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Race a Factor in Access to Education in Latin American Diaspora

Recently, the Dominican Republic has made headlines over a controversial policy to deport Dominicans of Haitian descent to the other side of the island the two countries share. The policy has brought awareness to the complex legacy of race in the Dominican Republic—and other countries in the Latin American diaspora.

This recent headline draws concern for Dr. Silvio Torres-Saillant, who founded the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute at the City College of New York and is currently a professor of English at Syracuse University.

“The racial politics in the Dominican Republic today are made very complex by the other phenomenon, which is immigration politics, and it’s also connected with a labor-access problem. So there are many things going on at the same time,” he says. “What’s racial and what’s not is not so easily determined.”

But Torres-Saillant also says that the issue is not unique to the Dominican Republic but is an issue with the colonized nations across the Western Hemisphere.

“We understand that the problem of immigrants is everywhere. Immigrants are disempowered in most places today,” he continues.

A supreme sense of nationalism propels some of the issues surrounding the policies on Haitian-descendant Dominicans and the idea that they are “invading the country.”

Colonization spurs racism

But where the immigration issue diverges from an issue of race, Torres-Saillant says there is a sense of “Negrophobia and the social exclusions that stem from that is a pan-hemispheric issue, and it is still with us in the United States today. It’s still in Colombia; it is still in Ecuador. The Black population of [many of these countries] is the most disempowered,” he says.

“It’s part of the European ideology,” says Dr. Gregorio Mora- Torres, a lecturer in the department of Mexican American studies at San Jose State University. “When they [came] to the New World, it doesn’t really matter if [they] are Portuguese or if [they] are Spanish; [they] come to believe that [they] have been chosen by God to govern all of these dark-skinned people.”

Torres-Saillant says that it is more than just a lofty ideal; public policy in the nations of the Western Hemisphere has been an accomplice to the attitudes that persist.

“The colony was based on maltreatment. It’s not just that they were bad guys in the colonial period; it’s that the colonial economy depended on the ongoing systematic diminishing of the humanity of major sectors of the population, by means of enslavement and by means of the kinds of occupations to which they were subjected,” he says.

But a declaration of emancipation in each of the countries did not automatically bring with it the rights and privileges of full citizenship for those people who had been disenfranchised for centuries, says Torres-Saillant.

“Emancipation comes in and the paper is signed, and now you’re saying, ‘OK, go ahead and live together as a people.’ But are you going to do anything about those centuries in which Whites … were socialized in contempt for those other populations so that they could use them economically?” he asks.

That burden, Torres-Saillant argues, should be a deliberate effort by government and the public education system.

“Public education should make it so that I feel less of a desire to enslave those people, or there has to be an education that teaches me to accept them as equal, and that never happened. It didn’t happen in the United States, even after the Civil Rights Act,” he says.

But instead of a concerted effort toward reconciliation, Torres- Saillant says “there was not one single nation in the hemisphere that said, ‘OK, so we’ve abolished slavery, now we are going to learn how to treat each other as equals.’”

For those who are present-day descendants of these European settlers, says Mora-Torres, “You feel like you are privileged and that you’re special. And so you see the same thing in Brazil, where the light-skinned people think that they should be rich, because they’re White, and in Mexico, the same thing.”

In Mexico, as in the Dominican Republic, many of the outward attitudes revolve more around a sense of nationalism than outward racism.

“If you look at Mexican schools, you’re going to find that the traditional perception is that we should be proud that we are indigenous; we are the descendants of great civilizations. I think a lot of people spend a lot of time looking at the contributions of the early civilizations to North America and to the world,” Mora-Torres says.

“Mexicans are not unified by race. What unites them is Mexican culture—a common language, common religion, common values, common diets—that kind of belief, that’s what keeps them together,” he continues.

But despite their best attempts to consider race a non-issue, the ideologies of colonization continue to permeate the thinking of Mexican citizens.

“Today, a lot of Mexicans think that the lighter the person is, [it] should give them higher social status, and even though in the 1920s and ’30s … they begin to admire the ancient civilizations [of Mexican greatness], the ideology of Whiteness continues to prevail. And that is also true among the Dominican populations and also the Brazilian populations,” he says.

Confounding these ideas is the fact that, in each of these countries—the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Mexico—the majority of citizens are non-White. Particularly in the Dominican Republic and Brazil, there is a high population of mixed-race residents.

Dr. Okezi T. Otovo, an assistant professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies Program and an affiliate faculty member of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University, says that there is still a social strata that distinctly separates Brazilians of color from their White counterparts in the country but that those separations are complicated, for many of the same reasons Torres-Saillant lists.

“Skin tone has a lot of implications; however, we can’t easily map those onto an understanding of who has what kinds of opportunities, in terms of socioeconomic or political terms, because those tend to look much more similar to a U.S.-type system, with White Brazilians having more access, more opportunity, higher socioeconomic indicators, [and] greater social mobility than Black and brown Brazilians on the other side [who are] closer to one another,” she says.

The same is true in the other Latin and Caribbean countries and the United States. In Mexico, says Mora-Torres, “the lighter you are, the higher the social standing and most likely the higher the economic ranking in society.”

But more so than in the Dominican Republic and Mexico, it seems, access to education in Brazil is “very racialized,” Otovo says.

