Race, Inequality and Education: Challenges for Affirmative Action in Brazil and the United States
There are striking similarities in the field of race relations in the United States and Brazil. Both are American nations with an immigration history that includes Africans brought as slaves and Europeans who arrived as settlers. Both racially diverse nations, seeking to counter the lingering effects of past l injustices, have adopted public and private policies of affirmative action in an attempt to eliminate longstanding societal ills. There are differences, however, not only in the histories of the two countries but also in the genesis of their affirmative action policies, their application, their treatment by the legal systems, and the roles placed by NGOs and other non-governmental political actors. These important issues were examined on April 11 at a session sponsored by the Division of United States Studies and Brazil @ the Wilson Center. Assistance by the World Bank enabled panelists and participants to interact via live videoconference from Washington and multiple locations in Brazil.
Ricardo Henriques, noting the extent to which income gaps reflect levels of education, asserted that an educational quota system is necessary in Brazil. This is particularly true for Afro-Brazilians, who account for an estimated 45% of Brazil's population but only 2% of its university students. Quotas, or "reserved seats," are one mechanism for reducing the gap, and Brazil recently enacted a law setting aside 50% of the entrance spaces at public universities for Afro-Brazilians and indigenous peoples from disadvantaged socio-economic and educational backgrounds. The law also makes coursework in African Studies a requirement. In addition, Brazil recognizes the importance of preparation for college. It is therefore developing new approaches to middle-school teaching, revising and increasing financing for the primary school level, and experimenting with methodologies for keeping Afro-Brazilian students in schools by, e.g., utilizing new technologies and enhanced tutoring. The goal is to provide basic schooling while promoting diversity and giving all students the benefit of different perspectives.
Philippa Strum defined affirmative action as "programs that seek to remedy past discrimination." She suggested that the creation of affirmative action programs in education also reflects a state of mind which recognizes that many white Americans have better qualifications for university admissions only because they have not had to contend with obstacles, such as poor health care and the lack of encouragement to exceed academically and to prepare for college, faced by most members of minority groups. Strum cited statistics from 1972 to demonstrate the educational and income disparities that existed in spite of the Civil Rights Act of 1964's elimination of formal discrimination. That evidence convinced private and public entities of the need for the kinds of affirmative action programs that then began to be put into place. Citing more recent statistics as indicative of the progress that has been made since then, Dr. Strum argued that much remains to be accomplished and the need for affirmative action still exists.
Robert Cottrol explained some of the differences between the affirmative action programs in the two countries. The United States uses a preference model for university admissions, making race one of many subjective factors that influence admission decisions. Race is categorized on the basis of the "one drop" rule. In Brazil, however, where there are many more terms (such as "moreno," "mestizo," "negro") to designate one's heritage, racial assignment is more elastic and less easily quantifiable. Public universities in the United States, which are organs of the states, run the gamut from non-competitive to elite admitting students by whatever criteria each state prefers. Brazil's public universities, all of which are run by the federal government, are the country's best universities, and rely entirely on the challenging Vestibular exam for admission. Cottrol suggested three factors for the disadvantages some minorities face when applying to elite schools: (1) inadequate secondary education; (2) poverty and households with limited education; (3) the psychological burden of exclusion. Noting that U.S. courts have held affirmative action to be legitimate only as a means for diversifying institutions rather than as a remedy for overall societal exclusion, he commented, "I believe it is better to view it as a remedial model."
Ivete Sacramento, President of the State University of Bahia (UNEB), offered a compelling look at social inclusion and policy. The first Afro-Brazilian woman dean of her university, Sacramento stressed the influence of President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva's policies regarding social inclusion in Bahia, where 85% of the population is black. Programs designed to target this population have been developed in over 2,000 communities throughout Bahia and include educational and work initiatives. Dr. Sacramento noted that studies conducted by UNEB during the last decade had shown that there was minimal representation of Afro-Brazilians and a marked preference given to those who had attended elite private schools. The greatest challenge for rectifying discrimination, she said, may be the conceptualization of race and the use of racial terminology, because many Afro-Brazilians do not self-identify as black.
Melissa Woods, who worked on one of the affirmative action cases decided most recently by the U.S. Supreme Court (Gratz v. Bollinger), described the racial situation in the U.S. as one of willful neglect. While society-wide legal discrimination existed in the U.S. for hundreds of years, U.S. courts have held that affirmative action is unconstitutional in the absence of a showing of a specific pattern of discrimination by the relevant institution. She noted that the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s was passed only following violence, and insisted that the future of racial equality in the United States depends on people reminding each other both of the past and of continuing injustices. José Jorge Carvalho noted that yet another difference between the U.S. and Brazil is that while the United States acknowledged segregation as a wrongdoing in the early 1900's, Brazil's elite has insisted that racism and discrimination never existed in that country. It will be interesting, he added, to see if the international image consciousness of the Brazilian elite affects that view.
The participants agreed that they would welcome continued discussion of affirmative action programs in the two countries, including the social circumstances in which they take place, so that each country can benefit from the lessons of the other's successes and failures in this important policy arena.
Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202/691-4129
Luis Bitencourt, Director, Brazil @ the Wilson Center 202/691-4282