The battle over Affirmative Action in Brazil

Afro Brazilians
Cotas (Quotas)*

For the past decade, the implementation of a quota system to help more of Brazil’s non-whites get into  public federal universities has been one of the most divisive issues in the history of the country. Many of the social inequalities found in Brazilian society can be traced back to era of slavery that was officially abolished in 1888 with Brazil being the last country in the Western hemisphere to do so. In order to get a full comprehension of why many support the system of quotas, one need only look at some statistics.

  1. In 2007, the percentage of whites in the country with a college degree was 13.4% while for non-whites, this percentage was 4%.
  2. In 2007, the percentage of white students with 21 years of age that were college students was 24.2% while it was 8.4% for non-whites.
  3. In 2004, 22.7% of whites with 18 years of age completed high school while this figure was 13.3% for non-whites.
  4. In 2005, it was estimated that only 1% of college professors were black.
  5. Among 10% poorest families in Brazil, 25.4% are white, while 73.7% are non-white
  6. Among the 1% richest families, 82.7% are white, while 15% are non-white
  7. 31.3% of whites have access to health care plans compared to 15.2% of non-whites.
  8. The salary of white Brazilians is nearly double the salary of black and brown Brazilians. The monthly income of white Brazilians is R$1,538 (worth $769 in American dollars) compared to the R$834 (US$417) for non-whites.

Another important statistic to consider when discussing the debate about race-based quotas in Brazil in the Brazilian school system. According to a study released earlier this year, Brazil’s education system was the third most improved in the world in past 15 years. But in spite of these improvements, the Brazilian school system still ranks only 53rd in the world in reading and 57th in the world in Mathematics. As middle-class status in Brazil is so dependent upon education, parents scramble to assure that their children attain the best education possible. For this reason, parents who have the financial means send their children to private schools during primary and high school in order to prepare their children for the best universities which, in general, are federally supported and public.

Sign: Higher education: The right of all and not only of the minority

Black students only make up 33% of the student population in Brazil’s private schools and this percentage drops to only 30% in high school. Recent data also showed that white students in private schools score on average 21% higher on standardized tests than black students from the public school network. Considering these figures we can begin to understand how social inequalities in Brazil are so unequal in terms of race. Due to these inequalities, in the late 1980s, activists such as Abdias do Nascimento and social scientist Florestan Fernandes began to suggest that Affirmative Action policies would be one way to even up some of the country’s social inequalities.

In 2004, after five years of debates, the Universidade de Brasília became the first federal university in Brazil to implement the system of quotas. In the first subsequent entrance exam, the quota system was responsible 18.6% of the candidates. 20% of the total vacancies were to be given to beneficiaries in every course offered in the university. As of April of this year, 25 of the country’s 59 federal universities offered some sort of racial quota system for the black, brown and Indian population.

Flyer promoting a pro-quotas rally and the end the genocide of Brazil’s black population

As the issue of quotas based on race or color are so controversial, exactly what are some of the main ?arguments of those who are against Affirmative Action policies?

Below are just a few of main arguments.

1. It would lower the quality of education in the country because it allows students who receive lower scores on the vestibular test (college entrance exam) to enter universities.

2. It is a form of reverse discrimination that goes against Martin Luther King’s ideal of judging one not by the color of skin but by content of character

3. A child of a rich black family should not qualify for quotas

4. Quotas will racialize a Brazil that sees itself as one people

5. Due to centuries of racial mixing, it is not possible to determine who is black.

So that readers can get a clear understanding of some of twists and turns involved in the Brazilian way of implementing quotas, let’s take a look at a few examples that consider a few of the above arguments.

In 2003, of the 1,969 black students that were approved in the entrance exam test, 83% entered the State University of Rio de Janeiro through the quota system. One of them was the Afro-Brazilian actress Juliana Alves, who, with a score of 54 points was approved while a white student, Nino Donato Oliv, who scored 81 points, was denied. In Oliv’s view, the quota system “doesn’t resolve nothing. It only gives privilege to some persons in detriment of the right of other. The law goes against the Constitution.”

Another controversial facet of the quota system was that students who wanted to enter a university under the quota system had to deny themselves as either black or brown. Besides, they would also need to submit a photo to be judged as to whether they were really black or brown or in fact a dishonest white student trying to “pass”. In 2007, identical twins Alan and Alex Teixeira da Cunha both attempted to enter the University of Brasília under the quota system. The twins were the children of an interracial marriage, their father black and their mother white. Alan, who wanted to study Physical Education, was judged to be black and approved, while his identical twin brother Alex, who wanted to study Nutrition, was denied. Needless to say, the press jumped all over this incident as proof that quotas based on race were unfair and inapplicable in a country like Brazil.

