Response to University Race Quotas Row in Brazil

The BBC news has a report about pressure to end redressive racial quotas in Brazil.   To understand this controversy, it is important to know something about the context of skin color in Brazil.

The color hierarchy in Brazilian society is obvious. With few exceptions, the Brazilian middle class and above is white. Go to any nice restaurant in Rio de Janeiro, for example, where about half of that city’s population is black or mixed-race, and you will be hard-pressed to find a nonwhite person that is not on the staff.

Racial discrimination accounts for much of this inequality. The scholarly evidence is very clear. On average, blacks and people of mixed-racial background earn less than half of what whites earn and poverty or class simply cannot explain the difference. There is lots of evidence by economists and sociologists showing that race differences in income persist even when class origins, levels of education, region, and several other variables are held constant. And that does not even consider the fact that racism affects educational level and class origins in the first place!

Most of the Brazilian population now supports racial quotas though there is strong opposition from sectors of the middle class. Opponents to quotas contend that they are an extreme policy for redressing Brazil’s huge racial inequalities. However, they do not offer viable alternatives. At best, they call for class-based policies, particularly improvements in public education. Waiting for better public schools to overcome these gross inequalities in Brazilian society might help but real change is likely to take generations even if sufficient political will could be mustered. Educational spending exemplifies the gross distortions that would need to be overcome. The Brazilian government spends about 20 times per student in the public university, which is dominated by whites, compared to public K-12, where nonwhites are disproportionately represented.

Finally, the argument about uncertainty in racial classification is overblown in Brazil. A small percentage of the Brazilian population might straddle the white/nonwhite distinction since race is based strictly on appearance in Brazil but for the vast majority, there is no doubt. The presence of some ambiguity shouldn’t be used to invalidate these policies, which are finally putting a dent in Brazil’s severe racial pyramid. Interestingly, Brazil’s anti-quota media has dug very deeply to find a handful of these cases.

~ Edward Telles is a professor of sociology at Princeton University. He is the author of the award-winning book, Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil.

[NB from the admin: We’re delighted to welcome a new guest blogger to Racism Review.]