Against all of the anti-affirmative action rhetoric, see why the university quota system has worked so well in Brazil

"The quotas have worked": April cover story from Istoé magazine
“The quotas have worked”: April 2013 cover story from Istoé magazine

Note from BW of Brazil: A little more than a decade ago, when affirmative action and quotas according to race began to be debated and implemented in Brazilian universities, the backlash was enormous (see the debate here)! Cries of “reverse racism”, “the destruction of higher learning in Brazil”, and “you’re trying to turn Brazil into the United States” were among the most popular reactions. People still had a difficult time accepting but also ignoring the vast inequalities according to race/color that were masked behind the belief in the popular “racial democracy” myth. Despite the near invisibility of Afro-Brazilians as college professors, diplomats, in journalism, television, modeling runways and nearly everywhere else except soccer fields or entertainment, average Brazilians would argue tooth and nail against the existence of racism in Brazil, often times because, “one of my best friends/my maid…(fill in the blank) are black.” On the other hand, the debate about quotas made Brazilians discuss the question of race and racism in ways in which the topic had never been discussed in the past. Well, ten years later, the success of quotas in placing black folks in college in higher numbers through the system of quotas have debunked nearly every argument against the system. This success is leading to serious discussion of the quotas being applied to other areas of society. Below is the back story of the quota system and how it has changed the lives of its beneficiaries. 

Why racial quotas have worked in Brazil

Policy of black inclusion in universities has improved the quality of education and reduced dropout rates. Above all, it is transforming the lives of thousands of Brazilians

By Amauri Segalla, Mariana Brugger and Rodrigo Cardoso

Ícaro Luís Vidal dos Santos: Degree and well-deserved vacation in Amsterdam
Ícaro Luís Vidal dos Santos: Degree and well-deserved vacation in Amsterdam

Ícaro Luís Vidal dos Santos, 25, graduate of Medicine from UFBA

“I am in Europe enjoying my first international trip. I concluded the course in 2012 and today I work as general clinic in the Family Health Program in Salvador. It was with my salary that managed to go on vacation. I got in through the quota system but I think my score in the vestibular (college entrance exam) was good enough that I could have gotten into the program without needing this. Education was always primordial in my house. It was like this because my parents, that only finished high school, wanted the best for us. While I was in college, I worked in the IBGE and in another job I worked as a chemical technician. After my sister and I graduated, my family’s condition of life improved. My mother, that was shopkeeper, today doesn’t need to work anymore and is going after her own dream, studying pedagogy in order to become a teacher. My father is a Militar Police officer and works more out of love for the profession than for necessity. In 2015, I should start my specialization in oncology and by the time I’m 28 I will buy my apartment. Now, in Europe, I am taking the opposite path, which is strange: it was like ‘trate bem o turista (treat the tourist well)’, that was what I always heard in Salvador. Now, I am the tourist.”

Before pedaling through the streets of Amsterdam on a red bicycle and with a wide grin, as he did on the afternoon of the first Wednesday in April, Ícaro Luís Vidal dos Santos, 25, traveled a hard road, but it could have been much more tortuous. Maybe insurmountable. He was the first black student to enter the Medicine program at the Federal University of Bahia through the system of quotas. Graduating with the class of 2011, Ícaro works as a general practitioner in a hospital in Salvador, Bahia. The photo of him in this article celebrates the joy of someone who had every reason not to have been there. That’s because, in Brazil, skin color determines a person’s chances of reaching the university. For poor students in public schools there are also few routes available. Like many others, Ícaro encountered several barriers: he always attended free schools, he had always been poor and he is black. Still, his story is different. Against all odds, he became a doctor with enough money to cross the Atlantic and enjoy his first international trip. Without the quota policy, would he have spent these last few days cycling through bridges erected over the canals of Amsterdam? Impossible to say for sure, but the logical answer would be “no.”

Juliana Lima de Sousa: First in the family to go to college
Juliana Lima de Sousa: First in the family to go to college

Juliana Lima de Sousa, 24, archivology student at the University of Brasília

“My father was born in Piauí (state in northeastern Brazil) and is a security guard and finished high school a year behind. My mother is a hairstylist born in Ceará (state in northeastern Brazil) and didn’t finish elementary school. They met each other in Brasília (nation’s capital), where I was born. I grew up hearing from them that education was the only thing that they could never take away from me. I always liked to study. Today I am the first person in the family to go to college. My average in the course is between 7 and 9, like the majority. It’s not because we have a different from another person that our capacity is less. The question has nothing to do with the tone of tone of the skin, but with the type of education that you receive. Some have prejudice in relation to the subject of quotas, they think that we have privilege. I don’t agree, because we have to study in the same way in order to get ahead. The quotas are also good for Brazil. It’s more people graduating in centers of excellence, which means more specialized man power in the market. Currently, I am doing an internship in the archive of the Senate and I should start a public course shortly.

