Affirmative Action in Brazil

Over at PBS, there’s a documentary focusing on Brazil’s take on the affirmative action issue which they started to enforce a few years back. It’s done quite well since they follow students of different socioeconomic backgrounds and races, which reflect on each other in what seems to be a neverending cycle. Affirmative action has been used in the US for the last 40 years and it still stirs up controversy.

Due to an unjust division in the minds of those in power, minority races (although perhaps not the case in Brazil where some reports say 54% are black) are given less opportunities in the realms of education and business therefore the government has to enter the picture and force laws onto institutions, in order to make a more just society. It’s all quite mind-boggling because those in government are the same (kinds of) people who protect the status quo and hobnob with the business elite yet they are the ones putting their signature on affirmative action laws. The question then becomes, how can a society that is so mixed, decide who is black and who isn’t?

Both sides of the equation make a bit of sense but neither side is right, in my opinion (but perhaps that’s because I am after the ideal – a just society). There shouldn’t need to be a law that makes people do what they should be doing in the first place, but to believe that, you’d have to agree that the only race is the human one. The fact that there is a law makes plenty of room to take advantage of the system and get benefits where merit has yet to be shown. Then again, how can merit always be shown if certain parts of society don’t have equal rights and opportunities? Having to define yourself by your color or race means there’s a possibility for more segregation, not unification. Although for those whose minds can be changed, seeing someone of another race doing the same tasks as you and doing them just as well may lead to a shift in how they see the world.

Here’s a suggestion, how about a quota based on economic status and not race? Sure they are intertwined as I previously mentioned but crime is more an indication of poverty and a lack of education than of anything else. Anyways, here’s the documentary, called ‘Brazil in Black and White’, for you to decide.


Economist (with 40 comments)

10 thoughts on “Affirmative Action in Brazil

  1. Nice post Adam! When I say I don’t agree much with this quota for universities people frown at me and accuse me of elitist. What I don’t agree is the way it is carried out. Why not a quota for poor people or less privileged people instead of labeling it as “quota for black people”. It sparked controversy when they first implemented it. because there were middle-class people using the quota because they have a black ancestor. Politics is just a big circus!

  2. As a Brazilian I dont support your claim 54% of the country is black. You can say 20% are white, 10% black and the rest,60% is mestizo (pardo ou mulato).

    This in general terms. There is ample diversity, so comparing the population of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina with Piaui and Bahia would find HUGE discrepencies.

  3. Hi Marcelo,

    Thank you for the comment. I actually agree with you, the 54% figure came from the documentary, if I recall correctly. I’ll be sure to make that clear in the post.


  4. I was born in ’57 and saw first hand the civil rights movement in the US. And let me explain to you why quotas are necessary. After the depression in the ’30’s the US government started social programs not only for the poor but for people who have fallen on hard times. Programs such as welfare, food stamps, schooling and housing for the economically challenged.

    Trouble was the only people who could apply for those programs were white, Caucasian. The political structure (whites) had set up laws, statutes, codes so that people of color – black, Asian, Jewish, Indian, or anything other than white were not allowed to enter these municipalities of the state, city, county to even apply for the federally funded programs even though these members of color paid taxes to each and every municipality just mentioned. And the same thing applied to the school systems especially in the south of the US.

    Fortunately in the north and other states of the US, men and women of color were allowed to go to un segregated and equal schools, high schools, undergraduate, graduate, law, and PhD program of schools. Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP (who later became the first black supreme court justice) and others knew that education was the best form of acquiring equality that is guaranteed by the US constitution. And they challenged those laws all the way to the supreme court.

    Slowly case by case they fought the segregated laws by challenging those laws and un equal policies. By the early ’50’s the NAACP’s form of attack was to start first at the segregated and unequal school systems.

    Most schools systems whether they be American or even Brazilian take federal funds or subsidies from their federal government. And these funds come from tax payers. If poor blacks pay taxes for goods and services they buy they are entitled to use the schools that receive these same funds.

