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BRAZIL: University Racial Quotas Bogged Down in Congress

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 28 2009 (IPS) - Claudio Fernández is able to study law thanks to affirmative action quotas at the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ). But a draft law to expand race quotas to all public institutions of higher education is stalled in the Senate.

“The quotas helped me overcome a situation in which the son of a domestic employee with five children – my case – cannot even imagine making it to a public university, not to mention a career in law,” Fernández told IPS.

The UERJ law student is poor, just like 67 percent of blacks in Brazil.

Public primary and secondary schools in Brazil do not tend to provide a solid educational foundation for continuing on to tertiary level studies. In addition, private courses for the university entrance exam are costly.

Most of the students who make it into the country’s prestigious public universities come from middle and upper socioeconomic strata and studied at private schools.

Brazil’s tuition-free federal universities provide the best higher education in the country.


The draft law that would reserve quotas for black and indigenous students in public universities and vocational-technical institutes, introduced by the leftwing government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is aimed at overcoming these imbalances, which are later reflected in the labour market.

The initiative would reserve 50 percent of spots in the federal university system for students from public schools, half of whom must come from families with a maximum income of 1.5 minimum monthly salaries – equivalent to 313 dollars.

The racial quotas, meanwhile, would be set according to the proportion of blacks and indigenous people in any given state, based on census information from the Brazilian Institute of Statistics.

For example, in a state like Bahía in the northeast, where a majority of the population is black, the proportion would be higher, while it would be lower in the southern state of Santa Catarina.

But the draft law, approved by the Chamber of Deputies on Nov. 20 – National Black Awareness Day – is bogged down in the Senate constitution and justice committee.

In a telephone interview from the capital Brasilia, where a protest was held last week outside the Senate to demand passage of the law, Daniel Cara, coordinator of the National Campaign for the Right to Education, told IPS that “the approval process has been slow, given the importance of this draft law.”

Cara worries that if the committee fails to vote on the initiative before June at the latest, it will be postponed until 2011 as the electoral campaign and later the October 2010 general elections get underway.

The draft law also has to make it through the Senate education and human rights committees before it is voted on by the Senate as a whole.

According to Cara, the importance of race quotas lies in “the informal but subtle segregation in Brazil, which has perverse effects.”

The activist blamed resistance to the new law on society’s “difficulties in admitting to the existence of racial segregation in the country.”

Legislators and representatives of central trade unions and civil society took part in the Apr. 23 demonstration organised by the Brazilian Committee in Defence of Approval of the draft law.

Of Brazil’s 39 federal universities, 20 have already adopted affirmative action quotas on their own initiative.

The academic performance of students admitted under the quotas is as good as or better than that of the rest of the students, said Cara, who cited studies based on five years of experience with quotas, carried out by the government Secretariat on the Promotion of Racial Equality and the Sao Paulo Teachers’ Association.

In order for the “returns to be positive,” each institution must establish its own policies for supporting students who are admitted under the quotas, both in financial terms – scholarships, for example – and with regard to academic, social and psychological aspects, he added.

The results “are quite positive in terms of social justice, in a country whose black and indigenous populations have a hard time gaining access to even their most basic rights,” he said.

Cara mentioned a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) study that found that just 6.1 percent of blacks between the ages of 18 and 24 in Brazil are studying at university.

“If compensatory policies are not adopted, millions of Brazilian students will have no chance of entering a good quality university,” said the activist.

The quota system “does not hurt overall academic performance, and guarantees a better future and more just social treatment for the beneficiaries,” he said.

Detractors say the quotas are a form of “reverse racism.” But this argument comes from people who are “out of touch with Brazilian reality, and who do not themselves experience racial prejudice on a daily basis,” Cara maintained.

For instance, police brutality “is incomparably worse” for blacks than for whites, he said.

More than half of the people of Brazil defined themselves in the last census as “black” or “brown”, giving Brazil the second-largest black population in the world, after Nigeria.

If the law is passed, the quota mechanism would initially be in place for 10 years, after which its effects would be assessed.

Last year, 113 intellectuals, academics and artists issued a protest against the quotas, arguing that they discriminated against poor students who are not black.

Anthropologist Ivonne Maggie was among those who argued at the time that such laws were suitable for countries suffering from segregation, but not Brazil.

The academic admitted that there is racism in Brazil, but said that in her view, access to higher education is limited by differences in income level, not race.

To such arguments, Cara responds that the income thresholds set by the draft law adequately address that problem.

The government sees the quotas as necessary at least in the short-term, while parallel measures are taken, such as improvements in public primary and secondary school education.

Minister for the Promotion of Racial Equality Edson Santos, who as a black man has himself suffered from racism, illustrates the situation in the following manner: “There is a group that says Brazil’s problem is social and not racial, but if you look at Brazil’s social pyramid, the black population is at the bottom.”

José Vicente, director of the Unipalmares university in Sao Paulo, described as the country’s first black university, admitted that quotas may not be the best tool. “But they are the only one we have, and as long as we don’t have any other mechanism, we have to continue to use them. If not, we will spend 500 years looking for another instrument to address the problem.”

 
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