Black in Brazil: Affirmative action policies aim to reduce racial inequality

World Today

More than half of Brazil’s population is either black or mixed-race. But they earn far less than whites and are under-represented in universities, businesses, and government. As part of our new “Black in Brazil” series, CGTN’s Lucrecia Franco details how recent affirmative action policies aim to reduce this inequality.

Twenty-seven year-old Catia Regina Correia is finishing her bachelor’s degree in Languages at a federal university in Rio de Janeiro.

She was fortunate to get there. The daughter of a driver and a secretary, she could not afford a private university and, despite hard work, her public school education was not enough to earn her a coveted spot in one of Brazil’s prestigious public universities. Historically, those places go to wealthy white students, educated privately.

But thanks to a recent affirmative action law, she got her opportunity to study. The law, enacted in 2012, reserves 50 percent of spots in public universities for low-income students. Emphasis is placed on those who are of African or indigenous descent.

For Catia, it’s a dream come true. “Today I am here at the university and that is a victory for me a, a black woman from Rio’s periphery,” she said. “Being here is a triumph, but it needs to expand.”

Catia is still part of a racial minority at the university. According to the latest official data, only 13 percent of black students attended universities in 2015, though that was up from 5.5 percent ten years earlier. Data show white students at double the university attendance rates of blacks.

Despite the significant increase in black enrollment in universities across Brazil, the affirmative action program is not without controversy.

Jose Roberto Pinto de Goes, a historian at Rio de Janeiro State University and expert on Brazil’s slave period, explained that Brazilians are embarrassed about being seen as racists and that quotas can lead to divisions.

“I think these racial policies are harmful because they are based in the idea of race and could promote racism,” he said. “It is also unfair because it privileges some because of the color of the skin and punishes others.”

Darker skin has never been associated with privilege in Brazil. Afro-Brazilians continue to do most of the menial labor, earn on average half of what their white colleagues earn, and have less access to basic education.

It is a grim legacy that experts say is, in large part, a result of the fact that, in 1888, Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery.

For more on affirmative action policies, quotas, Brazil’s history of slavery, and the challenges black people face there, CGTN’s Susan Roberts spoke with Ronald Hall, a professor in the School of Social Work at Michigan State University.