wonderful.
Fred Harris: Well thanks so much for coming. So, you grew up in Philadelphia, and your parents emigrated from Korea. Tell me, how did that experience inform your interest in studying immigration and race relations?
Jennifer Lee: That is a very excellent question. I should say that I was born in Korea. I came here at the age of three. My sister was one year old at the time. And we came here because my parents wanted to come to the United States, in part, because my dad wanted to pursue a Ph.D. at Temple University in Religion.
Fred Harris: I think I read somewhere that your dad was also a merchant?
Jennifer Lee: Yes, so my parents decided to take an economic detour and to open a small business in an African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia.
So I grew up, I think, in a very unique way, understanding and working in these stores and having a lot of contact with African-Americans of different class backgrounds. And then as my parents became more economically successful, they continued to put us in better schools. So I had very different experiences. But I think throughout I became acutely aware of how class and race affect people’s opportunities and life chances in a way. And I was seeing this through my own experiences.
Fred Harris: Right. That’s fascinating. Indeed, you know, when you’re telling me that story I was actually thinking about W.E.B DuBois’ Philadelphia Negro, and so you growing up in that environment really provided you insights that appears to have affected or influenced the way you think about your scholarship. But you were an undergraduate at Columbia and you ended up becoming a professor of Sociology at Columbia. What led you to a path of becoming a sociologist?
Jennifer Lee: I wish I had a really fascinating answer but I have to be truthful here. So as an undergrad, there was a course called Evaluation of Evidence. And it was taught by Ronald Burt, who is a famous network sociologist. And it just actually fit my schedule, to tell you the truth. I didn’t know what Sociology was. And so I took the class and I was absolutely fascinated to think about, we can study pattern behavior and try to understand the mechanisms that actually lead to certain outcomes. And so I was reading Durkheim’s Suicide and, I’ll never forget, I was so hooked. I was reading it on the subway. I was reading it on my way to the gym. And I became hooked on Sociology because it provided a window to understand different kinds of patterns of behaviors among groups, not just individuals which was much more of a psychological stance.
Fred Harris: Right.
Jennifer Lee: And so I started taking a bunch of different classes. And one of the things I noticed is that none of the classes really reflected my experiences. I don’t think I could have articulated that at the time but I think one of the reasons why you don’t see many people becoming professors in part may be because they don’t see themselves reflected in the faculty. They don’t see their experiences reflected in the classes that are offered and so that was a commitment that I made: that when I become a faculty member, that I would offer the kind of courses that were not offered to me.
Fred Harris: Yeah, I think many of us have that experience. I indeed had that experience when I was an undergraduate at University of Georgia. But you also went to graduate school here. And I have to asked you. You worked with the famous sociologist by the name of Herbert Gans while you were a graduate student here. What was that like?
Jennifer Lee: He was tough. I mean, he was very tough. He would return all sorts of projects and papers with all sorts of marginal comments like, ‘Why does this matter? or ‘Miss Lee, you’re repeating yourself.’ And later, it was only until later that I spoke with him and he told me that I was a fast writer and I was a strong writer. And I said, ‘I would never have known that based on your comments.’ And so he actually pushed me to be better. He didn’t realize at the time that he was actually making me feel insecure about my own abilities. But later on he told me he was really proud of how quickly I moved through the program and how expeditiously I took on kind of their requirements and took – seized the project on which I was working.
Fred Harris: Right. Right. So for listeners could you tell us who Herbert Gans is –.
Jennifer Lee: Yes.
Fred Harris: — for those who may not know.
Jennifer Lee: Actually I worked with a number of fantastic professors. And so Herbert Gans is a leading urban sociologist. He is a masterful ethnographer in the sense that he can blend into spaces and locales and really put a humanizing face, for instance, on poverty, put a humanizing face on working class Americans.
Fred Harris: Right. Right. So you said there were others that you worked with in your graduate program that were influential. Could you —
Jennifer Lee: Yeah. So –.
Fred Harris: — talk about that.
Jennifer Lee: Absolutely. So the end of my first year, I actually interviewed for a position in which I could be a research assistant for Robert K. Merton. I have to say I was very relaxed in part because I didn’t fully understand his stature. And so one of the reasons I think he picked me was because I was relaxed in talking to him about all sorts of theories that I had about why inequality exists. And so he hired me. I started working as his graduate research assistant my second year. And one of the privileges I had was going to the Russell Sage Foundation when I was a graduate student and listening to seminars from really famous people who were visiting scholars at the time. And I thought, This is what I want to do. This is who I want to be. Eventually I want to be here. So it opened up an entire new world of what academia could be like. And I would say he was a far harsher critic than anyone I’ve ever met. But it was all in the sense of he always wanted me to improve my writing, my speaking skills. He was a mentor in the true sense of the word.
