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Hollywood's blind spot on diversity

An Oscar statue stands on the red carpet

An Oscar statue stands on the red carpet as preparations are made for the 86th Academy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 28, 2014. Credit: AP / Matt Sayles

Should there be quotas for Oscar nominations? Is it time to extend affirmative action beyond government contracting and college admissions, and apply it to something that our society really cares about -- the Academy Awards?

The process for selecting Oscar nominees is under fire, and some critics seem to be suggesting that members of the academy should take nominees' race and ethnicity into account -- and weigh them as positive factors in the deliberations. It would be helpful to be able to show a pattern of discrimination.

Exhibit A could be the embarrassing emails that surfaced following the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin yukked it up over President Obama's taste in movies, which they guessed was limited to black-themed films. And, in another exchange with Pascal, screenwriter and producer Aaron Sorkin resisted writing a screenplay that would be centered around an Asian-American protagonist, declaring that  "there aren't any Asian movie stars" who could play the role.

As illustrated by that boneheaded comment by Sorkin, a big reason for the lack of diversity among actors and actresses is that writers, producers and directors don't create enough quality roles for non-whites.

Making the problem worse, non-white roles are sometimes played by whites. One example: Ben Affleck playing Hispanic CIA officer Tony Mendez in the film "Argo."

Say what you will, but had the academy -- whose members are 93 percent white, even though the president of the organization is black -- been practicing even a mild form of affirmative action, it could have avoided the public relations ruckus at hand. This year's roster of nominees in acting categories is all white. Four categories -- Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress -- and there's not a single person of color in the bunch. Is this 2015, or 1935?

By the way, "person of color" is typically a polite euphemism for African-American. As far as people like the Rev. Al Sharpton are concerned, the problem with this year's crop of nominees is not that it lacks Hispanics, Asians, Arabs or Native Americans. The only problem is that there are no African-Americans.

The group formerly known as America's largest minority is accustomed to seeing itself represented among acting nominees, and even taking home a statue or two at the end of the night.  

Well, as a community whose influence can be seen everywhere except Hollywood, Hispanics have a message for African-Americans who feel shut out: We feel your pain. Or rather, you feel ours.

There have been many African-American nominees in acting categories over the years, and more than a dozen actors and actresses -- including Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Jamie Foxx, and Whoopi Goldberg -- have emerged as winners.

By contrast, sightings of Hispanic actors and actresses at the Oscars are much rarer. Jose Ferrer won for best actor in 1950. For best supporting actor, the winners include Anthony Quinn in 1952 and 1956, Benicio del Toro in 2000 and Javier Bardem in 2007. For best supporting actress, the winners include Rita Moreno in 1961, Mercedes Ruehl in 1991, and Penelope Cruz in 2008.

In the nearly 100-year-history of the Academy Awards, only a tiny handful of Latinos have snagged Oscars. That's pathetic.

Of course, there will be those who oppose the idea of extending affirmative action to the Oscars -- including, ironically, many liberals who think that it's a grand idea when corporate America is forced to embrace diversity. Some of the opponents will say that taking race and ethnicity of potential acting nominees undermines the concept of merit.

Oh, come on. Merit? This is Hollywood we're talking about. This may be the land of make-believe, but we don't have to go so far as to make believe that the entertainment industry is an arena where everyone who succeeds has earned his success.

So should there be racial and ethnic quotas at the Oscars?

Absolutely not. Diversity -- while nice to have -- shouldn't be a goal in and of itself. Voters should strive to nominate the best performers, without regard to skin color but also without the kind of blind spot that this year is so evident.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is