Note from BBT: The question of access to education is one that I like to keep up with from time to time because it is one of the main reasons for the vast socio-economic inequalities that dominate Brazilian society. In past articles, the differences and importance of private and public schools in Brazil, whether higher education, or elementary and high school that prepare students for college, give us a clue as why such vast inequalities are so slow to be eradicated.
What we see is that, generally, middle class parents spend money to send their children to the best elementary and high schools in order that they are prepared to take the important vestibular, or college entrance exam, so that they can then have the best chances of being accepted at the public/federal colleges and universities, which are free.
Parents of non-white students are more likely not to have the resources to send their children to the top private schools which in turn leads to black/brown children having difficulty entering the finest federal universities. I’ve known cases in which high school students take the college entrance exam again and again hoping to score high enough to be accepted into a federal university.
If they don’t attain such a score, some students will opt to try to enter a less prestigious major because courses such as medicine, law, etc. require higher entrance exams scores. Or they may opt to enter a private university, in which case, they must pay a high monthly tuition. The cycle leads to a struggle. Some of these students will depend on their parents for financial support, which often puts a strain on poorer families or they take on odd jobs, which makes college life more challenging.
There are perhaps tens of thousands of stories of students from poor backgrounds who have to work several hours per week just to be able to afford the long bus rides to college campuses and the books required for classes. The life of a college student is yet another example of the advantages that middle class families have over poorer families and the reason why so many college campuses still appear to be areas reserved for white Brazilians.
For the solidly middle-class student, often times, their parents are able to pay for everything, which allows the student to just devote his/her time to his or her studies. That student, often times, can lead a very casual life. Still hang out with friends, go to the parties/clubs and still maintain an active social life.
The stories I’ve been told and that I’ve read by black students of more humble origins are usually the exact opposite, which is why it is such cause for celebration when they finally manage to graduate. This takes on still more meaning when we understand that a large percentage of students who enter college don’t end making it to graduation as the struggle is sometimes overbearing, forcing them to drop out for a myriad of reasons.
Against this backdrop, now consider what it means when the top private schools in Brazil are also mostly white. With this, we can understand why the affirmative action program was such a conquest for black and poor students across Brazil.
Blacks make up less than 10% of students in the top 20 private schools in Brazil
By Waleska Borges
Raised only by his mother, José Wallison Souza do Nascimento, 19, bears many sorrows, but he also has so many purposes. To get them off the ground, the resident of Complexo da Maré, in north zone Rio, got a scholarship to study at a traditional and renowned school in Rio. With the elite education, he entered a medical school.
His story, however, is an exception among preto e pardo, meaning black and brown, students in the country. Less than 10% of all students in the 20 best private schools in Brazil are black or brown, points out a survey by the Gemaa (Group for Multidisciplinary Studies of Affirmative Action) from Uerj (University of the State of Rio de Janeiro) based on the 2020 School Census.
The survey showing racial inequality among the country’s private education elite found institutions best placed in the Enem 2019, located in the states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, Ceará, Piauí and Paraná.
”We have there a large part of the Brazilian elite graduating in almost entirely white spaces, which these high-performance schools are located.” – Luiz Augusto Campos, professor at the Institute for Social and Political Studies at Uerj and coordinator of research at Gemaa
In the capital of Rio de Janeiro, there are ten elite educational schools listed. Among them are the two units of Colégio Santo Agostinho, in the neighborhoods of Leblon and Barra da Tijuca, both with a low level of non-declaration of color (30% and 0%, respectively).
Both, however, have a low percentage of blacks and browns, of 1% and 2%, in the same order. The tuition for the third year of high school at school is BRL 4,322.69.
The situation is similar at Escola Eleva (1% black) and Colégio São Bento (3%), with monthly fees of BRL 5,486.00 and BRL 4,393.77, respectively.
A similar reality occurs in the capital of São Paulo, where none of the ten schools with the best performance in Enem 2019 registered more than 20% of preto or pardo students. Most institutions ranged between 1% and 7%. Colégio Móbile, with a monthly fee for the last year of high school of BRL 4,675.00, registered 1% of self-declared blacks and browns. This is the same index of Colégio Vértice (unit II), with a monthly fee of BRL 5,844.80.
“With the exception of a public one, they are very expensive schools. In addition, they are very selective. They apply hard entrance exams to select students with the potential to get high marks in university tests. This generates a cumulative process of exclusion by class, which ends up becoming a racial exclusion,” says Campos.
