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.]


  1. siss

    Im a bit confused as to why we are comparing school funding for university vs. primary education? Those are two very different institutions and thus have different funding needs.

  2. JDF

    Thanks for the post, particularly that the so-called “mulatto escape hatch” phenomenon is overblown. I will mention that next semester in my race course when we cover Brazil. The debate in Brazil over how to deal with racial inequality sounds similar to the one here, with some thinking education is the “magic bullet” to solving the problem. Just look to research from Feagin and others on the experiences of the black middle-class here, and all is NOT well for them, despite their education. Meanwhile, most of those exurban whites fleeing “bad” (i.e., more than 1/4 nonwhite) neighborhoods are well-educated professionals, not Archie Bunker types.

  3. Dave Paul

    Very interesting. It’s disheartening to see the same troubles occurring in a nation that is so often used as the exemplar of a more stratified racial hierarchy… (as if many categorizations is somehow more liberating than America’s black-white dichotomy). The fact of the matter remains that racial stratification exists and is rooted in value-laden rhetoric, which posits white as better and positive and black as worse off and negative.

  4. Captainchaos

    If this does not definitively demonstrate the point then nothing will: Even after the point we are totally and hopelessly demographically submerged in every formerly Western country, it will not end. It will never end. And when our people are no more and everything we have built has been destroyed, our enemies will piss on our graves.

    I’m not going down that road, I choose life. As will any of the sane.

  5. Hillbilly

    If I’m not mistaken the comparison of the school and university funding is appropriate given that the public higher education system is where the elite (almost exclusively white) of the nation enroll, whereas the non-white population is relegated to the private sector known for poor quality facilities and education as well as being cited as degree mills. Add to the fact that whites are more likely to attend private schools through secondary school with better resources and more funding, and it puts nonwhites at substantial disadvantage.

    It’s like the families in the Hamptons sending their kids to Philips Andover or Exeter for high school and then sending them to only Michigan or Berkeley, while Harvard and Yale are struggling to stay open.

Leave a Reply