    The laws in Brazil are not as blatant as they were in the ’50’s in the US but are just as bad. For example many blacks in Brazil are not given the opportunity to apply for certain jobs because they are too dark skinned. And this practice happens all over Brazil. But many white Brazilian will say, ‘oh no we are not prejudiced .My great grand mother (or father) was black’. But these practices are rampant because the laws of these municipalities let the employers get away with this bullsh**t. And the same for the school systems.

    When you have quotas it forces ones culture and people to value diversity in every walk of life. And soon or later it becomes the norm. It’s a balancing, if you will of the scales of justice. And not to assume that blacks are some how inferior. However, I also believe in a separate program for the economically challenged too, not based on color, sex, or religious belief. Having both programs because if you don’t only the white kids of the economically challenged will be allowed in these programs.

    Also the Brazilian Federal government made the quota system for some schools because when a Federal law is passed it supersedes all city, state, county laws and sets a precedent or otherwise you will be fighting the same law over and over again. Similar to what is happening in the state of Arizona in the US where the state wants to enact it’s own immigration laws and the US Federal government is now suing the state of Arizona because the laws of immigration come with US constitutional rights. You cannot have each state with there own different laws regarding immigration.

    The legislators in Brazil are taking directly from the US civil rights movement. The Brazil constitution is modeled after the US constitution having equality for all.

    • “When you have quotas it forces ones culture and people to value diversity in every walk of life.”

      Perhaps it’s just an initial reaction but it seems those against quotas are resentful of those that qualify and I’m not sure if it ends in valuing diversity. I haven’t studied the effects of affirmative action enough to know the answer. One argument against quotas is that if it is based on economic factors then poor white people can qualify for a chance at an education and wealthy blacks won’t qualify.

      For anyone interested in the Civil Rights movement, try finding Eyes On The Prize, a six-hour documentary on the subject.

  5. Marcelo,

    My brother you prove my point so elequently,’60% is mestizo (pardo ou mulato)’. The Portuguese (and Spanish) words you use to describe your concept of Brazilian diversity (of color) are words the Europeans used to establish a set of class or cast system by the color of ones skin.

    I have met Brazilians who claim they are white but have course or as what we say in the US, ‘nappy’ hair, features, and skin color that are clearly African but claim and say they are white or Caucasian.

    In my country the US, we are proud of our Black African heritage similar to the black pride I find in the Bahian community of their own African history and heritage. For example, if you were to assume that the actresses Halley Berry or Vanessa Williams were white, they would actually correct you and tell you they are black and proud of it.

    • I briefly discussed this with a Brazilian friend and we came to the conclusion that the two cultures (that of Brazil and the US) are different in this respect. That Brazilians wouldn’t consider someone like Vanessa Williams to be black at all. In the US, I don’t think there is much pride in being half-white (or half-black, however one wishes to see it). By that, I don’t mean such people shouldn’t be proud of this or that but rather it’s more likely that one hears of pride in being white or in being black. In this sense, the US and Brazil are more similar, I think. Neither people have pride in being mixed race, yet we pretty much all are. Then again, should anyone be proud of their skin color? I say no. I say who cares. I think Morgan Freeman said it best

  6. For hundreds of years, (or maybe even more), the word and term black, whether it being in English, Latin, Portuguese, or Spanish has been seen as something bad or ‘nega’-tive. In the ’60’s the entertainer James Brown was the first to proclaim, ‘say it loud I’m black and I’m proud’. Needless to say it had a profound effect not only on the ‘negro’ population of the US but the rest of the world too. And especially to some of my brothers and sisters in Brazil. I care.

  7. Tudobeleza, I am going to enjoy reading your posts, really. Thanks for responding. I was the one who furnished that documentary about race in Brazil to Adam. The whole thing, not just a snippet.

    ‘I haven’t studied the effects of affirmative action enough to know the answer’ – Affirmative action is not something you can just pick up book and study and learn. Trust me on this one.

    And that interview with Morgan Freeman? Was only part of the story. One of the reasons he was so adamant about being referred to as a man, is that growing up in the south in Mississippi, the white population would refer to grown (black) men like Morgan Freeman as boys, and not as men. And that also is part of American history. You cannot pick and chose which parts of American history or parts of an interview you want to use. You have to use all of it or you/we may just forget it.

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