Brasilia tackles race issue

May 14, 2004

The University of Brasilia has launched a controversial race-identification scheme in a bid to boost the representation of black students at the institution.

Under the system, the university is using photographs to identify applicants' racial characterists to meet its 20 per cent quota of "negro" (black or mixed race) undergraduates.

Photographs of potential students, taken by the university, are being analysed by a special university commission to decide if candidates are black or mixed race, according to typical racial characteristics.

Dione Moura, who teaches at the university and is a member of its social, ethnic and racial commission, said: "How people are perceived (visually) when they walk into a restaurant or apply for a job is what leads to social persecution and racism."

The scheme is open only to candidates from state schools. In addition to the photos, students have to declare themselves black or mixed race and pass an entrance exam to qualify for one of 392 places that will be awarded next month.

According to Brazil's Institute of Geography and Statistics, almost half of the country's 175 million population are "Afro descendents", but this group makes up just 8 per cent of the university population.

Critics of the scheme say reserving places for blacks does not address the real problem, which is the falling standards in public education, notably in secondary schools. Those who can afford it often pay for special courses to pass the university entrance exam.

But Professor Moura is convinced that positive discrimination is required.

"Anyone who says there is no racism in Brazil is in denial," he said.

In 2002, the State University of Rio de Janeiro became the first institution to adopt positive discrimination measures. Initially the university reserved 50 per cent of places for students from non-fee-paying schools and 40 per cent for blacks. But the following year it reduced the quotas to 20 per cent in each category.

In the first year of the scheme, hundreds of non-black candidates attempted to challenge their rejection in the courts.

But Ana Claudia Theme, a university spokesperson, said not a single case was won because "the university was simply implementing a state law".

Unlike Brasilia, the university relies on candidates declaring themselves black and does not use photographs to decide if they are racially eligible.

A proposal by Tarso Genro, the education minister, would require all universities to reserve quotas for black students, but the level would vary by state to reflect the local population's racial composition. The proposal is pending discussion in congress.

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