Associate Professor, American Studies

Associate Professor, Latino Studies Program


  • Ph.D., U.S. History, Harvard University, 2007
  • B.A., U.S. History, University of California, Berkeley, CA, 1999
  • B.A. with Honors, Molecular and Cell Biology, University of California, Berkeley, CA, 1999

Research interests

Latino and African American history; politics of modern medicine; race; ethnicity

About Sonia Lee

I am a social, political, and intellectual historian of twentieth-century United States, with particular interests in race, ethnicity and the history of medicine. I work in multiple fields simultaneously, Latino history, African American history, politics and modern medicine. I investigate the ways in which the labor economy, social movements, electoral politics, housing reforms, educational curricula, and mental health treatment shaped contemporary notions of race and ethnicity in the United States.

My first book, Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014) traces the strategies used by Puerto Ricans and African Americans to conceptualize their racial and ethnic identities, and to build a common civil rights agenda in New York City from the 1950s through the 1970s. Previous work has tended to see blacks and Latinos as either naturally unified as "people of color" or irreconcilably at odds as two competing minorities, but I argue instead that Puerto Ricans and African Americans in New York City shaped the meanings of "Puerto Rican-ness" and "blackness" through political activism. African American and Puerto Rican New Yorkers came to see themselves as minorities joined in the civil rights struggle, the War on Poverty, and the Black Power movement—until white backlash and internal class divisions helped break the coalition, remaking "Hispanicity" as an ethnic identity that was mutually exclusive from "blackness."

My second book project, Diagnosing Difference: Psychiatrists, Psychologists, and the Racialization of the Rehabilitation Ideal, 1940s-80s, moves from examining racialization through the lens of social movements to that of psychiatry, psychology, and drug policies. It brings together the history of black radicalism with that of drug addiction and mental health to highlight the intellectual contributions of drug addicts, mental health professionals, and political activists of color in the 1940s-80s. Despite scholars’ tendency to view the black and brown freedom movements as anti-psychiatric, I argue that black and Latino freedom dreams included the individual transformation of people suffering from psychological suffering, as well as the political empowerment of people of color. Black and brown political activists and mental health professionals proposed a liberatory politics that could work alongside a liberatory psychiatry to restore the lives of poor African Americans and Latinos and their communities. They combined race-specific psychotherapy, chemical treatment, and political organizing to promote the full humanity of people of color.

Selected honors + awards

  • John W. Kluge Fellowship, Library of Congress, 2013-14
  • National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend, 2013