When William Clark (PhD, '64, geography) arrived in Florida in 1961, en route to the University of Illinois, he struck up a conversation with an African American woman at the train station. Clark, a New Zealand native, asked the woman to join him in a restaurant, but she politely declined. She could not go into the restaurant because of her skin color.
New Zealand never had segregation laws, so this was Clark's first and most vivid encounter with America's racially charged culture. Little did he know that as a demography expert, he would later become caught up as an expert witness in a host of race-centered court cases, including a follow-up to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education.
After coming to the United States, Clark received his PhD in geography from the U of I in 1964 and went on to make his mark as one of the leading experts on population movement—a career that has earned him a 2006 LAS Alumni Achievement Award. This is the latest among numerous awards, which includes his recent election to the National Academy of Sciences and the Decade of Behavior Research Award in 2005.
"I've always been interested in people's mobility and migration since I've been a migrant myself," Clark says. "I've been interested in who moves, where people move and why they move. It's these moves that change places. They change the places people come from and the places they go to."
Clark's research on population movement has been the basis of more than 250 research papers and several books. His work has also influenced some of the most critical and often most contentious public policy issues of the day, from the busing issue of the 1970s to the illegal immigration controversy of today.
For instance, Clark has testified as an expert witness in more than 30 state and district court cases, including one in 1988 that made its way to the Supreme Court. In this case, Clark says, the Supreme Court ruled that the school district in DeKalb, Ga., could not be held responsible for demographic changes in the neighborhood that altered the racial make-up of the school.
"This ruling became very important for a lot of cases in the '90s," he notes.
Clark also testified in the follow-up to the 1953 Brown v. Board of Education case that struck down segregated schools in Topeka, Kans. He provided key information on demographic changes in Topeka as the court wrestled with the question whether anything more could be done in the 1980s to solve the racial imbalance in schools.
With roughly 16 to 17 percent of the U.S. population moving every year, Clark says it is dicey for courts to intervene in such a highly dynamic system. As he notes, the courts started intervening in school districts in a big way during the 1970s, but that decade also happened to be a time for considerable suburban growth. This major demographic change made it extremely difficult for school districts in big cities to meet the goals of racial balance.
Although Clark is a migrant and was on the move in his early years, he wound up as a professor of geography at UCLA in 1970 and has been there ever since—with the exception of brief visiting professorships in the Netherlands and New Zealand. But being in California for so long has given him a unique perspective on the wave of immigration from Mexico.
California's population is now more than one-quarter foreign-born, he says. What's more, he says about 30 percent of all immigrants in the U.S. live in that state. Clark has done some of the most comprehensive analyses of migration to California, captured in his 1998 book The California Cauldron and his more recent work, Immigrants and the American Dream.
He says it is vital we understand these complex patterns of migration because, as he writes in The California Cauldron, "What happens in California tomorrow is likely to happen in the nation as a whole the day after tomorrow."