On Affirmative Action in Brazil

August 10, 2012

This week, Brazil passed a new version of affirmative action for higher education. The Senate authorized a bill that, for the next ten years, half of all university admissions go to students from public high schools. Additionally, the bill establishes a new quota system that requires each state reserve openings for students of Afro-descendant, indigenous, and mixed-race students, based on the percentage of each group’s overall population in a given state. For example: if Rio de Janeiro state is 40% “white,” 40% Afro-descendants, and 20% indigenous [and, to be clear, these are just made-up numbers to illustrate the point], then public universities in Rio de Janeiro must have 40% of their admissions be white, 40% Afro-descendants, and 20% indigenous. If another state has different percentages, then public universities in that state must reflect its own demographic makeup. After that ten-year period, the quotas will be discontinued, presumably in the hopes that ten years will be enough time to create a social, cultural, and institutional shift in education in Brazil that undoes centuries of inequalities in Brazilian education.

Overall, I think this law is a really important step and a good law. The focus is falling on the racial quotas component, but just as important I think is the requirement that at least half of all entrants to universities come from public high schools. This matters because in no small measure it is through the secondary schools that racial and socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil have persisted. In Brazil, public universities are free; however, in order to enter them, you have to pass a rigorous set of exams in all areas. These exams are difficult enough that they often take extra training in high school, training that one can either receive in a private (i.e., paid-for, and usually expensive) high school, or through special night classes that also cost money. In this way, Brazil’s poorer populations, who historically are often “darker” than the elites for any number of reasons dating back to Brazil’s colonial era and the establishment of slavery, are shut out from these private schools and classes, because of the financial cost of such an education, because they also have to work to make ends meet, or any number of reasons. These poorer sectors often end up in the public schooling system in high school, which is free but which does not have the time or resources for intensive preparations that focus solely on the entrance exams to universities. Thus, students, usually whiter, whose families can afford private high schools are given the resources and means to enter into a free public university, while students, often from a poorer and “darker” background (given the ways in which class and race in Brazil coincide) who have to rely on free  public schooling end up having to enroll in expensive and less-discriminatory private universities, where they are often unable to finish their degrees due to the costs of education. Without a college degree, they return to less-prestigious jobs that do not pay as well, ensuring the obstacles to an education that will help them improve their socio-economic status will continue on to their children and onward. For this reason, I think making it so that at least half of the students entering a public university in the next 10 years came from a public high school is an important step in opening up Brazil’s universities and addressing the social, economic, and racial inequalities in Brazil.

Although perhaps complex, these explanations and the new law also reveal just how complicated the racial question in Brazil is. Of course, this isn’t Brazil’s first instance of affirmative action laws. Toward the end of his administration (1994-2002), neoliberal president Fernando Henrique Cardoso passed a law that created a system of quotas in universities in Brazil, in an attempt to address the structural racism that all too often shut out Afro-descendants based on socioeconomic factors, thereby perpetuating racial inequalities in Brazil. The law came after decades of struggles, led by figures such as Abdias do Nascimento, who argued that Brazil’s myth of racial democracy and constant comparisons to racism in the US covered up very real forms of racism in Brazil, and that only through reforms and policies like affirmative action could the country begin to confront and address its own racist past. The early-2000s law implemented a racial quota system that a variety of studies in both the US and Brazil from well-known and respected historians, political scientists, sociologists, economists, and others all suggested that Brazil’s policies were effective, even if they should not be the endpoint in addressing racial inequality. Indeed, in comparing Brazil and the US, I’m inclined to agree with Micol Siegel that, rather than Brazil learning from the US’s past, it is now the US who could and should learn from the Brazilian model of affirmative action.

Of course, the law was not without opposition. Some scholars in Brazil, including generally respected antropologists like Yvonne Maggie and Peter Fry, lobbied heavily against affirmative action. Their basic reasoning, with its roots in Gilberto Freyre’s work, was that there was no racism in Brazil; by creating quotas based along racial categories, the government would create racism. Though their arguments have become more nuanced in recent years, they still hinge on comparisons of racism in the US and Brazil, arguing that the US’s racism was “different” (and implicitly “worse” than Brazil’s), pointing to Jim Crow laws and legal segregation in the US to argue that affirmative action is a good model for the US, but irrelevant to Brazil. Of course, this is a highly-problematic argument, starting from a fair point (racial relations in Brazil and the US historically are different in important ways) and taking that to an absurd conclusion (therefore Brazil doesn’t have its own structural forms of racism that affirmative action policies could help overcome). Maggie in particular is a fierce proponent of this viewpoint, as one can read in a debate on race in Brazil among respected scholars this past March. Peter Fry’s Freyrean argument that race in Brazil is “Too Hard to Identify” is a slightly different variation on this theme: because the history of racial categorization in Brazil is different than in the US, affirmative action hurts more than it helps.

Nor are Fry and Maggie lone voices in the wilderness. I certainly heard these arguments, both for and against affirmative action, in my time in Brazil, and was often asked what I thought as a US citizen; indeed, it was not infrequent that I even heard why my country needed affirmative action but Brazil most certainly did not. Nor was my experience unique; these debates take place regularly in classrooms in universities in Brazil, as seen in Henry Louis Gates’ documentary on race in Brazil. Politicians were not exempt from this opposition.  The Democrats Party (Democratas, previously known as the Liberal Front Party until 2007), were particularly opposed to policies of affirmative action, arguing that policies of addressing past injustices based on racial categories was the equivalent of “reviving Nazi ideas.” Ultimately, the Democratas took their case before the Supreme Court, which this past April, unanimously ruled that the quota system was indeed legal, allowing the government to try to address centuries of social, cultural, and economic inequalities in Brazil.

That said, I think it is unquestionably a good thing that the Supreme Court has ruled the way it has, and that Brazil’s Congress has acted to further strengthen the affirmative action laws that came before. While these new policies may not solve all of the problems of inequality in Brazil, they are an important step. There are reasons to be cautious, particularly regarding the 10-year limit; what will happen after the quotas expire? That said, at least for the next ten years, Brazil will attempt to address centuries of inequalities via access to education, and that is  nothing but a good thing.

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