Historically, two theoretical approaches to interethnic relations were predominant: the assimilation-acculturation model and the ethnicity-pluralism model (Lei 2009, pp. 12-13). The first model, assimilation-acculturation, is more commonly known as the “melting pot” phenomenon – where ethnic groups migrate to the United States, give up their cultural values and “distinct identities”, and adopt the norms and values of white America (p. 12). The second model, ethnicity-pluralism, was developed in response to the civil rights movements here and struggles against imperialism abroad. This model recognizes and valorizes difference among ethnic groups – what becomes America’s strength is not a melting pot resulting in one culture, but rather, the resiliency of ethnic identities that create America as an “ethnic mosaic” (p.12).
In the nineties the “power-conflict” school, led an effort to “retheorize” ethnicity and race to better explain persistent socio-economic inequalities along lines of power and difference. Theorists, particularly Omi and Winant, argued that race is not only used to differentiate groups of people, but is also “a formation process imposed by the social structure, which closely relates to the politics and power relations in American society” (p.15). Professor Wei Li situates her work along these lines. She suggests a new model of ethnic settlement – the ethnoburb. Ethnoburbs “express a set of contemporary ethnic relations involving interethnic group and intraethnic class tension or cooperation in a unique spatial form and internal socioeconomic structure. Ethnoburbs are suburban ethnic clusters of residential and business districts within large metropolitan areas” (p.29).
In her book Ethnoburb and her more recent piece on pre and post-Katrina migratory patterns, Professor Li’s work spatializes the complex dynamics of race, power, and difference in the United States. Methodologically, these pieces gave us a chance to see how a mixed-method approach can enrich our work and how collaboration with an interdisciplinary group of scholars can lead to a more comprehensive and dynamic approach to research. Wei Li, along with other scholars who study the “geography of racism” remind us to be attentive in our own work of, as George Lipsitz says “the spatialization of race and racialization of space.”