Fred Harris: Right. And as I recall Robert K. Merton was also from Philadelphia, was he not?
Jennifer Lee: Yes he was. I remember he was telling me that, you know, he grew up in a very working class neighborhood. But the way he got his education was going to the public library –.
Fred Harris: Right.
Jennifer Lee: — every day so his – even though his family didn’t have resources, his mother made sure that he was educated.
Fred Harris: Right.
Jennifer Lee: So the fellow Philly bond is very strong.
Fred Harris: Yeah, I see that. It keeps on coming back.
Jennifer Lee: I know.
Fred Harris: But for our listeners, can you tell us who is, who was Robert K. Merton.
Jennifer Lee: Okay I would say, he is one of the most, one of the leading figures in sociology. And so he is most known for things like middle range theories. So concepts that we take for granted like the self-fulfilling prophecy –.
Fred Harris: Exactly. Yeah.
Jennifer Lee: — he coined. And they’ve become such a part of the vernacular that you never even thought that they were not a part of our language. And so he really tried to – he thought sociological theory should not be this grand theory that explains absolutely everything or so micro that you can’t generalize, but that theory should be of the middle range and explain patterns of behavior. And so that’s I think the way he thought, the way he approached problems, the way he thought about concepts really influenced the way I approach my work.
Fred Harris: That’s great. So that leads us to the question about your scholarship, your work. What have been the driving questions around your work? And why do you think the questions that you ask are important?
Jennifer Lee: I think the best way to think about that is think about – maybe give examples of some of my recent work.
Fred Harris: Right.
Jennifer Lee: And so, you had mentioned that I’m a co-author of The Asian American Achievement Paradox, and that was one of my favorite projects to work on. And in part it helped to have a foil. So one of the things we do in the book is that we really try to debunk the argument that there’s something essential about Asian culture that drives exceptional educational outcomes among Asian Americans. And this is a thesis that became very popular with the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua.
Fred Harris: Right, right.
Jennifer Lee: Who argues that Eastern parenting practices are superior than Western ones. And that really you can reduce achievement to certain kinds of behaviors. And I should say that even though that’s the contemporary spin on it, this is very much something that Americans believe in general. It’s – what we argued is that it’s almost like a culture of success thesis, which is an antithesis to the culture of poverty thesis. That you can reduce outcomes to behaviors or ideas about what success is. And so how do we tackle that? Well, we tackled this by thinking about, ‘Okay, who are the Asian immigrants who are coming?’ And one of the things you see is that because of the change in immigration law in 1965 and because that change actually privileged highly educated Asian immigrants, so the people who are coming to the United States are not a random sample of Asian immigrants. They are not in some ways reflective of these populations. And just to give you an example, Chinese immigrants in the United States, about 51 percent have a B.A. or higher. When you look at China’s population it’s only 4 percent have a B.A. or higher. So the Chinese immigrants who are coming to the United States are 12 times as likely to have a college degree. They’re also more likely to be educated – more highly educated than the U.S. population. So what we call this particular type of high selectivity of immigration is hyperselectivity. So they’re doubly positively selected. So it’s not surprising for instance that their children are going to do well because sociological research shows that the strongest predictor of a child’s education is his or her parents’ education. So the fact that I have PhD does not come as a surprise because my father has a PhD.
And one of the things we actually problematize in the book is, ‘How are we measuring success?’ And so when I think of some of my students, for instance, who are the first in their families to go to college and they’ve bucked the odds, I have students who are from undocumented families and they’re here at Columbia, and to me they are more successful than I am because they’ve had to climb so much higher. They’ve had to start from a far more difficult place in the starting line to get ahead. Yet they are here. And so one of the things we also problematize in the book is that how we define success is going to determine which groups we think are successful. So, for instance, I’ll give you another example. So Mexican immigrants often times they are portrayed in the media as not successful. Yet one of the things we find in our – in our research is that second generation Mexicans in Los Angeles, they are doubling the college graduation rates of their fathers and tripling that of their mothers. The Chinese second generation, for instance, they are more highly educated than second generation Mexicans but they’re not making any educational gains.
So how do we define success? If I define it by outcomes, certain Asian groups come out ahead. If I define it as mobility and how much progress we make from one generation to the next, it’s Mexicans who are most successful. So the book is really about debunking a lot of myths and stereotypes that we have about who is successful and what drives success.
Fred Harris: So actually I want to talk a little bit more about that. You wrote this interesting online essay titled Tiger Kids and the Success Frame. And so in that essay you talk about how sociologists have shied away from talking about cultural explanations in their research on academic achievement. They prefer, you write, “on focusing on structural inequalities,” which you just talked about. You write that, “The absence of a strong social science voice in this large scale discussion about the Tiger Mom has left the door open.” And I’m paraphrasing here but you go on to argue that none, social scientists, like I guess like law professors, who weigh in on these debates tend to make, and I’m quoting here, “essentialist cultural arguments.” Can you tell us what you mean by essentialist cultural arguments regarding debates on race, ethnicity in academic achievement?
