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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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