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Brazil's New Affirmative Action Law Widens Rich-Poor Gap

Georgia Soares |
November 13, 2012 | 11:17 a.m. PST


Demonstrators in Brasilia protest the new affirmative action law with signs reading things like "Less corruption, more education." (Agência Brasil)
Demonstrators in Brasilia protest the new affirmative action law with signs reading things like "Less corruption, more education." (Agência Brasil)
In August, Brazil implemented one of the most radical affirmative action laws in South America. It reserves 50 percent of spots in public universities for public high school students who are also economically underprivileged minorities.

The argument presented by the Brazilian Senate, and unanimously supported by the Supreme Court, is that Brazil needs to make up for historical injustices against blacks and Brazilian Indians. Because the current majority of college students come from private high schools, the government has decided to institute this affirmative action law to include more students from the public education system in public universities.

However, there are two substantial problems with the reasoning behind this radical affirmative action law. First, Brazil is so racially mixed and diverse that it becomes nearly impossible to prove whether someone is black or white (with the exception of the south, which is mostly occupied by European descendants). Second, and most aggravating, public high school students are usually rejected from public universities not because they are being discriminated against, but because public schools offer unbelievably poor and defective education that does not prepare students for higher academic learning.


Brazil is one of the most racially diverse countries in the world: with a population of 196 million people, Brazil has the greatest population of Africans outside of Africa, yet more than half of the population is of European descent. It is no surprise, then, that around two-fifths of the Brazilian population is composed of mulatos (people mixed of African and European descent) and mestiços (people of mixed European and Indian descent).

The immense ethnic diversity in Brazil presents a challenge in determining which people are white or black, because most are mixed, and it is rare to find homogeneously afro- or caucasian-Brazilian families. The differentiation between pardos (people of mixed ethnicities) and blacks is very subjective and self-attributed, leading many Brazilians to consider themselves pardos to their advantage.

This poses serious challenges to affirmative action laws that base university entrances on race, because Brazilians can so easily swing between ethnicity claims. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), more people have claimed to be black or mixed-race in 2010 than previous years, when the majority considered themselves white.

The possibility of changing one's mind about one’s race clearly shows that most Brazilians are neither solely black nor solely white – they are both. Thus, setting aside 50 percent of spots in public universities for blacks, Indians and pardos makes little sense, since most of the population falls into mixed categories.

Some Brazilian universities that offer racial quotas have dealt with serious controversy surrounding the issue. In 2007, the identical twins Alex and Alan Teixeira, who have a white mother and a black father, applied to the competitive University of Brasilia (UnB) through its quota system, which exclusively takes race into account, ironically ignoring socioeconomic factors. The alarming result was that Alan, considered black, was accepted but Alex, considered white, wasn't.

The determination of race in Brazil is too subjective and can consequently create more injustices than remedies for societal issues. The new law will encourage more public high school students to enter universities based on their skin color – a factor not influential on one's intellectual abilities – than based on their merits.

It would be an erroneous generalization to affirm that Brazil does not suffer from racism. However, racism in such a mixed country has different implications than in a country like the United States, which has a history of segregation that contributed to distinctive cultural differences between races. Brazilians of different ethnicities have long coexisted with similar cultural values. The greatest differences in Brazil are regional and socioeconomic: people from the Amazon greatly differ from people from the South because of different geographic and societal circumstances, while the rich are offered opportunities nonexistent to the poor.

Racism serves as a simplistic explanation for inequalities caused by much more urgent factors, like the lack of education across the country. Affirmative action laws become effective tools for politicians to portray the government as proactive toward social and racial inclusion, when in fact they are obscuring Brazil's most urgent problem: a defective and unsuccessful public education system.

Public Education

Although public universities are considered the best and most competitive higher-education institutions in Brazil, the rest of Brazil's public education system has blatantly failed over the years. An astounding degree of government corruption often impedes investments in education, leaving public schools’ infrastructure to deteriorate, teachers’ salaries too low or even delayed, and students’ resources limited. As a consequence, many schools decide to strike against the government to protest against unfair working conditions, leaving students with long and unexpected school breaks.

Because of the inadequate investment in public education at the elementary and high school levels, public students do not attain the same level of knowledge that private school students do, which impedes public school students from performing as well in higher education. A study done by the Brazilian Ministry of Education (MEC) has calculated students' learning knowledge of specific subjects on a grading scale from 0 to 500. Junior high students from private schools scored 298.42 in mathematics, while high school students from public schools scored 265.38. High school students from private institutions scored a much higher 332.89.

Admitting unprepared applicants into public universities is therefore not the wisest approach to Brazil's educational gap between public and private schools. The government must invest in education, starting with elementary grades, instead of promoting ways to shovel students with serious learning faults into public universities.

Brazil suffers much more from economic inequalities than from racism. Socioeconomic backgrounds should be considered in order to level the competition between privileged students from private academic institutions and underprivileged students from public schools who have not been given as many opportunities to sharpen their academic skills.

Different from the newly implemented quota, better approaches, like that of the University of São Paulo (USP) should be implemented. The university offers bonus points on the entrance exams of students from the public education system, but does not reserve spots based on socioeconomic or racial backgrounds. The goal is to admit students only by merit, while acknowledging the disparities between private education privileges and public education deficiencies.