For him, the affirmative actions implemented by many of the private schools to guarantee access for black and poor people are insignificant and cosmetic. He cites, for example, African history classes or a policy to empower institutions to argue that they are inclusive. “It’s all with no effect, ‘para inglês ver‘ (‘for the English to see’, meaning ‘window dressing’), as they say.” The professor also says that these schools are as white as those in South Africa during the apartheid period.
”Schools in countries that we consider more racist than Brazil, such as the United States and South Africa, are much less white than the private schools here. Segregation in these two countries is prohibited, but in Brazil, it runs wild, even if we don’t have a law that mandates segregation” – Luiz Augusto Campos
Once ashamed of his color, today he is studying medicine
For black students, being an exception is not easy. During high school at Colégio São Bento, in Rio, Nascimento says he left the classroom to cry in the bathroom. Because he didn’t see himself in anything he studied, he was ashamed of his color and origin. He remembers two experiences that hurt him.
“A teacher made a comment about my skin tone. Everyone started laughing around me. Initially, I didn’t understand. Afterwards, I felt extremely violated. A classmate also made a racist and prejudiced comment based on my absent father and because I am black,” he says.
An NGO paid his monthly fee and paid for travel and food aid: “Other than that, my mother and I lived on a minimum wage”.
After completing his studies at São Bento in 2019, the young man started to study medicine at Uerj the following year. “Now I feel much more represented. There are more than 20 blacks in my class.”
‘Your mother was a slave’
Political scientist and researcher Isadora Lopes Harvey, 29, was a student at a traditional private school in the south of Rio.
She was walking to school, close to her home, a family heirloom. A sponsor helped pay the tuition for the young woman, the daughter of a teacher and the strategy and public policy consultant, Giovanni Harvey, 57, who was also a student at a prestigious high school in Rio.
Isadora remembers that, in addition to her, there was another black student, the scholarship winner son of a popcorn maker who worked near the school.
“Today, my sister, Maria Gabriela, 12, is a student at Escola Eleva. The reality is different. Besides her, there are three other blacks among the students who study with her,” she says.
In elite schools, exclusion occurs even before students have reached high school. A resident of Barra da Tijuca, west of Rio, journalist Flávia Ribeiro, 47, had to intervene when her six-year-old son faced a racist episode in Santo Agostinho. At the time, the son reported that a schoolmate told him: “get out of here, your mother was a slave”.
She went to the school board, the Guardianship Council and the child’s parents to talk. Today, the 12-year-old boy is still studying at the institution, where he is in the sixth grade of the school.
“My husband and I decided to have only one son to give the best to him, to be able to pay the monthly tuition. After this episode, we prepared our son for situations that he may face,” she says.
Reflection in universities
For Campos, racial exclusion in high school is reflected in universities. Although higher education has affirmative racial and socioeconomic actions, the main public is still students from private schools.
According to an IBGE study, the percentage of blacks and browns aged 18 to 24 years at the university increased from 50.5% to 55.6% between 2016 and 2018. Even so, the survey Social Inequalities by Color or Race in Brazil shows that this level was far from the 78.8% of white students in the same age group attending higher education.
“Despite racial quotas at universities, whites are still the majority, especially in more competitive courses,” says Campos.
Escola Eleva reported that, with only five years of existence, it has a higher average (8%) of self-declared black and brown students than indicated in the study. “The institution establishes diversity as one of its priorities.”
Also, according to the institution, anti-racist education is integrated with the pedagogical proposal and present in the training of the teachers.
Escola Eleva also said it would offer 81 scholarships, in partnership with Instituto Janelas Abertas, a non-profit for students from low-income families in the Rio and Brasília units.
The Colégio de São Bento informed that it is an institution “that looks after human respect, in which there is no racial segregation.”
Also in a note, Móbile says it is “aware of the unequal educational opportunities and [that] it has diversity as its internal policy”. The institution informs that it offers scholarships in partnership with social institutions and include in its curriculum projects that raise students’ awareness of cultural multiplicity.
The school also reports plans to create a fund to increase the offer of scholarships and which maintains social initiatives with students from public schools.
Until the publication of this report, Colégio Vértice and Colégio Santo Agostinho didn’t comment.
Sought for comment, the National Federation of Private Schools reported that it defends, supports and encourages affirmative action in the 40 thousand private Brazilian educational institutions that it represents. Together, they serve 15 million students, of which 9 million are in basic education.