On Junot Diaz, The Kennedy Center and Affirmative Action [Latino History Series]

Jose Vilson Jose, Race

Junot Diaz

An awesome thing happened today when Junot Diaz, author of the meritorious and raw The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and more recently This Is How You Lose Her, won the MacArthur Award / Grant. As a fellow Dominican, my initial thought was, “Watch how many new cousins, aunts, and former lovers he suddenly has after the news breaks out.” My second, and more important, thought was, “Wow, he did it.” From my informal research, a sizeable collective of Latinos have also won the MacArthur Award, including Sandra Cisneros (author, House on Mango Street) and Joaquin Avila (voting rights advocate). Yet, news like this ought to make it to the forefront of cultural news because it means we can recognize genius in every sphere.

Conversely, the mere mention of under-representation by National Hispanic Foundation’s president Felix Sanchez apparently warranted a vulgar response from KC’s Michael Kaiser. That’s how fiercely the dominant group protects its so-called prestige, and how badly we need affirmative action-type policies throughout the nation.

The general public has often misinterpreted affirmative action these days as a policy that puts people of color above all candidates and gives them special privileges that tip the scales so much that even those who fall under its umbrella has to defend themselves with “I would have gotten in without it anyways.” Statements like these lack a sense of history, immediate and otherwise.

Without affirmative action (and private versions of a similar policy like the NFL’s Rooney Rule), people of color may get no consideration whatsoever.

Let’s face it: we’re not post-racial. At this point, we’re post-post-racial. As many Latinos as we see in the media, there are still far too many spaces that still equate “prestigious” with a gradually high percentage of White male attendees, that still think Black quarterbacks ought to run first with their “natural talent” for doing so, that will always preface an actual discussion on race with “But we have like five of them in attendance so we don’t have a problem,” that prefer their “minorities” as compliant as possible, or that simply act as mantlepieces for a history long past, never present.

Affirmative action, therefore, is a policy of inclusion, a question of diversity answered with (at least) some suggestion. It assures that the powers that be at least assure that all qualified members get a chance to get their efforts validated and endorsed. While even qualification is subjective, with affirmative action, we dissuade the inner bias so organizations can better contribute to the entire population, not just their silos and speakeasies. When beneficiaries (White women, Latinos, Blacks, LGBTQ, or anyone else that doesn’t fit a certain mold) walk into institutions that were never opened to us, we have every right to walk into those with pride because we went from “The first …” to the second, third, and possibly, a legacy.

Jose, who appreciates the recognition of genius …