Room for Debate: Brazil’s Racial Identity Challenge

Room for Debate: Brazil’s Racial Identity Challenge

The New York Times

Jerry Dávila, Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor of Brazilian History
University of Illinois

Peter Fry, Anthropolgist

Melissa Nobles, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Micol Seigel, Associate Professor of African-American and African Diaspora Studies
Indiana University

Yvonne Maggie, Professor of Cultural Anthropology
Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Antonio Sérgio Alfredo Guimarães, Professor of Sociology
University of São Paulo, Brazil

João Jorge Santos Rodrigues, Lawyer and President
Olodum (cultural group that aims to combat racism in Brazil)

Marcelo Paixão, Professor of Economics and Sociology
Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

As Rio de Janeiro prepares to host the 2016 Olympics and celebrate its newfound economic prowess as a player on the world stage, the connection between poverty and racial discrimination in Brazil is coming under scrutiny. Would Brazil benefit from U.S.-style affirmative action to counter its history of slavery? What are the challenges of implementing such programs?

Note from Steven F. Riley: See also: Stanley R. Bailey, “Unmixing for Race Making in Brazil,” American Journal of Sociology, Volume 114, Number 3 (November 2008): 577–614.

What Brazil Does Well (Dávila)

In the United States and Brazil, Jim Crow’s shadow has yielded divergent understandings of the nature of racial inequality and the role of race-conscious policies. In the U.S., placing “separate but equal” in the rearview mirror feeds legal challenges to affirmative action.

But in Brazil, the distance from Jim Crow shapes a growing recognition that racial discrimination and inequality are not legacies and are not just the fruit of segregation. To the contrary, they have a stubbornly viral ability to reproduce and renew themselves…

…These Brazilian policies are not meant to redress legacies of racism: instead, they recognize and counteract ongoing inequalities. Brazil, in turn, has drawn a lesson from the U.S. history with affirmative action: policies that promote inclusion are insufficient without policies that reduce exclusion.

Race Is Too Hard to Identify (Fry)

Racial quotas in universities are polemical. For a start, they can hardly be called “U.S. style” since they would be unconstitutional in the United States. Furthermore, unlike the U.S., the majority of Brazilians do not classify themselves neatly into blacks and whites. In Brazil, therefore, eligibility for racial quotas is always a problem…

Quotas Are Working in Brazil (Nobles)

In 2004, when state and federal universities began implementing affirmative action policies, Brazil closed one chapter of its history and began another.

Brazil’s once dominant “myth of racial democracy,” made the contemplation, let alone implementation, of such policies impossible for most of the 20th century. Unlike the United States, Brazil’s post-slavery experience had not included deeply entrenched legal and social barriers. Nor had it included rigid racial identifications. Affirmative action policies were not needed, or so the reasoning went…

…Today, debate turns on arguments about merit and racial identity. Some hold that the quota system violates meritocracy. But basing university admissions solely on high-stakes standardized tests, which significantly advantage test preparation, seems a dubious way of determining merit. Others argue that Brazil’s system of racial classification is too fluid and ambiguous: the problem of “who is black?”…

Brazil Sets an Example to Follow (Seigel)

Affirmative action programs in Brazil are widespread and growing. Based on state legal victories beginning in 2000 and directed to expand further by the far-reaching federal Racial Equality Statute passed in 2010, all but three of Brazil’s 26 states now have reparative quota systems. The widespread objection that Brazilian racial categories were too fluid to define “black” for policy purposes has not panned out. Candidates define their racial identity themselves; apparently the disincentives to proclaiming black identity in a society still shot through with racist presumptions are enough to stave off the flood of sneaky white candidates who opponents claimed would jam the system. Plus, Brazilian affirmative action is not solely racial; it is class-based as well, and implemented in intelligent ways. In most states, quota candidates’ families must meet a salary limit, and an equal number of slots are set aside for children who have attended Brazil’s challenged public school system as for black students. Since most families poor enough to meet the income ceiling will have sent their kids to public schools, this means most students who meet the income requirement can apply, regardless of color…

Looking to the U.S. Has Been a Mistake (Maggie)

The history of racial relations in Brazil, which is completely different from the American case, leads me to believe that no, Brazil would not benefit from U.S.-style affirmative action.

In Brazil, there was no legislation dividing the population into “races,” nor prohibiting marriage between people of different “races,” in the post-abolition period; we’ve had no “one drop of blood” rule. The result is a national society based on the idea of mixture. U.S. affirmative action seeks to unite and make equal what had been separated by law. To implement this in Brazil, we would have to create legal identities based on the opposition between whites and blacks or African descendents.

Step in the Right Direction (Guimarães)

Brazil has already implemented some important affirmative action programs in higher education, and the balance is overall positive. Some 71 universities — with free tuition, linked to the federal system of higher education — as well as different state universities now have some kind of preferential system of entrance benefiting disadvantaged students (those coming from public high schools, those self-declared “pretos,” or blacks; “pardos,” or browns; “indigenous”; or those with low incomes).

The best thing is that those policies were taken one by one by different university boards trying to adapt the principles of social or racial justice to their regional reality. Available data on the school performance of those students show that they are doing pretty well and are not putting any kind of stress on the system. The real stress comes more from the huge expansion of slots than from the admission system.

Symbolically those policies are important in showing that being black (preto or pardo) in Brazil today is no longer a source of shame but rather one of pride. Descent from Africa is openly assumed and socially recognized. The policies also demonstrate that publicly financed universities must care for the quality of the education they offer without degrading the fairness of their admission when it becomes biased by class, race or color…

Read the entire debate here.

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