Alan and Alex Teixeira da Cunha

While the system of quotas is obviously not perfect, those who are against the system of quotas don;t seem to want to come to terms with the fact of everyday racism as it affects those Brazilians who don’t have a more European appearance. As documented in this site, Afro-Brazilians are routinely insultedface discriminatory practicesdenied employment at places of business that favor whites, and nearly invisible on modeling catwalksmagazine covers and television programs. Young, black Brazilian males are also preferred victims of police and death squads in murder rates that have been labeled genocide.

While many who argue against racial quotas are often times in favor of social quotas that would also benefit poor whites, they don’t take into account one important fact. If Brazil is a country where one incurs privileges or disadvantages based on appearance (and it clearly is), how will this play out in the job market? If there are two poor people, one black and one white, who get into college through social quotas (based on social class) and not racial quotas, when the time comes to apply for a job and the two have equal qualifications, in a racist society, who gets the job? Just something to think about…
Also, considering the accusation that allowing students who make it to college through the quota system will lower the high standards of colleges and universities, a 2008 study released by the Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (Institute of Applied Economic Research) showed that in four federal universities (Federal University of Bahia, University of Brasília, State University of Rio de Janeiro and UNICAMP), quota students performed nearly as well or better than students who entered college without quotas. This once again shows that simply testing a student does not necessarily prove or negate a student’s ability to succeed in the path of education.

Although the debate and war over quotas has been waged for a decade now with both sides claiming losses and victories in court and legislative battles, recent victories for those who support the quota system in the April Supreme Court decision upholding the system and the recent Quota Law signed President Dilma Rouseff have ignited the flames of the battle once again. Below are just a few examples. The first  photo below is a summary of the reasons pro-quota supporters believe the system is not a simple favor but rather debt Brazil owes to descendants of African slaves. The English translation is below the photo. Further down the page are various photos taken from anti-quota rallies on Avenida Paulista, one of the main business districts in the city of São Paulo, and in front of the Palácio do Planalto in Brasília, the workplace of the Brazilian president.

Pro-Quotas: Quotas as an historic debt summary
Quotas is not a favor. It is a debt!
Read this! And know history before giving your opinion
Do you agree? Share this!

In the 19th century, when Europeans started to colonize the black continent, they found jusitifications for imposing in the colonized people its laws and ways of living. One of these justifications was the erroneous idea that blacks were an inferior “race” and they went on to apply discrimination with a basis in race in its colnies to secure determined “rights” to the European settlers and colonizers.

Even after May 13, 1888, when slavery was abolished, the idea of superior race amongst whites continued, being that blacks were excluded from the job market and were obliged to live in favelas (shantytowns). Also because of this reason, black people are found in every type of the most degrading work, living in the worst houses, eating low quality food, with no means of going to college, no health care, no respect surviving with meager social programs and the like. 

Because of this idea implemented in the past by whites that blacks were an inferior race, today’s result is:

  1. Among the inhabitants of favelas (shantytowns) of the country, the majority are black
  2. Among the victims of police violence, the overwhelming majority are poor, black youth
  3. In this picture, it’s not difficult to perceive that the poor youth of the majority black periphery (outskirts, favelas) are preferential victims of the allurement to crime that leads to death or jail
  4. Unemployment is the greatest and most irreversible amongst blacks
  5. When employed, blacks receive smaller salaries than non-blacks
  6. Among women, that are already discriminated against in the job market in relation to men, the smallest salaries are earned by black women
  7. Among university students, blacks are a small minority
Anti-Quota protests
Signs: Quotas: The famous Brazilian way, Corruption+ Education
 Sign: 50% is Abuse
 Quotas: The famous Brazilian way
Signs: If you repeat a lie many times it becomes truepolicy, Veto, Dilma!, Quotas is not the solution; We want education, 10% of GDP for Education, Are you afraid of educating the people?
Sign: If you repeat a lie many times it becomes truepolicy
 Sign: For less quotas and more education
 Sign: Quality public education doesn’t generate the necessity of quotas
 Sign (in black): Racial quota is prejudice

* – In this photo, activists wear masks associated with the story of the Brazilian slave Anastácia. In the 18th century, Anastácia was sentenced to wearing a mask for refusing to maintain sexual relations with her master. The mask would only be removed when she submitted to his wishes. Today, her story remains a symbol of resistance for many Brazilian social movements, particularly those involving black women.

Source: VejaR7Terra, G1, UnB, Terra, FolhaBBC Brasil, Terra, Fernandes, Anamélia Lima Rocha. “POLÍTICA DE COTAS RACIAIS PARA INGRESSO EM INSTITUIÇÕES PÚBLICAS DE ENSINO SUPERIOR: AUSÊNCIA DE POLÍTICA PÚBLICA – O debate inconcluso do Projeto de Lei n.º 73/99, e seus apensados, que dispõe sobre o ingresso nas universidades federais e estaduais”.

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 anything, Black Americans in the USA should have taught Black Americans in Brazil that Affirmative action is not what Black Americans need. Ask for money to support Black colleges, not Black tuitions.

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