James Lai Recognized by the College of Arts and Sciences
Public Intellectual Award
In recognition of the effective, far-reaching, and timely use of scholarly expertise to address issues of major public concern in a way that promotes reasoned analysis and humane understanding.
In the past several months, we have seen a national reckoning with anti-Asian American racial prejudice, with an increased awareness of anti-Asian violence as well as Asian American contributions to U.S. history and culture. James Lai’s scholarship and teaching have focused on Asian American studies for over twenty years, and he is recognized as a leading scholar in Asian American politics. His colleagues call his work “sophisticated,” “meticulous” and “innovative.” His newest book Asian American Connective Action in the Age of Social Media, forthcoming in January 2022, examines how social media has changed the way Asian Americans participate in politics.
Setting James apart, however, is his commitment to engaging the public on the issues he studies. He speaks frequently in both national and local media—in an informed, accessible and, thus, powerful way—on a broad range of topics of profound importance including anti-Asian violence, the value of cultural diversity in Silicon Valley, political representation of Asians and Latinos in Bay Area cities, and the impact of the Trump presidency on Asian American voting preferences and turnout. One of his more high-profile public commentaries was an ABC interview on the promise and perils of a 2015 television sitcom focused on an immigrant Taiwanese family called "Fresh Off the Boat". Notable in this interview, but so very characteristic of the James his colleagues know, was his calm, thoughtful, and understated way of sharing his knowledge and wisdom, an approach that is so very welcome and valuable in these times of misinformation and hyperbole.
For helping increase public awareness of both the contributions and interventions made by previously overlooked communities, and thus helping promote a greater understanding of U.S. politics and culture, James Lai is a most deserving recipient of the 2021 Public Intellectual Award.