In a nation of immigrants, Shannon Gleeson’s multiethnic genealogy parallels the stories of many American families.

Her mother first came to United States from Mexico in 1970 as a teenage undocumented immigrant and found work as a housekeeper. After being deported and later returning, she eventually earned a college degree and embarked on a three-decade career in California and Texas as a schoolteacher.

Her father’s Irish-German-Ukrainian family traces its roots to the wave of European immigration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the doors to the U.S. were mostly open. He eventually settled in Los Angeles.

Both families faced challenges and xenophobia immigrants often experience, but the political eras during their migration were distinct.

“What’s different is the legal context in which they entered,” Gleeson said. “We tend to think of Ellis Island with some nostalgia. We don’t think of the Mexican border (positively) as a gateway to prosperity for generations of people.”

The dichotomy of her family history in part led Gleeson to concentrate on the immigrant experience as an undergraduate in sociology at Santa Clara University and for her doctorate in sociology and demography from UC Berkeley. The pathways and obstacles that immigrants, particularly low-wage workers, encounter is now the focus of Gleeson’s research as an assistant professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at UC Santa Cruz.

One of her studies examines how recent immigrants involved in wage and hour, discrimination, injury or other workplace disputes utilize legal systems and the effect factors such as race or legal status have when making claims. That project is funded by a $14,000 grant from the UC Center for New Racial Studies, a Multicampus Research Program Initiative based at UC Santa Barbara. The center was founded in 2009 with a $1.73 million grant from the UC Office of the President to foster innovative teaching and research on new dynamics of race and racism.

“What I’m interested in is looking into the gap between having rights on the books in theory, and how those rights materialize in practice,” Gleeson said.

The research was part of the center’s agenda to investigate “The Nation and Its Peoples: Citizens, Denizens, Migrants” during its first round of grants in 2010-11. Gleeson said her research raises issues about the structure of the economy and equality, and ties into the dialogue over the Occupy movement.

“There are a number of intersections on different issues and as academics our job is to pull those together,” she said, “and not let policy discussions go on in a vacuum.”

The mission of the UC Center for New Racial Studies is to explore race through multidisciplinary research during an era that, with President Barack Obama’s election, is considered by some to be post-racial. Conversely, it is also a time still fraught with deepening racial stratification, inequality and differences.

“We’re living in a highly contradictory racial atmosphere,” said Howard Winant, director of the center and a sociology professor at UC Santa Barbara. “In some ways, things have gotten better; in other ways they’ve stayed the same or gotten worse. There’s a largely unprecedented set of racial conditions. We don’t really know how to deal with race anymore.”

Aggregating research from a variety of fields under one theoretical umbrella allows thinkers to enrich their scholarship and leverage new ideas on race in the public debate. That’s no simple matter, despite many breakthroughs over the past decades.

Gleeson said receiving a grant from the center was a great opportunity to have a discourse on issues encompassing race in different contexts and with researchers in various disciplines across the UC system.

“Support from the central administration provides continuity for this type of research,” she said. “It also signals a broader UC commitment to address these issues.”

Fostering collaboration was among the reasons for creating the center, Winant said. He estimates that there are about 1,000 UC researchers studying race in a wide variety of disciplines. Research is underway not only in the social science and humanities and ethnic and gender studies, but also in professions including public health, law, urban planning, architecture and social work.

“There is no other university in the world with anything near this breadth or depth in terms of sheer numbers of high-quality scholars,” Winant said.

New racial studies, as defined by the center, can include any aspect of identity linked to race, including class, ethnicity, gender and immigration status.

“We’re all supposed to be color blind,” Winant said. “We’re supposed to recognize that we’re all just people. But at the same time, we have racially segregated neighborhoods, employment, infant mortality, life expectancy and patterns of incarceration. We’re trying to be more egalitarian and inclusive but we have not challenged the underlying forces that shape racial injustice and inequality.”

Mapping the unstable ground of contemporary race relations is crucial as the United States faces dramatic changes both at home and abroad, according to Yolanda Moses, a vice provost and professor of anthropology at UC Riverside, who serves on the center’s steering committee. 

By 2050, the U.S. population is expected to be a minority-majority with no dominant racial or ethnic group. The questions about how Americans will adapt seem endless. Will the new America be less racially divided, or more?

“We do not live in a color-blind society or a post-racial society,” Moses said. “I know that people want to make that be true, but it is not true. We want to make the structures visible.” 

For 2011-12, center scholars are focusing on "Intersectionality" — the ways that race, gender, class and other markers, such as immigration status, function in tandem to affect people’s lives. During 2012-13, the theme is "Race-Making, Race-Neutrality and Race-Consciousness," which will delve into social, economic and other factors that form racial identities.

“Every relationship of oppression and resistance, domination and resistance, is unique,” Winant said. “We recognize that. Race is not class, is not gender, is not environment, is not age. At the same time, all those things are connected and overlap in certain ways.”

In future years, researchers affiliated with the Center for New Racial Studies will continue to identify underlying issues that, consciously or not, inform our conversations about race. These include the question of color blindness, how the state deals with race, patterns of incarceration, immigration and the ramifications of race in a 21st-century global context.

“It is imperative that we seek to understand what the consequences are of an ever-shifted U.S. demography and that we identify the axes of inequality that have emerged,” Gleeson said.