Affirmative Action in Brazil: is it necessary?

Recently, I came across an article in Lasa Forum Spring 2013 edition in which Edward Telles and Marcelo Paixão assessed the significance of Affirmative Action in Brazil. Now, Dr. Telles is by no means a stranger to Brazilian relations. He has been writing on Latin America and Brazil race, ethnic and social studies for more than thirty years and is one of the most distinguished American experts on race relations in Brazil and Latin America. It seems whenever I write something about Brazil, I need to refer to one if not several of his many works as reference.  Now, the article provides some useful statistics about higher education students in Brazil and the number of students that are benefiting from the “Quota Law” (the 2012 National Congress Law requiring all federal higher education institutions to put in place quotas by 2016). Also, he tackles some controversial subjects such as class versus race-based politics, public and legal support, racial classification, and affirmative action and the labor market. Controversial in the sense that Brazilian people do not like to talk about “race” let alone acknowledge how racism creates disadvantages in education and social mobility for many Brazilians.

Without a doubt, the controversy about Affirmative Action in Brazil is complex. On one hand, it seems that affirmative action will cause people to think even more along racial lines and for a country like Brazil – this is not a good thing. Why? Because this comes as a socio-cultural slap in Brazil’s face. That is, by acknowledging the need for adopting race based educational policies, Brazil is by default recognizing that racism does exist and that racial inequality is severe enough to warrant federal legislative measures to reduce it. So much for the racial democracy myth. On the other hand, those that benefit the most from attending public universities free of charge are students that come from wealthy families that can afford to send their children to private schools that provide them with a quality education enabling them to pass college and university entrance exams (i.e., Vestibular or ENEM). Indeed, it seems somewhat unfair that students from wealthy families that are already privileged enough to get quality educations should also be the majority recipients of free college educations too. Few students with public school educations pass these exams.

This, in turn, brings us to the heart of the problem – the lack of quality public school education. One of the underlining problems necessitating quotas is poor funding for public schools that provide sub-standard primary and middle school education. The quality of this education fails to prepare students for passing college and university entrance exams. What people do not want to address is the misappropriating of funds or how funds seem to just disappear before they reach primary and middle schools. Perhaps, even more important is the dismal salaries that public school teachers earn and their deplorable working conditions. Also, there are disparities in deciding who should be eligibility for the quotas pool when there are Brazilians that are just as poor and disadvantaged as Afro-Brazilians. Usually, they do not make the pool because their phenotype characteristics appear “white” (i.e., light skinned, blond hair and blue, green, or hazel eyes). There is a need to determine the material causes behind these discrepancies.

Telles’ article makes it clear that until recently there was strong opposition to affirmative action because of the use of race-based criteria. Recently, class criteria (i.e., socio-economic status) has become more acceptable than race-based policies. Yet, this seems to be of little practical value or meaning – that is, since there are no other alternatives on the table that suggest giving deprived, disadvantaged students the opportunity to attend colleges or universities (especially those with high IQs, a strong determination for success and discipline), then affirmative action or something akin to this should find support regardless of race or class criteria.

Further, it appears that more negative reports describing affirmative action programs are broadcast in Brazilian media than informative pieces on the merits of such programs. An integral part of this process is the exchange of experiences and models in an ongoing effort to understand how diversity initiatives have worked in other countries. After all, we must remember that affirmative action programs in the US operated in an environment that was hostile to racial equality, and although laws existed against discrimination, it continued. Also, the scarred history of race relations in the United States, from unequal political status to unequal legal application – is not the same for Brazil. Indeed, Brazil is not the United States. But the problem is determining how to approach this challenge in such a way that is not counterproductive to providing a better “balance” in social access for the disadvantaged regardless of the pigmentation of their skin, quality of their hair or color of their eyes; in other words, irrespective of racial defining characteristics. Perhaps, the real question here is – if Brazil had equal opportunities and access to education for all its people would Affirmative Action even be neccessary?

Notwithstanding, Brazil has a huge challenge in attempting to educate its people.  With illiteracy rates from 6% to 65% (depending upon the region of the country), it will take a monumental effort on the part of the government to provide education for its entire people.  It will take more than education for just the middle class or those that can afford to attend expensive private schools that prepare students for college exams.  People from all strata of the population will need education.  More important, it will take a concerted effort on the part of the poor, working, middle and upper classes to sustain Brazil’s growth into the future.  More programs that provide education for the poor and working class are necessary.  Also, private industry must get involved by offering specialty grants, scholarships, fellowships and awards that will enable students from the lower classes with exceptional intelligence and performance to study in private primary schools that will prepare them for entrance exams. The government can not do it alone.  Presently, due to a shortage of qualified, specialized, college educated Brazilians, Brazil is importing professionals from around the world.  For example, chemical engineers are coming in from the United States and Europe to fill the existing gap and medical doctors are coming in from Cuba and other parts of Latin America.  With the new discoveries in oil and gas, the shortage of professionals threatens research and productivity. At the same time, some of the best, well-educated Brazilian minds are leaving the country for better opportunities in foreign countries.

It should be clear that the future of Brazil’s growth and success depends not only on its elites and although the majority of its wealth is in the hands of a few, it’s future lies in the hands of its people – all its people.

Source: Telles, E. and Marcelo Paixão. (2013). Affirmative Action in Brazil. Lasa Forum, Vol. XLIV(2):10-12; Turner, N. (2011). Racism in Brazil: Inequality in Educational Opportunities and Social Mobility. Munich: Grin Publishing.

3 thoughts on “Affirmative Action in Brazil: is it necessary?

  1. of course it is necessary.

    the deplorable state of public education in brazil and public services in general is due to racism.

    The only fix then is to openly acknowledge the racism and put into place counter racist policies.

    Opportunities will have to be explicitly opened up to Blacks…..and for a long time as well.


    1. Dear Kel, of course I agree with you completely. But rather than just express our own individual opinions, let’s take a look at the statistics. In 2010, the World Economic Forum, in its Human Capital Report, stated that: 1) out of 122 countries surveyed, Brazil’s quality of education was 105th; 2) quality of basic education schools, 109th; 3) quality of math and science teaching, 112th; 4) difference in gender education, 1st. After living in Brazil for 10 years, and with the current state of the government, I have no idea how they are ever going to fix this problem.


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