Racial quotas stir Brazil campus debate
By Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times, 10/7/2003
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Amid the kaleidoscope of skin colors
that is modern Brazil, Diego Souza Barreto is like
millions of other young men: He has a cinnamon
complexion and features that borrow a little from
Africa, a little from Europe, and maybe a little from
the Middle East. A few months back, when he applied
for college, Souza Barreto had to "self-define" his
race for the first time. He chose the box marked
"pardo," which means brown or mixed race. "For me,
pardo is a meaningless term," he said, frowning. "It's
a word used to describe an envelope."
Diego was one of thousands of students who entered the
State University of Rio de Janeiro this year as part
of its new racial quota program. Never before had race
been used as a criterion for admission to a Brazilian
The quotas are an experiment in social engineering
that many blacks hope will help start a revolution in
race relations in Brazil. But at the State University
of Rio, the attempts to redress the country's historic
inequalities have plunged the campus into the complex
and often bewildering world of racial identity.
Race in Brazil is a notion beset by paradoxes. Blacks
and whites intermarry more commonly, perhaps, than
anywhere else. But there is a clear racial divide
between rich and poor.
"Brazilian law has always tried to deny that race
exists," said Paulo Fabio Salguiero, the university's
admissions director. "When slavery was abolished, all
the records of the slaveholders were destroyed."
Brazilian slavery was a less rigid institution than
its American counterpart -- a black slave, for
instance, could buy his freedom -- but Brazil was the
last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish
slavery, in 1888.
Now, race is at the center of the admissions process,
although it is not always clear who is black and who
In Brazil, a national saying holds that everyone, no
matter how fair-skinned, has at least a drop of "black
blood." But there is also an inflexible racial pecking
order: Walk into an upscale boutique or a corporate
boardroom in Rio and other Brazilian cities, and black
people all but disappear.
"The world is beginning to realize this other truth
about Brazil -- that we are a country where racism has
produced one of the most effective systems of
domination in the world," said Ivanir dos Santos, one
of Brazil's most prominent black activists. "Without a
single law in place to support it, we have a hierarchy
of skin color where blacks appear to know their
Dos Santos and other activists in Brazil say quotas at
Rio's university and other reforms are long overdue.
They see the university's step as the first in a
Brazilian "reconstruction," like the 20th-century
revolution in civil rights that began to chip away at
the legacy of slavery in the United States.
But as in the United States, where racial quotas in
university admissions were declared illegal in the
1978 decision in Regents of the University of
California v. Bakke, the Rio plan has provoked an
angry backlash. About 300 students have filed lawsuits
over the quotas, and the state government has scaled
back the program for next year.
In the Rio quota system's first year, 40 percent of
admission slots were reserved for black and pardo
students and half for students who had completed all
their schooling in public institutions (one student
could fill quotas in both categories).
"Any quota system is wrong because it discriminates
against white students for the crimes of the past,"
said Jair Bolsonaro, a federal congressional deputy
"I'm Italian. My father and grandfather were Italian.
None of them had anything to do with slavery."
To these arguments, black activists respond with
statistics illustrating glaring racial inequality.
Blacks make up 2 percent of the nation's university
students, even though nearly half of all Brazilians
defined themselves as black in the most recent census.
Go to nearly any public university in Brazil, Dos
Santos said, and you will be lucky to find one
Brazilian-born black in its medical school. "The only
blacks are the exchange students from Africa," he
"We pay our taxes, so why shouldn't we receive this
public service we're paying for and which supposedly
belongs to everyone?"
Salguiero, the admissions director, sees the quotas as
a very crude answer to the issue of racial injustice.
Implementing them, he said, has been like performing
surgery with a hacksaw.
The State University of Rio is the region's most
exclusive institution of higher education, attracting
the brightest, most ambitious students from Rio's best
public and private schools. Before this year,
admission was decided solely through difficult
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