At Brazil’s top university, black militants invade a class and initiate a debate on quotas and racism

Militants interrupt class at USP to initiate a debate on racism and affirmative action
Militants interrupt class at USP to initiate a debate on racism and affirmative action

Note from BW of Brazil: So the debate rages on! Nowadays it’s impossible to get an understanding of how people see race, class and privilege without tackling the issue of affirmative actions quotas for non-whites in Brazil. Initiated in the first few years of this century, the debate has brought to the forefront how divided Brazilians are when it comes to addressing centuries of oppression and exclusion of the black population from so many areas of Brazilian society. As any honest person could tell you, it is virtually impossible to climb the ladder of social status without a college education on one’s resume. And as numerous studies over the past decade have pointed out, those who most likely attain the education are overwhelmingly Brazilians who identify themselves as brancos, or white people. 

Signs demonstrate how the issue of quotas has divided the country. in the past decade - Top sign: "Against racist quotas" Bottom sign: "USP will get blacker! Quotas now!"
Signs demonstrate how the issue of quotas has divided the country. in the past decade –
Top sign: “Against racist quotas”
Bottom sign: “USP will get blacker! Quotas now!”

As the public education system in Brazil is considered to be of such low quality, typically, to ensure the success of their children, Brazilians usually pay lots of money to send their children to prestigious, but very expensive private elementary and high schools to prepare them to pass the highly competitive college entrance exam, the vestibular. With such preparation, these students usually have a better chance of passing this test and entering the country’s top federal universities (that are free) while those who go through the public school system (usually black and/or poor) are not as prepared for the vestibular and often end up having to pay for expensive private colleges and universities. But surely someone would ask, is it really true that the Brazilian public school system is really that bad? Most Brazilians know this and a 2013 article from Exame magazine confirmed the situation. This is how the magazine broke it down:

“The World Economic Forum is one more international institution to point out what Brazilian authorities are already aware of: when it comes to education, Brazil is closer to the worse examples in the world than the best.  In its Human Capital Report, the WEF ranked the country as 88th out of a total 122 countries when it comes to education. This puts us closer to Burkina Faso (121st) and Yemen (122nd) than to Finland (1st) and Canada (2nd), leaders of this index.  If one were looking at the list upside down, it could be said that the country has the 35th worst performance in education in the world.”

Another factor to consider is that while the children of the elites are often able to spend their time only studying, the poorer students usually don’t have this benefit as many have to split their time between studying and working. With these factors in mind one could argue that it is quite naive for people to believe that “we are all equal” and that “one need only study” and they’ll manage the go to the best schools and get the best jobs. And it is this social class that most vehemently rejects the quota system. And we see this attitude very clearly in the debate that was caught on video. The full video (in Portuguese) can be seen here.

“Coxinhas” (privileged elite kids) rise up against black students at the Faculty of Economics at USP

Courtesy of USP Livre and O Globo

Group invades Administration class at USP to debate racial quotas in universities
Group invades Administration class at USP to debate racial quotas in universities

A video posted on the Internet in which black students at USP who were passing into classrooms at the Faculty of Economics and Administration to invite a discussion of quotas in university were interrupted by the teacher and some students because the class had to continue even made it to the newsroom of the Jornal da USP Livre (Journal of Free USP)!

Heated debate inside an USP classroom
Heated debate inside an USP classroom

In the video, which lasts 16 min, black students are “invited” to leave by the professor who says that there is no time to discuss “that” and were impeded from speaking by “coxinha” (1) students who were in class. Following the declaration, the teacher is asked if her discipline is more important than the racial question and from there the class begins the debate.

Interestingly, black students were not intimidated and started a raging debate that made it clear how latent racism is at USP. One of the “coxinhas” that rebelled wanting black students to withdraw said “I WANT TO HAVE CLASS! THIS IS THE TIME!,” clearly expressed what the right-leaning USP student thinks about the black question at college.

One of the “pearls” dropped by one of the “coxinhas” was, “STUDY AND ENTER THE UNIVERSITY! NO ONE IS PREVENTING (YOU)! It’s EASY!.” When asked by a black student in which high school the “coxinha” had studied, he revealed that he studied, “with great pride”, at Colégio Vértice (Vértice High School). We would further say, with great pride and a lot of money. One of the women of the group responded with, “I want to see if it’s easy for you when you are female and black in the periphery.”