Since the first black student enrolled in a public university by the quota system ten years ago, a lot of nonsense was said then. Ferocious critics said the model of (quotas) would demean and degrade the educational level in universities. They also said that those entering college through the quota system would never be able to adapt to the rhythm of their more enlightened colleagues and it would result in blacks and poor students benefitting from inclusion programs to give up. The harbingers of gloom prophesied discrepancies of the vestibular (entrance exam) itself because those entering college through quotas were approved with vexatious scores compared with the performance of the class considered more capable. For the apocalyptic, the quota system would culminate in a complete decrepitude: racial hatred would be installed in university classrooms, while blacks and whites build imaginary walls between them. Segregation would win and mediocrity of the cotistas (students entering college the quota system) would instead end the Brazilian academic world. But, surprise, nothing happened. One by one, all arguments were defeated by simple observation of reality. “So far, none of the justifications of the people against quotas showed themselves to be true,” says Ricardo Vieiralves de Castro, dean of the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (State University of Rio de Janeiro or Uerj).

The racial quotas were successful because their beneficiaries are indeed competent. They do indeed deserve to attend a public and quality university. In the vestibular (entrance exam), where everything begins, the cotistas lag only slightly behind. According to the data of Sistema de Seleção Unificada (Unified Selection System), the cutoff for conventional candidates for vacancies in the medical program of federal universities was 787.56 points. For cotistas, it was 761.67 points. The difference between them, however, was closer to 3%. ISTOÉ magazine interviewed educators and all said that this difference is more than reasonable. In fact, it’s almost nothing. If in a discipline as highly competitive as medicine only 3% separates the privileged, who studied in private schools, blacks and the poor, who attended public schools, then it is fair to assume that the minimum difference may well be equaled or exceeded during the courses. It only depends on the willingness of the student. At the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro or UFRJ), one of the most prestigious in the country, the results of the last vestibular were surprising. “The biggest difference between the scores of cotistas and non-cotistas was not observed in the economy course,” says Ângela Rocha, dean of UFRJ. “Even so, this difference was 11%, which, statistically, is not significant.”

Renato Ferreira dos Santos: Master's Degree, MBA and lectures in the US and Switzerland
Renato Ferreira dos Santos: Master’s Degree, MBA and lectures in the US and Switzerland

Renato Ferreira dos Santos, 38, lawyer, graduated from (PUC) in Rio de Janeiro

“I graduated from PUC (Pontifícia Universidade Católic) thanks to the project of affirmative action that provided a full scholarship. My parents were farmers in Mimoso do Sul in the interior of Espírito Santo (state in southeastern Brazil) that migrated to the Baixada Fluminense (1) and enrolled their children in public schools. My average in the university varied between 8 and 8.5, which placed me among the ten best of my class. I sought to study more, because I looked at the trajectory of my family and didn’t see an opportunity like that which the university offered me. I didn’t have money ti buy books, but I spent hours in the library. We, black, can’t be lazy in the university. We are not students like any other. We don’t have another way to be. When class ends, we take three or four rides to get home, while a colleague gets in a car and in ten minutes arrives to their destiny. Even so, it’s possible to win. I graduated, did a master’s and MBA, I advised the Minister of Racial Equality and gave lectures in other countries such as the United States, Switzerland and Chile. This year, I will take my Ph.D in order to become a university professor. The policy of affirmative action is good for the cotista, but it will have much more value for future generations.”

Being recent, the system of quotas for blacks lacks studies that gather data from the general set of universities. Even analyzed separately, they bring extraordinary results. It is for those that imagine that students from private schools have, in the university, performances far above their cotista peers. After all, they had an exemplary education, supported by tuition costing small fortunes. But the expected superiority of non-cotista student is far from the truth. The Uerj reviewed the scores of its students for 5 years. Blacks received on average 6.41. The non-cotistas scored 6.37 points. Isolated case? No way. At the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp or State University of Campinas, which is also a reference in the country, a survey showed that in 33 of the 64 courses, students who entered the university through a similar system with quotas had better performances than non-cotistas. And nobody is talking here of non-prestigious disciplines. In computer engineering, one of the new frontiers of the labor market, black and poor students that went to public schools received in the third quarter, 6.8, against 6.1 of the others. In physics, which is akin to rocket science for most people, the first group nailed 5.4 points, compared to 4.1 of the others (an amazing difference of 32%).