In the long run, this new affirmative action law will impact Brazilian higher education more negatively than positively, possibly lowering the institutions' education quality, by not basing admissions to underprivileged students on their academic abilities.

With these new laws, private school students will likely also be discouraged from attending public universities, and will slowly shift to attending private universities, thus perpetuating the economic separation between lower-income students and higher-income students. Public school students may once again end up isolated from more qualified students. The most effective solution to these inequalities is to improve public education, not to offer alternative ways to get into college primarily other than merit.


Reach Contributor Georgia Soares here; follow her here.


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Anonymous (not verified) on November 15, 2012 4:05 PM

Great article, Georgia! Undoubtedly there is a lot to be said and discussed about college quotas in Brazil. At the same time that the initiative aims at social inclusion and creation of opportunity, it leaves the question, "Is this strategy sustainable?" In a few years, when we start seeing the first results of this policy, I believe we will be able to give a fair assessment. I think adjustments will have to be made not only to improve Brazil's higher education, but also to ensure that everyone has the same opportunity, not because of entitlement, but because of education performance. In my view, it is crucial that education from the elementary level through high school improves, so that social inclusion in higher education becomes a sustainable reality. It is necessary to equip students and give them a quality education. I see the point of the policy, but will that do to higher education if students are not coming with a solid school background?

AgrimarioLeite (not verified) on November 15, 2012 9:12 AM

Congratulations Dear Georgia! You are 100% right! Brazilian politicians should be looking for real issues to deal with instead of wasting all this time (and I'm sure, lots of money) in things that really doesn't matter at the moment, not that it is unimportant, it is that we have way more serious issues to be taking care of. In some of the poor regions of Brazil, kids don't even have schools where they can go to. Lets hope that your article gets in the hands of lots of people and that it also open their eyes for the real situation.
Again, congratulations and may God continue to guide you, so one day you maybe able to teach our politicians and so called "leaders" of Brazil on how to tackle the real problems.

Michelle Soares (not verified) on November 14, 2012 10:03 AM

Well said Georgia! I couldn't agree more with you. If Brazil wanted to make educational opportunities equal to every student they should have based it on socioeconomic status. I do not see the knowledge behind basing it on race since many Brazilians are of mixed race. The problem with the educational system in Brazil is not only with the college level, but all levels. I see that Brazilian officials are trying to improve the education system, but they should start from the bottom (elementary public schools) and work to the top. What University of Sao Paulo did by providing bonus questions is a very good idea that most Universities in Brazil should do as well. Reserving 50% of the seats for public students will cause students who are academically ready to lose their seat to a student who isn't ready. Fantastic article!

Rogerio (not verified) on November 13, 2012 4:49 PM

I do agree with you on the issue of quotas based on race is not the right approach for Brasil education problem. Wath wille apsets me is the fact that, the majority of the students on public universities are from uper middle class and rich families. Why to give free education to those who can pay for it. I think the right approach is, keep it free for low income students who qualifies, make the well off pay, they don't need the help, get the money and invest in closing the gap between privat and public schools.

Anonymous (not verified) on November 13, 2012 4:06 PM

Dear Georgia, your article is incomplete. You are only criticizing half of the proposal. The quota system that has been suggested by the Brazilian Executive, approved by the Congress and reiterated by the Supreme Court says that 25% of open seats at federal universities are reserved for blacks, indians and pardos (mixed) while another 25% of the open seats are reserved to students who have studied in public schools. Only the first half of the proposal can be described as racial quota since the second half does not discriminate among races. While it is true that this does not solve the Brazilian educational problem, it is a welcome step towards improving diversity among the educated class in Brazil. This is how it works: if you are wealthy you go to a private school; if you study and do well you go to a good Federal school and if you do not study and do not do well in school, you go to a shitty private university which costs a lot but it is okay because you can afford it. If you are poor then you have to attend public school, where even if you study and do well you will not pass the entrance examinations at a federal university because the exams demands more from you than what your public high school taught you so you do not go to college because you cannot afford even a shitty private university. You are mistaken if you believe that students are accepted to Brazilian universities on the basis of merit. The process is exclusionary from the cradle. Now let us compare to the USA. Let us think of a poor immigrant from Brazil who is very smart. If she had stayed in Brazil, it does not matter how smart she is, she would have attended a public high school and would NOT have passed the entrances examinations to good universities (federal or not); she would need to get a scholarship to a fancy private school where then she could then learn what she needs in order to pass the exams. But in the USA, where schools will accept students with lower scores because of diversity and other merits, she will attend a good private university and even receive a scholarship! You see, the merit thing is just smokes. The poor Brazilian immigrant would not have stood a chance in Brazil, but in the USA she does.

Zander (not verified) on November 13, 2012 1:47 PM

First of all, congratulations for the great article.
I totally agree with you. It's a shame that the Brazilian government decided to raise the number of racial quotas destined to students that come from public schools rather than improving the quality of public education, and I believe that this is the biggest issue that is keeping us from prospering...
Racial quotas could be described as the famous Brazilian way of masking problems instead of actually solving them. Besides, instead of solving the problem of public education by improving its quality, these attitudes might quite possibly lower the quality of public universities simply because they will admit students who barely know how to read, thus making the whole education system worse.
Of course that there are lots of great students who come from public schools, but there's also a huge number of people who will just get accepted because of the quotas, causing a lot of good students to lose their spots in universities.
Quotas will not put an end to racism simply because it's a racist act itself.