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BRAZIL: Race Quotas – Accused of Racism

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jul 26 2006 (IPS) - The imminent approval of a law that establishes obligatory quotas for Afro-Brazilians and indigenous peoples at public universities, and of a Racial Equality Statute that defines public policies for promoting ethnic groups who suffer discrimination, has sparked a resurgence of the controversy about how to combat racism and inequality in Brazil.

Some people argue that the draft law threatens the principle of equality in politics and in the eyes of the law, which forms the basis of the Brazilian constitution. Others see it as a means of taking that equality beyond an “empty principle” and turning it into a concrete goal to be reached by affirmative action in favour of marginalised ethnic groups.

The draft law on quotas (which has been before Congress since 1999, and must be voted on first in the lower chamber) reserves half the places at state universities for students who attended public schools, and a proportional number of them for Afro-Brazilian and indigenous people.

The Statute, which was submitted to the legislature in 1995 and was approved by the Senate in 2005, has broader aims: a fund to promote marginalised ethnic groups, measures to reduce salary inequality and increase the number of Afro-Brazilians hired as public employees, mechanisms to ensure promotions in their careers, and incentives for companies to employ and give management jobs to Afro-Brazilians.

But a manifesto signed by 114 academics and cultural figures called on lawmakers to reject these laws, which would determine rights “according to the shade of one’s skin,” deny the constitutional equality of citizens, and possibly fuel “conflict and intolerance” instead of eliminating racism, by giving “legal backing to the concept of race.”

The document titled “Equal Rights for All in the Democratic Republic”, signed by university professors and prominent figures like singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso and poet Ferreira Gullar, unleashed a wave of individual and collective demonstrations, especially in the academic world, when it was made public three weeks ago.

Using racial criteria would be a backward step, dividing citizens into different races with different rights, in a country which is legally blind to race and heavily punishes racist behaviour, argues anthropologist Peter Fry, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and author of a book on racism in history, who signed the document.

“Inventing official races” could sow racism and “block the way to a real solution for problems of inequality,” states the manifesto, which proposes instead “building high-quality universal public services” in education, health, social security and job creation.

A few days later a reply appeared in the shape of a “Manifesto in Favour of the Laws”, also aimed at members of parliament, and signed by 330 intellectuals and representatives of the black people’s movement, among them playwright Augusto Boal, the author of Theatre of the Oppressed, novelist Paulo Lins, and Edna Roland, rapporteur at the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

The “purely formal equality” decreed by Brazil’s first constitution, adopted in 1891, three years after the official abolition of slavery, left the black population at a complete disadvantage with respect to whites. This was exacerbated by policies of support for European immigrants that did not apply to Afro-Brazilians, the second manifesto points out.

Such “state racism”à”intensified in Brazilian society throughout the 20th century,” lies at the root of the inequality and poverty of black people, it maintains.

Recent studies have shown that Afro-Brazilians have fewer years of schooling, earn lower wages, and suffer higher unemployment and worse living conditions than the general population. They have also identified higher education as the main route to improvement in economic and social conditions.

These conclusions prompted advocacy of quotas at universities, where Afro-Brazilians and indigenous people are “excluded to an extreme extent,” those who defend affirmative action noted. They pointed out that many multiethnic countries, including India, Malaysia, the United States, South Africa, Colombia and Mexico, already apply affirmative action measures.

Black people in Brazil had a lower average number of years of schooling in 2000 than blacks in South Africa during the years of “apartheid”, the white supremacist and segregationist regime that was abolished in 1994. Black professors at Brazil’s public universities make up less than one percent of the total, which is also lower than the corresponding figure for South Africa under apartheid, notes the second manifesto.

Opponents of the quotas and the Racial Equality Statute “offer no concrete proposal for social inclusion,” since to invoke universal principles is merely to repeat the preservation of the status quo of the 1891 constitution, abandoning equal access to education, wealth, and state services to “an uncertain future,” it concludes.

There is some truth on both sides of the argument, but those who oppose the proposed laws are failing to “recognise the reality” that racial divisions already exist, Joel Rufino, a well-known black writer, historian and retired professor of literature at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, told IPS.

To say that these laws “will disrupt the unity of Brazilians, is wishful thinking and ignores the real situation,” which is reflected by the continued struggle for equality by the black movement, he added.

The idea that there is racial democracy in Brazil is dead and buried, he said. The existence of discrimination is confirmed by the fact that social indicators have improved over the last hundred years for the general population, but not for black people.

That makes affirmative action necessary, in terms of university quotas or other measures, Rufino said. Some steps have already been taken, such as scholarships for black students to prepare for diplomatic careers, from which they had been totally excluded until the past decade, he noted.

Affirmative action has been on the rise since 2001, and 30 public universities have already adopted quotas or other mechanisms favouring black, indigenous and poor people.

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