UC Berkeley professor emeritus Robert Blauner, prescient sociologist, advocate, dies at 87

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Robert Blauner, a professor emeritus in the sociology department noted for his prescient studies on race relations, died in his North Berkeley home Oct. 20 at the age of 87.

Blauner was credited by former colleagues for producing work that influenced both the academic and public spheres and for taking strong moral stances. He was an early advocate against sexual harassment and for affirmative action.

(He was) a man of very rare integrity who took very principled positions, not just verbally but actually in practice,” said Michael Burawoy, a professor in the campus sociology department, who said Blauner supported him throughout his career. His ideas continue to have an extraordinary power in interpreting the world.”

He published six books and dozens of shorter articles, including the critically acclaimed “Black Lives, White Lives: Three Decades of Race Relations in America,” which would retain its relevance decades later as America returns it attention to racial inequality and implicit bias.

“His contribution to the field was to help … to reshape the whole discourse about race in America away from individual, personal prejudice to more structural, organizational forces,” said Troy Duster, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of sociology and Blauner’s former colleague. “Bob was a forerunner to the current debate about white privilege.”

After obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Chicago in 1948 and 1950, before coming to UC Berkeley for a doctorate in sociology, which he completed in 1962.

He became a lecturer and assistant professor in 1963, but did not obtain full professorship until 1978 — a relatively slow career progression that some former colleagues attributed to his willingness to challenge his department and take aggressive stances on moral issues.

“He was very forceful about expressing his views,” Duster said. “He was … a fierce fighter for what he believed in.”

In the late 1960s, Blauner started an affirmative action program in the campus’ sociology graduate program, actively recruiting Black and Latino students. By the early 1980s, he had helped the campus bring sanctions against sociology professor Abdelbaki Hermassi, who was accused of sexual harassment by 13 female students.

“He loved simplicity and authenticity in people, he really embodied those things,” said Karina Epperlein, Blauner’s wife of 25 years. “That endeared him to all the people who felt as underdogs.”

After retiring in 1993, Blauner spent most of his time on his writings — 90 percent of which he estimated in 2003 were unpublished — reading and playing chess and poker.

For the last six years, he suffered from kidney disease. He and Epperlein decided to forgo medical treatment for his condition, with Epperlein caring for him at home instead. In his last weeks, Epperlein said Blauner continued to play chess well despite being unable to hold a conversation.

“He was very kind and generous, that warm human quality, that he could bring that into a setting that has more of an ambitious, colder setting: the university,” Epperlein said. “He was unabashedly himself.”

Blauner is survived by Epperlein as well as two children and two grandchildren.

Contact Simon Greenhill at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @simondgreenhill.

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  • djm

    Oh, this is so sad. He was such an inspiration to me; without having met him and become a mentee of his, I could easily have been overcome by the immensity of Cal, or distracted by its many diversions. He brought things into focus, and talked with me as another adult, rather than superior to subordinate. Unfortunately, it seems his work– groundbreaking and intense as it was–did not receive its due measure of respect in his lifetime. And I think he took some hits for standing his ground on his principles and commitments. He has been a guidepost for me throughout my adult life, often prompting the internal question “What would Bob think about this?” One of the very finest human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. RIP