Note from BW of Brazil: The debate over the issue of affirmative action and the quota system in Brazil has raged on now for more than a decade. The reason for this latest controversy is actually not new as people have long debated how one defines “negro” or black in a country with such an extensive history of miscegenation, or racial mixing, as has happened for 500 years in Brazil. The story was featured here at BW of Brazil a few days ago and this represents a follow up report. As you read this report, bear in mind that according to a 2005 study, 99% of Brazilian diplomats and college professors are white, which is one of the reasons why the applicant’s appearance is important to this case. Please read below and BW of Brazil will return with remarks at the end of the piece.
• Former Minister for Racial Equality, Edson Santos wants a family history of the quota applicant who qualified for 2nd phase of the Instituto Rio Branco
• If falsehood is detected in the self-declaration, parliamentary will request rejection of approval
by Leonardo Vieira
Deputy (or Congressman) Edson Santos (PT of Rio Janeiro) said he will seek formal clarification from the Ministry of Exterior Relations on the case of the white-skinned, green-eyed candidate approved through racial quotas in the first stage of the competition for the Instituto Rio Branco, revealed Globo last week. The Former Minister of Racial Equality in the Lula government Santos wants the Foreign Ministry to provide proof that Mathias de Souza Lima Abramovic is in fact of African descent from his family history. If falsehood is detected in his self-declaration, the deputy said that he would levy the rejection of the application, as the Foreign Ministry has already said it would maintain the approval.
“The Foreign Ministry has to collect the proof of his afrodescendência (African ancestry). Because if it’s false, we are admitting a diplomat who lied from the beginning and who will represent us abroad”, opines Santos.
The deputy said he would schedule a meeting next week with the Minister of Exterior Relations, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, to discuss the issue. For the meeting, Edson Santos hopes to enlist colleagues of Congress favorable to the cause of the Movimento Negro (Black Movement). The deputy wants the board of the Concurso de Admissão à Carreira Diplomática (CACD or Admission Competition for Diplomatic Career) to perfect criteria notices of assessments for the next few years, instituting a verification after the self-declaration of the candidate.
To compete within the racial quotas in CACD, it’s enough that the candidate is him/herself declared African descendant, although the announcement did not specify exactly the criteria for such. Nor are there any verification mechanisms of self-declaration and possible punishments. The benefit is valid only for the first phase of the selection process where only the 120 highest scores will move on to the next step. Of these vacancies, ten are destined to African descendants under the quota system and 10 for disabled candidates.
According to Edson Santos, the ideal model is then applied by the University of Brasilia (UnB), where the candidate who self-declares as afrodescendente undergoes an interview with members of the vestibular (entrance exam) examining board.
“The self-declaration is an achievement of the Movimento Negro. Now, we also have to have a ridiculous sense of the history of having to seek a black relative black to 1500, at the time of the discovery (of Brazil). The appearance and color of the skin is what must prevail,” argued the deputy.
Candidate did not use quotas in 2011
Afrodescendente or not, Mathias Abramovic bears the standard income of the upper middle class. Having attended primary education at Colégio Santo Agostinho, one of the more expensive of Rio de Janeiro, the aspiring diplomat joined the Faculty of Medicine at Uerj (Univesidade Estadual de Rio de Janeiro/State University of Rio de Janeiro) in 1996, from where he left as an ophthalmologist. Since 2010, he has studied to enter the Instituto Rio Branco. His grades always ranked at the top of the internal ranking simulated from a preparatory course in Rio.
Despite being among the ten afrodescendentes classified by quotas that will take the second stage test of the CACD on Sunday (15), Abramovic didn’t consider himself part of the afro community when accepted participation in the competition in 2011. That year, the first in which the Foreign Ministry used the quota policy in its competition, the candidate preferred to compete for a place in Rio Branco in extensive competition, failing in the fourth stage.
In 2012, Abramovic declared that he was of African descent in the selection process, but failed in the first stage. In the CACD of 2013, he again signed up as a candidate through the quota system, being approved in the first round with a score 47.5, almost two points below the last score classified for the second stage (49.25) in extensive competition.
