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Brazil’s Affirmative Action Feels Growing Pains


In order to qualify for affirmative actions programs in Brazil, Blacks must submit a photo of themselves to a race board, whose members determine whether the applicant is truly a member of an ethnic minority.

And even though being Black affords them an opportunity at a college education, deep-seeded racism still makes it a difficult path to take. Many Black, or “pardo,” applicants try to identify themselves as White to avoid the stigma and backlash often associated with affirmative action.

Ethnic inequality in Brazil is still strong. Blacks and “mulattos” earn half the income of Whites. In 2001, for example, Black men earned 30 percent less than White women. The country’s college affirmative action policies were implemented to enhance educational opportunities for Blacks and close the socioeconomic gap between the races. A 2000 census by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics found that Whites over the age of 25 received degrees at a rate five times greater than that of Blacks and native Brazilians. 

Since the expansion of affirmative action, more Blacks now have the ability to go to school than ever before, but opinions vary on whether affirmative action helps or hinders Black Hispanics in higher education. Brazil’s infant affirmative action program was among the hot topics at a recent conference at the University of California, Los Angeles, titled “Race and Democracy: New Challenges in the Americas.”

Students who are gaining access to higher education find themselves in an uncomfortable place, studying under scholars who are not happy with the change, according to surveys.

“Many public universities and other sectors that have traditionally excluded Afro-Brazilians still refuse to implement those policies and Black organizations are currently in battle with them,” says Raquel de Souza, a teaching assistant in social anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. de Souza was a student and teacher in Brazil and is now studying in the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship to establish comparisons between the educational systems in both countries.

“We are talking about centuries of socioeconomic exclusion, and these policies have been in place in a few institutions only in the last four or five years,” she says.

That schools are now reserving slots for Black students doesn’t sit well with the students, nor their detractors. de Souza says students feel uncomfortable being “given” this opportunity through quotas.  

“If you don’t have the qualifications White students have, you don’t feel as deserving as those students who are there from the beginning,” she says.

But others say they see the positive effects of affirmative action in an environment that enforces negative stereotypes. Brazil, which has the highest percentage of Black residents of any non-African country, was the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery in 1888. 

“People have an idea of the proper place for Blacks in society,” says Cloves Luiz Pereira Oliveira, a researcher at the Universidade Federal Da Bahia in Brazil. “They see Blacks as soccer players, musicians, workers … but it’s very hard for many people to recognize them as doctors or lawyers and other high qualified professions.”

Since affirmative action has taken root, Oliveira says more Blacks have the opportunity to take high-level courses.

 “Affirmative action, implemented by the government, along with scholarships, has a big effect,” he says. “Before, we could only identify 10 percent to 20 percent of students from Afro backgrounds [taking advanced courses]. Now, after two years, it has increased to 40 percent,” he says.

Affirmative action is still a new concept in Brazil, but Oliveira is optimistic he’ll see a turnaround similar to race relations in America, where Blacks have held several major political offices.

“Blacks need to become more aware of the opportunities they have, and not afraid of racial prejudices,” says Oliveira. “We have the ability to remake the profile of Brazil.”

— By Nicole Roberge

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