Polarised Brazil debates future of racial quotas at public universities

Decade-old policy has dramatically changed the make-up of institutions, but critics claim it is unfair and unconstitutional

十一月 4, 2022
Source: Alamy

Larissa Rodrigues Carvalho grew up in Chatuba da Penha, a favela community notorious for gang-related violence in the far north of Rio de Janeiro.

She studied journalism at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) thanks to a policy that reserves places at Brazil’s federal universities for poor black public school students, and is now on a corporate affirmative action management programme. “Racial quotas changed the story of my life,” the 28-year-old told Times Higher Education.

Ten years after the quotas were introduced, Brazil’s National Congress is now deliberating over whether and how to continue with the policy, in the midst of a polarised political climate following the presidential election on 30 October.

The so-called quota law obliged federal universities to set aside half their places for students from public schools for a decade from 2012, with half of these held for students from low-income backgrounds.

Within the public school quota, universities had to proportionally offer places to self-declared black, pardo (people of mixed ethnic origins), Indigenous and disabled students, to reflect their statistical representation in each state.

The result is that black, brown and Indigenous students now make up more than half of students in the country’s public higher education institutions, a huge jump from 20 years ago, when they accounted for only a third.

But Kim Kataguiri, the president of the education committee in Brazil’s congress, said he believed the law now needs to change.

“Quotas should be social and not racial, because it is a much fairer and objective criterion,” he said. “There are poor white people, there are poor black and pardo people. They should all have access to higher education.”

Inequality in Brazil, he added, often stemmed from a lack of investment in basic education, and without reforms at the primary level, “quotas don’t help at all” because most poor students will “never get that far” and be in a position to enter university. He also thinks the current law is unconstitutional: “Positive or negative discrimination is prohibited in our constitution, which says that all should be equal.”

But defenders of the quotas feel just as strongly that they should remain in place. “Brazil maintained slavery long after it was abolished elsewhere. Black people have been excluded from public places throughout history,” said Pedro Rodrigues Cruz, director of affirmative action and assistant secretary for inclusion at the Federal University of Goiás (UFG).

While under-represented in government and in company boardrooms, black people account for 64 per cent of Brazil’s unemployed, three out of four victims of police killings and almost 70 per cent of the prison population.

Catia Antonio da Silva, UERJ’s dean of policy and student assistance, said the quotas were still needed to address historic inequalities in Brazil’s education system.

Previously, she said, students from rich backgrounds could both “pay for private education and occupy free public university places”, but poor students did not enjoy the same access.

“Public universities with excellent teaching and very strong research were only attending to the elite,” she said.

Many public universities operated social and racial quotas long before the 2012 federal law. UERJ was the pioneer in introducing the policy in 2001, and it currently counts 13,000 quota students among an undergraduate cohort of 25,000.

Ms da Silva acknowledged that supporting students should involve more than quotas. “We need to create conditions for them to remain in university, through grants for living costs, books and other costs.”

Critics argue that the system, which has been challenged several times in the country’s courts, is open to abuse, particularly as it relies primarily on people self-declaring their ethnic heritage. Equally, in a country as diverse as Brazil, it has not always been clear where the line should be drawn on who should qualify and who should not.

In making decisions about whether to include black and brown people, UFG employs the very same criteria that society uses to exclude them, Mr Cruz said. “Our criteria for deciding if someone is pardo is based on what they look like,” he said, citing guidelines laid out by the country’s Supreme Court. “With self-declaration, there needs to be some validation. We can’t allow people to unduly use spaces that are reserved for the vulnerable.” Last year, more than 22 per cent of student applications for racial quotas were denied by the university, up from 13 per cent in 2018.

UFG has also tested arguments that the quotas weaken the academic output of Brazilian public higher education, Mr Cruz said. It analysed 27 of its undergraduate courses and “found that quota students had higher grades than those that entered without quotas”.

But the concept of affirmative action remains deeply controversial in Brazil. In 2020, when the retailer Magazine Luiza offered a special training programme for black staff members, the company was accused of “reverse racism” and of violating the constitution by discriminating against workers based on their skin colour.

For Ms Carvalho, who has benefited so much from the policy, resistance to quotas comes from groups that want to preserve their privilege. “There are no black people in the boardrooms of multinationals here. Why is this the case, even after 10 years of racial quotas? It’s because white people keep hiring white people for senior roles.”



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