Mathias’ classmates said he issued opinions contrary to racial quotas at the Foreign Ministry. Some of them go further and further confirm that the candidate has even suggested that he would inscribe himself as African descendant exactly because of his adverse position on affirmative action policies. Globo contacted Mathias but he declined to give interviews alleging that the moment is for concentration on studies of the second phase.
For CACD 2013 6,490 people enrolled who will compete in one of the 30 places available in the Rio Branco Institute. It consists of four phases, the selection process of collecting knowledge of History of Brazil and the world, Portuguese, Notions of Economics, Notions of Domestic and International Law, International Politics, Geography, English, French and Spanish.
Preparing those who aspire for diplomatic career for over 25 years, the head of the Department of International Relations of Uerj, William Gonçalves says that the policy of racial quotas can’t be implemented at the Foreign Ministry in the same way it is applied in the vestibulars of institutions of higher learning.
According to him, the MRE, in fact, is still overwhelmingly comprised of servers of white skin, although since 2002 the ministry has conceded scholarships so that afrodescendentes can compete on equal footing with the other candidates. However, Gonçalves qualifies as “delicate” the intention of reducing inequality by a racial quota policy:
“It is complicated to reconcile this urge to represent internationally the full Brazilian ethnical spectrum with meritocracy criteria, after all, we are talking about our future representatives abroad. They say the Foreign Ministry does not represent Brazilian society. It may not represent it ethnically, but it represents it in socio-economic terms of standard of knowledge and technical quality, and this is something that we cannot give up,” said the academic.
Gonçalves, however, is keen to point out the further opening of the Foreign Ministry to candidates from different social classes. He points out that in 1986, when he began to prepare aspiring diplomats, the MRE replaced the individual interviews, that often times focused on personal themes of the candidates, for oral examinations on international politics, and even these were subsequently abolished.
Note from BW of Brazil: There are a few things that immediately come to find when reading the update over this controversy. 1) Although it is clear that racial discrimination does exist, this does not mean that the concept of “race” is always clear and science has shown “race” to be a scientific fallacy for many years. 2) In some ways, this controversy shouldn’t even exist. For many years the Brazilian system of “race” has always been positioned as different from that of a country like the United States. In the US, one can be defined as black, even having blond hair and blue eyes if it is known that they have “one drop” of African blood or traceable/known African ancestry. In Brazil, it is the appearance that counts. In other words, if one “looks” white, that person is white. With this in mind, considering this man’s appearance, why did Deputy Edson Santos even mention the idea of family history and having to find a black ancestor over the course of 500 years? In racist societies, it is the physical appearance that makes someone subject to racial discrimination, regardless of their DNA profile. If it is proven that Abramovic has 5-10% African DNA, does this mean he should be eligible to take advantage of racial quotas? Many white Brazilians will admit to having at least a little African blood, or a “foot in the kitchen” as the saying goes, but still identify themselves as white.
And 3) Another debate that has raged on regarding the question of “race” in Brazil is the issue of who is “negro”. In this debate, Afro-Brazilian militants of the Movimento Negro argue that Brazil’s “pretos (black)” and “pardos (browns)” are representative of the Afro-Brazilian population based on numerous studies that show that socioeconomically these two groups are treated the same by the power structure. Others argue that “pretos” and “pardos” are completely different groups. Still others argue that non-whites should be grouped as “negros” and “afrodescendentes” as the acceptance of the term “negro” is essentially a political position that many “pardos” do not align themselves with while they cannot deny the biologically related term “afrodescendente” or African descendant.
The Abramovic case shows why the term “afrodescendente” doesn’t necessarily resolve the debate. As this case shows, nearly any Brazilian of any phenotype can proclaim themselves to be of African descent, but does this mean that a European-looking African descendant will experience discrimination based on how he/she looks? In Brazil, where people are encouraged to identify themselves as white if they don’t have any “overt” physical features that denote African ancestry, I would say no. And, as such, Abramovic would most likely not encounter any type of discrimination based on what he looks like. With that said, why should he be allowed to take advantage of program meant to benefit those who would face such discrimination?