Janaína Barreiros da Silva: She achieved a dream of her parents and grandparents
Janaína Barreiros da Silva: She achieved a dream of her parents and grandparents

Janaína Barreiros da Silva, 26, Law student from the State University of Rio de Janeiro: She achieved the dream of her parents and grandparents

“I didn’t have the opportunity to study in good schools. My basic education didn’t give me the conditions to equally compete with other candidates. The quotas are a beautiful solution for this. My grandparents didn’t have the chance to dream of studying. Are they going to say that they didn’t want to study? Whoever used to fill the spaces in the universities were the rich, the whites of the upper class. I don’t say this out of malice but because it’s reality. Today, the difficulties that I have in the university are only those inherent in studying Law. I was never questioned on the campus of UERJ for being or not being a cotista or about the reasons I was there. I am not inferior to anyone. When I leave the university, possibly a white person, coming from an affluent family, will direct me. But, at least, I will be able to say that I was on the same level as she and that we received the same education. I get happy when I see our society educating the least favored in the same way that the affluent educate their children and grandchildren. My family is happy because of the fact of us having managed something they dreamed for many years: a quality education.

In an internal report, Unicamp evaluated that its program for the poor and blacks resulted in an unexpected bonus. “Besides promoting social inclusion and ethnic diversity, we obtained an academic gain,” says the text. Now, didn’t the naysayers say that the students favored by quotas would put an end to meritocracy? Didn’t they claim that the quality of the universities would be kept in check? By a sublime irony, it was the reverse that happened. And if the difference between cotistas and non-cotistas were not really big, wouldn’t it mean that inclusion programs would be doomed to failure? This kind of analysis is also questionable. “In a country as unequal as Brazil, speaking on meritocracy doesn’t make sense,” said Nelson Inocêncio, coordinator of the Núcleo de estudos afrobrasileiros (Center of Afro-Brazilian studies) of UnB (University of Brasília). “With quotas, it’s not merit that should be discussed, but rather a question of opportunity.” Ricardo Vieiralves de Castro speaks of the intrinsic duty of universities to ultimately transform their students – even if they come to the classroom with learning disabilities. “If you don’t believe that education is a modifying and civilizing process, that knowledge can lead to big changes, it doesn’t makes sense for teachers to exist.” It makes no sense even for universities to exist.

Renata da Rosa Santos: Victory inside and outside of the university
Renata da Rosa Santos: Victory inside and outside of the university

Renata da Rosa Santos, 29, odontology student at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC)

“As soon as I entered the university, I was seen as the ugly duckling of the class. There were many children of doctors and dentists. I was excluded from the majority of work groups and some colleagues hid my belongings. I was discouraged. There were blacks that were ashamed of admitting they were cotistas. They could be going hungry, but they passed themselves off as daddy’s little babies. I didn’t have any way of doing this. My mother is a nurse’s aide who retired due to disability. My father went to the fifth grade in elementary school. He has already been a carpenter, a butcher and now he is dependent upon health insurance because of heart problems. After finishing high school, I waited four years to take the vestibular because I needed to work to help the family. I started working at 15. I was a nanny, took care of bedridden people and I was a secretary. As my dream was to go to college, I went to work only part-time and took the vestibular through the quota system. If it wasn’t for that, I would not have had the conditions to pay for school. I am in the third year of the university’s odontology course and soon I will graduate. I am victorious.”

But what explains the efficient performance of cotista students? “Students of the inclusion model are survivors, those who have always been at the top of their class,” says Maurício Kleinke, executive coordinator of the vestibular at Unicamp. Kleinke makes an interesting analysis of the phenomenon. “They want, above all, to show to others that they are capable and therefore try harder.” According to the Unicamp professor, the most favored know that if anything goes wrong at the university, they can simply leave the course and go back to the safe arms and insurance of their parents. For blacks and the poor it’s different. “They don’t suffer from existential crisis that affects many college students and that makes them give up the course to try something else.” A lawyer who joined PUC (Pontifícia Universidade Católic) in Rio through a quota system, Renato Ferreira dos Santos agrees with this theory. “We, blacks, cannot be lazy in college,” he says. Also, professor of psychology at Uerj, Ricardo Vieiralves de Castro goes further. “There is a differentiated effort by the cotista student, that grabs this opportunity as a chance at life,” says the professor. “He makes a personal effort to overcome.” This effort, says the expert, is detectable in each student period. “The cotista starts college with a median performance, but then afterward becomes equal with the non-cotista and eventually surpasses him in many cases.”

