Melissa Nobles, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyIn 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.
But sustained black activism and scholarship lead to closer scrutiny of economic and education outcomes. Like the U.S., race and class significantly overlap, where “brown” and “black” Brazilians are far more likely to attend substandard and underfinanced public secondary schools. Entry into Brazil’s university system is highly competitive, based solely on standardized test scores. Students at secondary public schools are usually not competitive, making evident the compounded disadvantage of race and class. Brazil’s controversial quota system directly addresses this problem by setting aside a certain percentage of seats for designated beneficiaries, based on race, and often including class background.
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?”
However, the quotas are working, although not without complications. Some whites have claimed to be black in order to gain entry, but these cases are relatively few. Of much greater importance is the fact that Brazil’s public universities now have sizable black, brown and poor student populations. And as some affirmative action supporters point out, the police seem to have little trouble determining who is black.