Brazil’s Affirmative-Action Quotas: Progress?

Brazil recently passed what was probably the most sweeping affirmative-action law in the modern history of higher education. While the livelihood of affirmative action in the United States is in the hands of the Supreme Court, Brazil now requires its public universities to reserve half of their admission spots for its low-income students and compels its institutions to diversify significantly.

Yes, Brazil instituted what was firmly resisted by liberals and conservatives in the post-civil-rights-American push for affirmative action—quotas. The law comes after Brazil’s Supreme Court in April unanimously upheld the racial quota at the University of Brasilia, enacted in 2004, reserving 20 percent of its spots for black and mixed-race  students. The Law of Social Quotas will most likely face a challenge in the courts but, based on this earlier decision, it seems likely to stand.

The law forces the nation’s superior and largely free public universities to assign spots according to the racial makeup of each of the 26 states and the capital. Lawmakers and educators know that will lead to a surge in diversity in states with large black or mixed-race populations (well, surge may be putting it mildly). Officials expect the number of black students to jump nearly sevenfold, from 8,700 to 56,000.

The law gives public universities just four years to ensure that half of their entering classes come from public schools, which low-income students disproportionately attend. (Middle- and upper-class students, who are more likely to be white, typically attend private elementary and seconday schools.)

The law is nearly universally popular among Brazilian lawmakers. Only one out of 81 senators voted against it last month. President Dilma Rousseff signed it into law on August 29. Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told The New York Times he is “completely in favor” of quotas.

“Try finding a black doctor, a black dentist, a black bank manager, and you will encounter great difficulty,” Da Silva said. “It’s important, at least for a span of time, to guarantee that the blacks in Brazilian society can make up for lost time.”

Jorge Werthein, who directs the Brazilian Center for Latin American Studies said, “Brazil owes a historical debt to a huge part of its own population. The democratization of higher education, which has always been a dream for the most neglected students in public schools, is one way of paying this debt.” Affirmative action is being supported on the twin notions of past and present racism—reasoning that used to hold sway in the United States (before arguments for the value of diverse campuses took the lead).

In the United States, opponents of this rationale for affirmative-action quotas either disagree that a debt needs to be paid for centuries of slavery and segregation, argue a debt has already been paid, or say a debt should be paid in a way that will not hurt white people (a nearly impossible proposition).

Brazilian lawmakers realize that their country is one of the world’s most unequal societies. They realize that their higher-education system is far from being what they call a “racial democracy” where opportunities are equally afforded to all racial groups.

With the quota, they now know, no black student will be denied the opportunity to go to college because of her race; no poor student will be denied the opportunity to go to college because of his class. Still, competition persists for college entry.

For scholars of race, Brazil and the United States present a fascinating contrast, despite some similarities. The United States and Brazil have the two largest populations of people of African descent in the Western Hemisphere. A slight majority of Brazil’s 196 million people identify as black or mixed-race. Like in the United States, many of these black and mixed-race people are subjected to forms of racism that prevent access to higher education. Unlike in the United States, however, denial of this reality is not a problem. There is a vibrant national mainstream discussion of racism, and new dynamic legislators and laws to undo its effects.

Brazil and the United States are headed in different directions concerning affirmative action. In Brazil the problems have gotten worse, and the solutions have become more aggressive.

In the United States, the problems have gotten worse, and the solutions have become more passive. For example, according to a recent Stanford University study, black students remain miserably underrepresented at the highly selective colleges, disparities that have gotten worse over the last 30 years—from 5.6 percent black in 1982 to 3.4 percent black in 2004.

There are only two explanations for the grossly disproportionate student bodies in the United States and Brazil. (1) Black students in the United States and Brazil are inferior, they are not working as hard, or they are not as naturally gifted as white students. Or, (2) the disproportionately white student bodies are a result of a disproportionate amount of privilege and educational opportunities for white students.

With the flowering of affirmative action to equalize opportunity, Brazilian lawmakers seem to believe the latter explanation. With affirmative action seemingly on its deathbed, Americans seem to believe the former, racist explanation.

Brazilians are walking toward racial progress in higher education. Where are we walking?

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of Africana studies at the State University of New York at Albany. He is the author of  The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972.

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