Affirmative action programs in higher education have been around for decades in the US, and have spread around the globe. In some parts of the world, universities have additionally implemented quota systems in an attempt to diversify the student body. But these programs become particularly difficult to implement in countries like Brazil where racial definitions are far more complex. Although it is true that darker colored Brazilians tend to be underrepresented in universities, it is also the case that the definitions of ‘black’ versus ‘white’ have never been standardized, making quota systems a challenging venture. More significantly, what might its impact be outside of the university? According to Professor Peter Fry from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, asking college applicants to declare their race as black of white will make “race a legal concept for the first time in republican Brazil.”
While there appears to be little question that Brazil’s black community has been at a disadvantage regarding degree attainment, a ruling by the country’s top court upholding affirmative action in universities has sparked debate over whether the initiative will have positive outcomes for race relations.
Some say the impasse lies in socio-economics – not in skin colour – and affirmative action will create a dichotomy in a country where none existed previously. Others believe race quotas in universities are essential for equity.
“It is true that darker-coloured Brazilians are underrepresented in the most prestigious universities and courses. Yet people are excluded from excellent schools in Brazil by their poverty, not their race,” said Peter Fry, a British-born anthropologist and professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
The underrepresentation he’s referring to is that young, white-skinned people are attaining college degrees at a rate four times that of their black-skinned cohorts (10.2% versus 2.5%).
Also, the literacy rate among blacks (80%) is a far cry from that of whites (92%). And according to the Institute of Applied Economic Research, or IPEA, a 25-year-old white Brazilian has attended an average of 8.4 years of school, while the figure for a black Brazilian of the same age is only 6.1 years.
Fry believes that the affirmative action system might have an unintended effect of creating a division where there wasn’t one before, and force Brazilians to identify as black or white.
“Quotas oblige candidates to declare their race, that is black or white, thus making race a legal concept for the first time in republican Brazil.”
Race definitions are alien
Brazil has the largest number of African descendents of all countries outside the continent.
Approximately 45% of Brazil’s 191 million people consider themselves African Brazilian. Most arrived on slave ships between the 16th and 19th centuries and, over the course of the past 500 years, gradually became part of Brazilian society and the Brazilian identity.
The standard definition of ‘black’ and ‘white’ never existed in Brazil like it has in North American or European cultures, says Brazilian historian at Colorado College Professor Peter Blasenheim.
Due to generations of mixed-race marriages, Brazilians have always considered themselves more of a rainbow, where racial distinctions blur, making skin colour a complicated issue.
Blasenheim referenced a 1976 study conducted by the Institute of Geography and Statistics, which placed Brazilians in five categories based on colour. The study found that Brazilians used 134 different colour designations to describe themselves.
“This makes racism in Brazil harder to define, harder to challenge and even harder to recognise” than in other regions of the world, he said.
Race quotas in universities
Reginald Daniel, a professor of sociology at the University of California – Santa Barbara, reports that this variation in skin colour has already complicated the quota system in Brazil’s universities.
According to a January article in The Economist, two identical twins applied to the Universidade de Brasilia (UnB): one was classified as black, the other as white.
Daniel said UnB began requiring that photographs be reviewed by a commission after situations in which students who appeared white claimed African descent. When this became controversial, UnB began using interviews instead of photographs.
Rio de Janeiro State University, which was one of the first institutions of higher education to adopt a quota system, relied on self-classification but removed ‘pardo’, or brown, from the options so that students either had to select white ‘branco’ or black, ‘negro’.
“Tensions have arisen over who is ‘authentically’ African Brazilian,” Daniel said. “The absence of a clearly defined system of racial (or colour) classification, along with the uneven geographical distribution of black, multiracial and indigenous populations, presents practical obstacles for implementing affirmative action.”
But how else do you ensure more dark-coloured faces show up in the media, in parliament and in corporate boardrooms?
A mere 2% of the national congress considers themselves black, according to an article published in the University of Texas Latin American Research Review.
The IPEA reported that before affirmative action initiatives were applied to banks, only 18.7% of officials working for the five largest private banks in Brasilia were black. The same report said there is a 53% income gap between blacks and whites.
Furthermore in 2003, 8.4% of blacks lived in extreme poverty versus 3.2% of whites, according to IPEA. And for workers older than 16, the unemployment rate was 10.7% for blacks and 8.7% for whites.
“African Brazilians are handicapped by the cumulative disadvantages of persistent racial discrimination. This hampers and erodes their ability to pass on their achieved status from generation to generation,” said Daniel.
“[Yet] what is transpiring in Brazil is not simply a dialogue about the merits of affirmative action. Rather, the debate is reflective of a broader discourse on inequality, race and what social debt (if any) the nation owes African Brazilians,” he continued.
Brazil is not the only country with an affirmative action programme in higher education systems.
The United States first introduced the idea in 1961, and while it still maintains affirmative action, it has since declared quotas illegal. The Roma have quotas in access to state universities in Romania. In India, there’s an affirmative action programme (or reservation system) to tackle discrimination under the centuries-old caste system. In South Africa, there’s a quota system to minimise effects of apartheid.
Whether affirmative action is an effective policy, however, remains heavily debated in all countries in which it has been introduced.
With the thumbs-up given by the Brazilian Supreme Court on 26 April, it’s fairly certain that affirmative action won’t disappear from Brazil’s higher learning admission policies any time soon. Since 2003, varying forms of quota systems have been introduced in more than 100 of the nation’s public universities.
And that could be a good thing, said Thomas Skidmore, a Brazilian historian and professor at Brown University
“There has definitely been a lack of full access, particularly for Afro Brazilians,” he said.
“Affirmative action, which is still highly controversial among some of my Brazilian friends, is no cure-all, but it will help. And in that spirit I think the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action, and even quotas, will help.”
Read a New York Times op-ed featuring a discussion between eight experts on the same issue, here.