In Brazil, as in the Dominican Republic and Mexico, many of these disparities are issues of class division, not necessarily explicit policies barring students of color from accessing higher education and other positions of prestige and power within the country.

“Brazil is similar to the United States, similar to a lot of other countries in Latin America, where, unfortunately, people of African descent tend to fall on that lower end of the scale socioeconomically and tend to still be in a position of social exclusion [and] exclusion from full participation and face a lot of racism and discrimination, so those things continue to be the case, although certainly those aren’t the case exclusively and those things aren’t the case uncontested,” says Otovo.

Access to higher ed

Despite a tuition-free system of public higher education in Brazil, many students of color don’t have the same level of access to higher education as their fairer-skinned counterparts.

“Brazilians of color are really just now getting a foothold into being able to enter the public universities that have been a really closed space to Brazilians of color for most of the 20th century,” says Otovo. “The private education system has different patterns, but [even still] it is much less likely that Brazilians of color are getting their education at private schools.”

Florida International’s students work in a lab. The school is home to many different races and ethnicities, including those in the Latin American diaspora.

A good part of the reason for this is relative to preparation, she says; access to preschool and kindergarten is lower for Brazilians of color, thus putting them at a deficit as they go into primary and secondary school. They are more likely to repeat grades and less likely to complete high school.

The resources allocated to the schools that Brazilians of color attend are lower than those of the Whiter students. Though public tuition is free, many Brazilian students of color are underprepared to take and pass the university entrance exam, which serves as the primary determinant for who does and does not get to attend college, notes Otovo.

A recently implemented affirmative action policy in Brazil is “seeking to address structural problems that are keeping students of color from participation” in the country’s public system of higher education, says Otovo.

“Part of the reason why this is a really interesting time to be thinking about the preparatory of high school education to college is because a lot of things are changing, in that literally thousands of students from the public [K-12] school system and students of color have been able to move into universities that were previously almost exclusively middle- and upper-class White Brazilian students.”

Despite the success of the policy—more than half of the public universities in Brazil have exceeded their admissions quotas for students of color since its 2012 implementation—it is still a very “politically challenging type of policy, because there’s a lot at stake on both sides,” Otovo says.

“The policy requires Brazilians to really think about the racial distinctions and the way people are categorized. There are certainly many who support this opening up and support structural ways to [correct] structural racism, but of course there are others that have been very vocal in their opposition. But this is law in Brazil now, so it proceeds forward,” she continues.

Mora-Torres says that, like in Brazil, “in Mexico, there is racism. It’s part of the ideology. But there are no racial protections for light-skinned people in Mexico; you are taught to think that everyone is Mexican. … There’s nothing in the teaching of people that promotes racial division, but it’s really more of the habits that people have, the way of thinking that people have.”

Socioeconomic division

But unlike in Brazil and the Dominican Republic, because college is very expensive in Mexico, the question of access is one that more closely mirrors the major issue facing people of color in the United States: an inability to pay for school.

“The line is that anybody who has the ability [should be able to] go to any school. There are no racial restrictions. The problem here is a matter of economics. The poorer the person is, the less likely that he or she is going to be able to go to college,” Mora-Torres says. “And the problem is that because Whites have dominated economically and politically … the lighter a person is, the greater chance that he or she is going to get educated.”

Even within families, he says, many times the education of darker-skinned children will be sacrificed to provide an opportunity for their lighter-skinned siblings, while the darker child may work to help pay for that sibling’s education.

In the Dominican Republic, the nominal cost of education for years made the country’s public system of higher education “the envy of many,” says Torres-Saillant. But with a recent boom in the development of private education, many of the public universities have become “sites of resistance”—public battlegrounds in a war of public policy and government spending, which has resulted in a “decline in the quality of the education in the public university,” Torres-Saillant says.

Due to similar socioeconomic divisions in the country that exist in many of the other countries in the Western Hemisphere, many of the students who can afford to attend the more stable private institutions are lighter-skinned students.

Even still, the public university system in the Dominican Republic offers many protections against some of the strife that is being carried out elsewhere throughout the nation, says Torres-Saillant.

“When you become a student of the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo [as] a Haitian-Dominican, chances are that you have reached a social place that puts you a little bit away from the ordinary violence and the views that you may have suffered … at the hands of the police and [others in power], and so if you are empowered with education, you have already weathered a great deal of the storm,” he says, referencing the country’s largest public university as an example of the overall trend.

Undoing racism in the Americas

In the Dominican Republic, as is the case in Mexico and Brazil—and even in the United States—the issue is not so much one of policies barring darker-skinned people from accessing the systems of higher education, as much as it is a lack of a collective proactive approach to undoing the vestiges of racism that exist throughout the hemisphere, thanks to the impact of colonization.

“You find people proposing ways to resolve ‘the Negro problem,’” Torres-Saillant says of each of the countries. In the Dominican Republic, specifically now, “the government’s helping to facilitate their being moved out to somewhere else.”

But the real issue is that “the leaderships of the Americas never really digested the idea that non-Whites could be trusted with full citizenship and with powers to lead the destinies of those countries,” he continues.

“So basically, that’s where we are today [in all of the nations],” Torres-Saillant adds. “We’ve now even gotten to the point where we have the ingenuity to call ourselves post-racial, when we have such a central discord in our soul that we have decided … basically [to] look the other way, because it requires too much moral courage to even name it.”

Autumn A. Arnett can be reached at [email protected].

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