Bandeiras do prédio da antiga Reitoria USP. Source: rvcroffi, Creative Commons
Bandeiras do prédio da antiga Reitoria USP. Source: rvcroffi, Creative Commons


Affirmative action at the university level is a topic that has been a subject of controversy in the United States, especially since the ruling of Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, in which the Supreme Court upheld the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policy. While the system attempts to make up for racial inequalities and unequal opportunity through quotas, opponents believe that that the United States is diverse enough to where affirmative action is no longer needed, and that the quota system leads to reverse discrimination. This in fact is the exact reason why in the United Kingdom, affirmative action, referred to as “positive discrimination” has been rendered illegal. However, probably the most interesting debate over affirmative action in education is taking place not in the United States, but in Brazil.


Brazil is one of the most racially mixed countries in the world, and hosts the largest population of African diaspora. Unlike Spanish colonies, which used the native populations as slaves, Brazil relied heavily on slaves from Africa for labor, which did not cease until the country outlawed slavery in 1888, making it the last Latin American country to do so. Because Brazil was colonized by high numbers of European males, miscegenation quickly became and continues to be very common. There were also very few laws encouraging segregation and discrimination post-abolition. This led to the notion that Brazil was a “racial democracy,” a term made popular by Gilberto Freyre in his work Casa-Grande & Senzala. The idea was that race had become a non-issue in Brazil, and because interracial reproduction was so common, Brazil was a post-racial society. Brazilians embraced this label with pride, yet in hindsight, analysts have viewed this as harmful to racial progress. Racial inequality was not considered to be an issue until recently, when Brazil’s government announced that it would be implementing affirmative action programs in 2001. As is the case in many countries, there is a substantial economic divide between ethnicities that had formerly been subjected to slavery and whites. The mean income for whites is $9,120 and $5,335 for African Brazilians. Darker complexioned Brazilians are also twice as likely to be in prison or be illiterate, and less than half as likely as whites to attend university. The life expectancy of African Brazilians is six years less that of white Brazilians, and the cause of death is “more than twice as likely to be murder”. This is especially disconcerting because African

#orangetheworld - Brazil - Black Women's March against Racism and Violence Source: UNDP/Tiago Zenero, Creative Commons
#orangetheworld – Brazil – Black Women’s March against Racism and Violence
Source: UNDP/Tiago Zenero, Creative Commons

Brazilians make up such a large portion of the population. Mulatto Brazilians, or individuals who are mixed black and white, make up 43.1% of the population, and black Brazilians make up 7.6%. It is considered to be of “good appearance” to have lighter skin and frizzy hair is looked down upon. The standard of beauty in Brazilian entertainment is portrayed as being a white blonde woman, which has had a detrimental effect on self-esteem of black men and women. In terms of schooling rates, only 2.2% of African Brazilians have access to higher education.


In Brazil, education in the 1888 constitution is seen to be, “a right that belongs to everybody; the duty of the State and of families, promoted and stimulated with the cooperation of society, with a view of the full development of the individual for the exercise of citizenship and preparation for work”. With this in mind, in 2012, Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff signed into law one of the most extensive affirmative action laws in the world. Knows as “Lei de Cotas Sociais,” or The Law of Social Quotas, this initiative requires that Brazilian public schools, where education is free, allocate half of their admission spots to public school students by 2016. The basis for fulfilling these quotas is determined by factors such as race, family income, and public high school attendance. The quota system will be in place for the next 10 years, in which the population of enrolled African Brazilians will increase from 8,700 to 56,000. The Law of Social Quotas has garnered widespread support in the National Congress of Brazil. When voted on, only one Senator voted against, and 81 voted for the measures. The Brazilian Supreme Court has also upheld the constitutionality of this law in a unanimous 11-0 decision in 2012. However, the Brazilian population is not as in favor of the quota system as the government is.


Though the most recent empirical data shows the majority of Brazilians (62 percent) to be in favor of racial quotas, some Brazilians believe that requiring quotas in public universities will lead to less qualified individuals being enrolled because of their race, thus hampering the overall prestige of the university. Dissenting opinions derive mainly from the middle class and from media outlets such as newspapers and magazines. The beneficiaries from this quota system, known as cotistas, typically come from the underfunded public secondary schools, where most pupils are “functionally illiterate and innumerate”. Comparatively, Brazil’s private schools graduate on average better-educated individuals when compared to the rich country average. Individuals like Antonio Freitas, the provost of the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a respected private university in Brazil, believe that the government is, “trying to force students without preparation into university,” and that, “this is bad for the future of Brazil, because the main objective of

13/07/2010. Bras’lia - DF. Inaugura‹o do Comit Presidente Dilma. Source: Roberto Stuckert Filho, Creative Commons
13/07/2010. Bras’lia – DF. Inaugura‹o do Comit Presidente Dilma.
Source: Roberto Stuckert Filho, Creative Commons

universities is research, is to achieve quality…eventually, you may not have the most qualified people in engineering, in medical school, in the most challenging areas in Brazil needs to develop”. However, evidence from public universities that had implemented the quota system in the early 2000s refutes this claim. Ricardo Vieiralves, the rector of State University of Rio de Janeiro, has found that cotistas are less likely to drop out, graduate faster than non-quota students, and though they begin university with lower grades, quickly catch up and sometimes even excel non-quota students. Arguments behind this are that cotistas, who did not undergo rigorous preparation for the entrance exam required for university, had more accurate test scores. In addition, because they come from disparaged economic conditions, cotistas recognize their opportunity to have a better life for themselves and their family through hard work in university.


The one worry that still remains to be seen is whether or not affirmative action will hinder racial relations in Brazil where none had previously existed. Race is very mixed in Brazil, and it is often difficult to determine which race an individual is. In one famous case, two twin brothers were applying for school through the quota system; one was deemed white and the other African Brazilian. Race is extremely difficult to pinpoint in Brazil. In a census taken in 2010, 38 percent of the population identified themselves as “mixed race”.


Though race certainly does play a significant factor in quotas, individuals are admitted more based on economic class than race; privately educated, well off blacks do not have an advantage simply because of their ethnicity. Nonetheless, the conversation of affirmative action is race-centric. But resisting these race-based policies only perpetuates racism’s role in causing education and economic disadvantages. More African Brazilians with high paying jobs after university will help dispel the toxic association of African Brazilians with low-paying jobs. As the former president of Brazil Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said, “try finding a black doctor, a black dentist, a black bank manager, and you will encounter great difficulty”. However, there is still the need to increase involvement for a greater number of African Brazilians outside of higher education, which is not very widespread in Brazil across all races.

Rouseff’s government should respond by creating more jobs in sectors with less education qualifications, as well as invest more into the currently dismal secondary schooling system, increasing the literacy proficiency levels as well as increase math skills, all making for a more qualified worker out of school. These initiatives will certainly be met with opposition, as was the Law of Social Quotas, but overall, Brazilians recognize that their country is not a “racial democracy”, and racism is still apparent and is a problem that needs to be dealt with. If the government can successfully implement these policies, Brazil can be an example to the Western world on how to defeat socio-economic racial inequality.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.