Junot Díaz on Race and Social Justice

Junot Díaz speaking at a podium.

Junot Díaz speaking at Rackham Auditorium on January 18, 2017. Photo by Michael McIntyre/ISR.

On Jan. 18, The Institute for Social Research welcomed Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz to speak as part of the University of Michigan’s 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium. Díaz, a creative writing professor at M.I.T., spoke to a crowd of 600 people at Rackham Auditorium. At the core of Díaz’s work as both an author and an activist is his quest to understand and illuminate social and racial injustice in our contemporary world.

As a young boy, Díaz immigrated to New Jersey from the Dominican Republic with his mother and grandmother. His works, including The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, deal with immigration and, specifically, coming to terms with one’s immigrant identity in America. On this particular Wednesday, Díaz discussed what the last few years have brought to the issue of race.

Mara Ostfeld speaking at a podium.

Mara Ostfeld introducing Junot Díaz. Photo by Michael McIntyre/ISR.

Mara Ostfeld, faculty associate at the Center for Political Studies, introduced Díaz and remarked on the connection that Díaz’s work has to the social sciences. “Junot has a unique ability to weave together concepts from a broad range of literary fields and social science disciplines to make sense of the strange politics of race and immigration in America,” she said.

Díaz provided unique insight on the current rising wave of Islamophobia in the Western world and Hispanophobia in the United States by looking at the history of the Dominican Republic and its oft-maligned neighbor Haiti. “One commonality is that both the DR and the U.S. have a charged border with a country that they feel is inferior,” he says. Díaz asserts that this image of the “radicalized immigrant invader” has become a useful tool for political elites, not only to distract people, but also to maintain their power.

Attendees of the event had a chance to ask Díaz questions. Many echoed one another’s anxieties about their future in light of some of the more controversial policies of the Trump administration. Díaz urged attendees to find solidarity with other groups that are also suffering. “We should not be alone in the defense of our humanity. We should handle each other’s problems. One day they will try to round up a group of us and hopefully we’ll all be there to stop it.”

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