“Blessed Coxinha”

The fact that “our coxinha” went to high school at Colégio Vértice deserves special attention considering his statement that it’s easy to get into USP simply by studying. This colégio (high school), traditional of São Paulo, has nearly 40 years of existence and has primary and secondary education offering full-time studies. It has two locations in São Paulo, in upper crust areas. According to figures released by Infomoney magazine in a report from November 2013, the high school is nothing less than what possesses the MOST EXPENSIVE MONTHLY TUITIONS IN THE TOP TEN of the “best” high schools of São Paulo. More expensive than other also renowned high schools such as Bandeirantes, ETAPA and Móbile that have a monthly “modest” monthly tuition of R$2,500.00 on average (see complete list here). To “proudly” at Vértice, the “coxinha” had to shell out no less than R$ 3,398.00, monthly, the amount disclosed in the report (2). This is how it’s easy to enter USP. We can say that this is a “coxinha blessed” by “God.”

Returning to the debate

Many Brazilians who are against quotas label the actions of those who support them as "playing the victim"
Many Brazilians who are against quotas label the actions of those who support them as “playing the victim”

For 16 minutes the students debate racism. The fight is not over until another student of the class, who is black, says the theme is relevant and criticizes the fact that in the last class the teacher had released the class two hours the class ended without any complaint.

“I also always studied in a private school. I studied in a private school where 170 students of one class were white, I was the only black. It’s a question that for you really makes no difference, but to me it always hurt. It’s very easy for you to talk about something that you have not experienced and I lived it my whole life. You’re complaining about the class, the last class the teacher let us go two hours earlier, today the guy is taking away 30 minutes,” said the student, who was applauded by the crowd.

This debate has brought out and evidenced how the discussion, even being timid, of racial quotas in USP bother racist whites of the right at the university that has a quota of less than 10% for black students in their student cadres; an aberration in dealing with the case of Brazil where the black population is over 50%.

"I only want to have class!" Student that recorded the video
“I only want to have class!” Student that recorded the video and made a statement at the end of the video

Another fact that stands out, especially with regard to the political climate in Brazil with the right trying to strike down the PT government, is how tempers are most exalted, especially the “coxinhas” who feel more comfortable expressing latent right-wing politics, in this case racism.

At the end of the video, the student who recorded the confusion criticized the group’s attitude and says that people cannot interfere in the class to talk about “any (type of) shit”, adding that the quota policy will disqualify the teaching of the institution.

“The cause may be valid, it may be the way she wants it, only it can’t be like this. This isn’t how things work, I don’t come to your class interrupting to talk any (type of) shit, not that this is shit. But you can’t come, interrupting everything because you think this is important. USP already has quotas, this will end up lowering the quality of teaching (3) – and finally – me and my brother (are) here strengthening the movement. Down with Dilma.”

“I just want to have class”

By Henrique Braga

In recent days, much discussion has been generated by a video recorded by an Administration student at the University of São Paulo (USP). In it, a group of black students took a few minutes of class to, in general, address the structural racism of the University of São Paulo, but they are interrupted by the professor and also some students who, in their words, “want to have class.” The episode raises a number of issues and, among them all, I want to emphasize here a student profile that the best universities in the country have selected in their vestibular (entrance exam) and fulfilling its social function, follow forming in their academic areas: the maniac of horas-bunda (literally “ass hours” or time used to simply sit on one’s ass).

Another black student weighed in on the issue
Another black student weighed in on the issue

The term “horas-bundas”, strangely enough, I learned from an excellent professor from the Faculty of Letters at USP itself. He, a full-time professor in three São Paulo state universities, insisted on the need for us not to see the classroom as an end, but as one of learning spaces. He said that many students acted as if the simple act of sitting in a classroom was enough to be good students and, to make fun of that attitude, he was affectionately titled it as an accumulation of “horas-bundas.”

In the infamous video, a young adult university student, used the argument of “I want to have class” to silence the protest of the young black men and women. Asked to reflect on the reality that surrounded him, he limited himself to saying that the class of microeconomics was not suitable for that kind of debate. However, it is noteworthy that before he appears, the reaction of the teacher herself certainly encouraged him, asking young people to remove themselves on behalf of the sacrosanct class, that couldn’t stop.

Without wanting to reduce this reflection to a judgment on the fellow professor, I suggest that we think beyond: the University of São Paulo would not be a carefully shaped space that social issues in order that social issues not ever intervene in technicalities process of the reproduction of knowledge? How otherwise would a professor and student feel so comfortable to deny a few minutes to those who, in search for support and combating exclusion, stepped into that space? In fact, if USP – the leading university from one of the world’s most unequal countries – takes seriously their relationship with the whole society and not just the elites, wouldn’t the issue of access to higher education be a priority, contrary to what is seen in the video?