The cotista does not give up. If the cotista gives up, he or she must go back and face the lack of opportunities that life offered. Therefore, the dropout rates of students in inclusion programs are low, and in several universities, even lower than those of non-cotistas. For stubborn critics, who felt that quotas would not have a positive effect, what is observed is the greater inclusion of blacks in the labor market. “We did an evaluation with 500 cotistas and found that 91% of them are employed in various careers, even those that are more difficult to employ,” says Ricardo Vieiralves de Castro. With degree in hand, blacks reach positions of better pay, which in turn means a chance of transformation for their social group. It’s not difficult to imagine how the children of cotistas will have a more comfortable life – with more opportunities – than their parents ever had.

Dioleno Tavares da Costa: From the worst high school to a quality institution
Dioleno Tavares da Costa: From the worst high school to a quality institution

Dioleno Tavares da Costa, 21, Physical Education student at the University of Brasília (UnB)

“My father is a bricklayer and mother is a housewife. In other words, they would not have any way for to pay for a private college. I studied in one of the worst high schools of Brasília. When I was in the last year of high school, my school came in last place on the Enem (2). I studied a lot for the vestibular. There were only ten places for Physical Education through the system of quotas and the cut off score was 30. I got a 90 on the vestibular. With this score, I would have passed in the normal vestibular that has 60 as the cut off score. The older students say that coming across a black person in the halls of UnB was the most difficult thing to see. If it wasn’t for the quota system, this reality would not have changed. We that were always discriminated against, now have the opportunity to show capacity. I have been doing an internship since the second year of the course that I should finish this year. I receive R$600 (US$275) for four hours of work and some extra as a personal trainer. I started to work after I entered UnB and now I have managed to plan trips outside of Brasília. At the end of last year, I bought a brand new car with my money.”

As much as critics shout against the quota system, the harsh reality is that it has generated a lot of positive effects. Today, blacks are more present in the university environment. 15 years ago, only 2% had completed higher education. Today, the index has tripled to 6%. In other words, until the other day, the classrooms of Brazilian universities reminded one more of Sweden than Brazil itself. Despite the progress, the percentage is ridiculous. After all, nearly half of Brazilians are black or brown. In the United States, the percentage of people of African descent corresponds exactly to its participation in universities: 13%. Whoever says there is no racism in Brazil is deceived or says this in bad faith. In the United States, blacks find themselves occupying the same space of whites – in malls, in cool restaurants, at the airport, on television, in leadership positions. In Brazil, the white middle class rarely co-exists with people of a different skin color from their own and perhaps that explains why many people refute racial quota programs. Basically, what many whites the fear is that blacks will take their place or that of their children at the university. There is no other word for it except racism.

With the recent approval by the Senate, of the project that regulates the quota system in the federal universities (which predicts that by 2016, 25% of total vacancies will be destined to black students), the next generation will see a deeper transformation. Blacks will finally have ideal conditions to cancel the impediments that 205 years ago, since the founding of the first Brazilian college, kept them away from higher education. As much as critics have fear of this change, it is fair to make the proper reparation. “There are many years of slavery for a few years of quotas,” says the pedagogue Jorge Alberto Saboya, who did his doctoral thesis on the system of inclusion in higher education. Above all, they are many years of prejudice. How does one eliminate them? “You don’t fight racism with words,” says sociologist Muniz Sodré, a researcher at UFRJ. “What fights racism is the proximity between the differences.” Is it not the similarity between the differences which ultimately promotes the Brazilian quota system?

Source:  Istoé


1. The Baixada Fluminense is a region of the State of Rio de Janeiro, eastern Brazil. It is located on Guanabara Bay, between the City of Rio de Janeiro to the south, and the Serra dos Órgãos range of hills to the north. Source

2. Enem, the Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio or High School National Exam is a non-mandatory Brazilian national exam, which evaluates high school students in Brazil. The test is used as a standard university entrance qualification test. ENEM is the most important exam of its kind in Brazil, with more than 4.5 million test takers in 1,698 different cities. Source

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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