Jennifer Lee: Absolutely. So one of the things that happened after the culture of poverty became a popular thesis to explain poverty in America — and that thesis is that you can – there are certain behaviors and traits that poor people have that wind up reproducing over generations that keep people poor — and so rather than focusing on legal or systematic reasons for poverty, people started to focus on behavioral traits and – and – and sort of aspirations. And so the thinking was, ‘Okay, let’s change the behaviors of poor people. Let’s change how they think about gratification and let’s turn around poverty that way.’ So one of the – one of the things that happened as a result of that is that sociologists and social scientists more generally wanted nothing to do with culture. So they took a 180-degree turn and started to focus solely on structural arguments.
At the same time, there is kind of this understanding that culture does matter, but sociologists were not willing to go in that direction. So when you ignore an argument, what happens is you leave the door open for the Tiger Mother to come in and making sweeping generalizations and hitting a nerve with certain kinds of Americans who think, ‘Oh that makes sense.’ I mean, ‘Asian kids seem to practice a lot of piano, so that’s why they’re good at piano,’ or ‘they seem to study hard; it must be something about their culture.’ And so one of the things we argue against is that there is nothing essential about Asian culture that drives these outcomes. Culture does matter but not in the way that the Tiger Mother presumes.
And so one of the things I do in class oftentimes when I teach is present counterfactuals. So say Chinese culture can explain positive outcomes of the children of Chinese immigrants. So they do well, they’re highly educated, that’s a fact. But if Chinese culture can explain the positive educational outcomes, then we should see second generation Chinese across the globe doing well. What we see, for instance, second generation Chinese in Spain have the lowest educational aspirations and the lowest educational expectations of all second generation groups. And so when you have these global comparisons and you show that you cannot – that the outcomes and the aspirations differ, you show that you can’t reduce something to culture. There’s something else going on. And this is why we point to the fact that the Chinese immigrants who come to the United States and other Asian immigrants like Indians and Koreans are extremely highly educated.
And so one of the comparisons I make is if we had all of our Columbia students migrate to another country, people would – and that’s who migrated to, say, France, then the French would think that Americans are extremely bright and intelligent and curious and hardworking.
Fred Harris: Haha.
Jennifer Lee: And we know that that doesn’t encapsulate all Americans.
Fred Harris: Right, right. So culture also comes in into another issue, but in a different way, I think. There a pending court case on college admissions at Harvard around affirmative action. What’s going on in this case?
Jennifer Lee: Wow. Okay. So, I’ve been following this case for years. I would say a couple things. So in the court case, the plaintiffs are not Asian Americans and so the plaintiffs are an organization called The Students for Fair Admission. And that is an organization that is founded and orchestrated and supported by a man named Edward Blum, who is a self-described legal entrepreneur who has been trying to dismantle affirmative action for decades.
But the case I think is important for a number of reasons. A couple of things: one is that the Students for Fair Admissions is alleging that Asian Americans have higher standardized test scores and GPAs but they’re less likely to be admitted than other groups. And so they’re alleging that there is an illegal racial quota on Asian American applicants and that they are unfairly rated on certain kinds of personal characteristics. And so I want to say a couple of things. So Asian Americans are about 6 percent of the population, the US population. At a place like Harvard they are 22 percent of the student body. So one of the questions that we have to ask ourselves is that we’re not underrepresented in these elite universities. We’re actually very overrepresented as a portion of our population. That doesn’t mean that admissions officers might not engage in some kind of implicit bias as they’re evaluating certain candidates. But when you think about what S.F – S.F.F.A. does, wants to do, what Edward Blum wants to do in this case, he wants to make sure that race and ethnicity is not used in admissions at all. And he wants to dismantle affirmative action as a – as a consequence, and he’s using Asian Americans as pawns and as a wedge to try to dismantle affirmative action. And so I think one of – there are a number of issues that come up – is that, I’ve argued that if you take out race and ethnicity in the admissions process, oftentimes Asian Americans think they’ll win out. I’ve argued that other factors will become more important like geographic diversity, diversity on a number of other fronts, and the actual applicants who will actually increase are probably white applicants.
I would also say that this has never been a case about merit, which is how it’s being framed.
So Edward Blum and the Students for Fair Admissions has never tried to attack legacy admissions, for instance. And by legacy I mean applicants who have one or both parents who attended Harvard. And legacies are six times as likely to get admitted to Harvard than non-legacies. Their grades and test scores are no better than non-legacies. So there is a legacy effect. Yet that is a boost and that is bias that no one is willing to talk about. So I feel like this case has nothing to do with rectifying some kind of wrong for Asian Americans. It has nothing to do with who is more meritorious. I think it has a lot to do with trying to keep certain groups in the most privileged positions possible, and that’s the elites.