Without knowing it, the young man who recorded the clash between the groups offered us a synthesis of a dangerous cocktail: a still elitist institution, in the midst of a country that has struggled to combat inequalities that plague it, whose entrance system favors students molded in the culture of “sitting and studying”, of the passivity of knowledge ready, worshiped in the “best schools in the country” – or at least of those that are most approved in the most competed entrance exams.

A fitting photo illustrates the issue: Water fountains for black and whites in era of legal segregation in the United States
A fitting photo illustrates the issue: Water fountains for black and whites in era of legal segregation in the United States

It’s no exaggeration, therefore, to conclude that the lack of criticality in the academic space seems to start with vestibulars favoring a successful training in teaching the Krebs Cycle, of deoxyribonucleic acids and Mesopotamian wars, but deficient for training critical citizens able to solve conflicts of life in society in a civilized manner. Instead of citizenship, the indispensable “horas-bundas”. And we continue on without questioning the power and structures of exclusion, without reflecting on our social problems (yes that should be studied in economics department) and without even defining what the real role of schools in the Brazilian reality is. The “Motherland Educator” go ahead, reduced to a cheesy slogan unable to account for a chaotic and bleak reality in which the microeconomics class can never be interrupted by real life, which will follow knocking at the door. Becoming stronger.

Note from BW of Brazil: So how do you feel about the incident? Did these black students have every right to bring up this important topic during a university class or should they have organized an official open debate during non-class hours? Here’s where I stand. Too many people are so accustomed to a daily routine and as such are often uninformed or badly informed about a given topic, especially if it doesn’t affect them personally. As one student pointed out, it’s not uncommon for the professor to release the class early and if this is case why can’t important topics be debated? Things don’t change until people are willing to “rock the boat” and considering the vast inequalities that are so endemic in Brazilian society, sometimes radical actions will be necessary. Let the debate continue!

Source: O DiaÚltimo SegundoImago História, O Globo, USP Livre, Brasil Post, Exame, Jornal da Cidade


1. In the literal sense, a coxinha is fried chicken with cheese snack common throughout Brazil. In Portuguese, coxa means thigh and as such, the diminutive of coxinha means “little thigh”. The snack is called coxinha because its shape is somewhat similar to a drumstick piece of chicken. In São Paulo “coxinha” is a sort of insult that describes a rich boy, a bourgeois teenager, who wears using designer clothing (Hollister, Abercrombie, Aeropostale …), goes to famous clubs and frequents  Starbucks.

2. To get a better perspective of how expensive these top schools are, consider the salaries of the average Brazilian worker. Salaries in Brazil are broken down according to monthly minimum salaries. In 2015, the minimum salary a worker can earn per month is R$788. On average, white males earn R$3,400 per month while white women earn R$2,500. The average black male earns R$1,800 per month while the average black female earns R$1,400. As such, only elites can afford to pay the tuition of their children to study in these prestigious institutions. Considering Brazil’s huge social inequalities, it should come as no surprise that only about 1% of all Brazilians earn 20 minimum salaries or R$15,760 per month while only 3% earn 10 minimum salaries or R$7,880. On the other side of the salary spectrum, 32.7% of all Brazilians earn only one minimum salary per month. Among the higher salaries, Afro-Brazilians only make up one-fifth of those workers who earn 10 minimum salaries and this number while at the 20 minimum salary mark, 82.7% are white. These numbers really show the differences of race among Brazilian elites as well as the predominant color of people who attend the best schools.

3. An old argument that continues to be debunked by the success of black affirmative action students in the universities. See here for example.

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


  1. If you want to defeat racism, you have to acknowledge it and constantly fight it. Whites in Brazil have created a white supremacist hierarchy that only favors them. If black Brazilians want equality, they are going to have to fight for it! Whites are not going to give them equality willingly!

  2. I have no problem with the way the Black students handled their need to address racism at the University. My only suggestion is for them to get organized so that affirmative action is not repealed in Brazil (like it pretty much is in the US).

  3. Social change comes only when the oppressed DEMAND IT, ORGANIZE and FIGHT FOR IT ON EVERY LEVEL! These students are right to criticize the lack of inclusion of students of color in public universities–universities supported by public taxes. Brazilian citizens of color, and poor white Brazilians, support these universities and have every right to see the universities reflect the ethnic variety and the socioeconomic classes of the entire Brazilian population. Dilma Rousseff
    continued the pioneering work of Lula da Silva in the integration of Brazilian public universities. All students should have access to public universities and Brazil should allocate much more funding to improve public education from pre-school through the tertiary levels.

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