Fred Harris: So what would you like people to know about how your work can get us to understand what’s at stake in this case?
Jennifer Lee: One is that Asian Americans, I think, are thinking very myopically about affirmative action because we are not underrepresented at these top universities. Where we are actually facing more discrimination or more bias, I should say, is actually in the labor market. So research actually shows that when you compare US-born Asian American men to white men who have the same level of education, who’ve gone to the same type of college, who’ve had the same majors, same work experience, live in the same area, white men earn 8 percent more than Asian American men. Asian American women earn about as much as white women but we’re less likely to be promoted into supervisory positions. And if you look across all domains like education, even in Silicon Valley or law, Asian Americans are the least likely to be promoted into managerial and executive positions. And so where we are facing bias is not in education. It’s actually in the labor market. And it’s not getting our foot in the door, but it is where it matters, in leadership positions. And so, how are we going to address this kind of bias? It’s only with affirmative action, which is one of the reasons why I strongly advocate. If you’re – even if you’re not thinking about racial justice as the frame through which you want to support affirmative action, for Asian Americans, my fellow Asian Americans, you have to understand that once you get beyond the ivory tower, a new set of rules are in place and you will face different kinds of implicit and explicit biases because you’re culturally different, because you’ll be stereotyped as smart, hardworking, but not creative, not a leader. This is something – these are stereotypes that I feel like I face every day.
Fred Harris: This seems like it has been a longstanding issue. You know the literature I’ve read on Asian Americans talks about the sense of always being this alien in the United States. And it’s interesting because there seems to be lots of possibilities for coalition building around anti-discrimination in employment. And so perhaps the focus can shift some to address these inequities. So I want to get back to something that was, I guess, raised initially. What have been the ‘ah-ha’ moments for you in your work?
Jennifer Lee: From a personal standpoint, I grew up as a very shy person. And so if you asked me in high school could I ever see myself lecturing in front of, say, 200 people, I would have just passed out and said no. But I think one of the things I’ve learned about myself is that I’m in this privileged position to be able to teach. I’ve had every, in some ways, resource available to me and because I grew up very – in very diverse contexts and situations, I can empathize with different kinds of people very readily and I can understand that not everyone has the kinds of privilege that many of us do. And so I think when I teach I’m very aware of the diverse body of students in my class. When I take on research projects I think about, How can I give back? Or, how can I debunk some kind of popular myth? How can I make a difference? Thinking about what kind of scholarship is meaningful for a diverse America.
Fred Harris: Right. Right. So there’s this one last question I’ve been really wanting to ask you for a very long time. So I want you to really, really, really, really think about it. What do you think of the movie Crazy Rich Asians?
Jennifer Lee: [Laughs] You know, we saw – I saw this – the movie with a bunch of Columbia professors.
Fred Harris: Oh really?
Jennifer Lee: Yes. We made it a Columbia professors night out. But I was ambivalent in part because I read so much and I thought, ‘My gosh, another movie about rich Asians,’ kind of playing off a stereotype that we’re all rich, which we are not. And I don’t think I expected to feel the way I felt. So one of the things I didn’t expect was that it feels amazing to see people who are of your own background, even if they’re not your ethnic background, to see Asian American faces on screen that don’t have accents, that aren’t playing convenience store workers or people – nail salon owners. To see regular people doing regular jobs and the actual – the two lead characters are professors, which is hilarious. So, I think we felt in some ways represented and I think this is why representation and narrative means so much to me. When you don’t see yourself represented on screen, when you don’t see your voices represented in the classroom, when you don’t see your experiences reflected in things that you’re reading, you might assume that they might not matter. And so this is why I’m very conscientious when I think about designing my syllabi, thinking about who am I teaching to and are my students going to feel that their voices and their narratives matter in what they’re reading. And so with Crazy Rich Asians, I think I didn’t expect to feel a sense of connection to seeing people onscreen who don’t have accents — I mean, who don’t have Asian accents and who were just playing themselves.
Fred Harris: Well, thanks for coming through. This has been extraordinary. And please give my regards to – is it Kaya?
Jennifer Lee: Kaya. Yes, my toy pomeranian who is the cultural attaché of sociology.
Fred Harris: Right, right. So we have to have her on next time.
Jennifer Lee: Yes, yes. She’ll have to be visual though because she’s so beautiful.
Fred Harris: Right. Well again thanks so much. This has been great.
Jennifer Lee: This has been so much fun.
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The Dean’s Table is produced by Destry Maria Sibley with production assistance from Jack Reilly. Our technical engineers are AJ Mangone and Airiayana Sullivan. Our lead researcher is Kala Deterville. Our logo is by Jessica Lilien. Our music is by Imperial. I’m Dean Harris.