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  Web Editor:
  Vernellia R. Randall
Professor of Law
The University of Dayton
Web Editor

October 2, 2001

Multiracial Brazil Planning Quotas for Blacks

New York TIMES


ÃO PAULO, Brazil, Sept. 27 - Brazil has the largest black population outside Africa, but black Brazilians have long complained of being kept at the bottom of the ladder. Now, in response, the government is proposing racial quotas in universities, Civil Service jobs and even television soap operas.

Applying quotas in Brazil promises to be even more complicated than it was in the United States. In a society that has more than 300 terms to designate skin color, racial categories are much more elastic than in the United States, making it difficult to determine who is black and who is not.

In last year's census, only 6 percent of the population identified themselves as black, a low number that advocacy groups attribute to discrimination and a poor racial self- image. An additional 40 percent defined themselves as "pardo," a much broader term used to describe dark- skinned people, or "mulato" or "mestiço," the words applied to people of mixed European and African ancestry.

As might be expected in a striving multiracial society of 170 million people, the sweeping Racial Equality Statute before the Brazilian Congress has ignited an emotional national debate. Opponents of the plan say it would foment division and dis like the term "affirmative action" as inappropriate for Brazil.

"It is necessary to be prudent in importing explicitly American guidelines," Manolo Florentino, a history professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, wrote in an essay last month. He added that the plan could backfire, increasing rather than easing racial tensions.

The Brazilian Congress is considering a proposal that would establish quotas for black actors in television programs, movies, the theater and commercials. The plan, which has already been approved by a committee of the lower house but is opposed by directors, playwrights and advertising agencies, would require blacks or mixed-race actors to compose 25 percent of the cast of any entertainment offering, rising to 40 percent in commercials.

Black Brazilians are almost invisible on television except in menial or exotic roles and "the networks and ad agencies have never on their own done anything to improve this situation," said Joel Zito Araújo, author of "The Negation of Brazil," a study of racial attitudes in the news media.

One result, he added, is "a dominant cultural aesthetic of whitening that is harmful to the multiracialism that is the reality of Brazil and needs to be corrected."

A crucial element of the Brazilian self-image is that they live in a racial democracy, even though statistics indicate that the average monthly income of whites is more than double that of blacks. The standard response to such data is that Brazil's main problem is one of class, not race; that blacks suffer discrimination because they are poor, not because of their skin color.

Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to eliminate slavery, acting in 1888. One of the first actions the government took after achieving independence from Portugal in 1822 was to prohibit blacks, free or slaves, from attending school altogether, supposedly because they would spread contagious diseases.

Today, only 2.2 percent of Brazil's 1.6 million college students are black, even though Brazilians of African descent may constitute half the population. The government's quota plan, however, would reserve 20 percent of university admissions for blacks, who are far more likely than whites to attend inferior, undefinanced public schools that do little to prepare students for college.

"Nobody in this society thinks that blacks are intelligent, so we need to be given the chance to show that we have talent and can rise to the next level," said Fabio Jacinto, 22, a messenger in São Paulo, Brazil's largest city, who hopes to become a doctor and is taking a special college preparatory course devised for black students. "If society won't offer us that opportunity, then the government must act."

The same 20 percent figure, intended to combat widespread discrimination in the workplace, would also apply to Civil Service jobs. Even today Brazilian newspapers are full of advertisements for jobs at private companies that call for a "good appearance," a phrase widely understood to mean that blacks should not apply.

"There's no point in having quotas in universities if black students can't get jobs after graduating," said Luciana Luz, 23, a bookkeeper who wants to become a psychologist. "The way things are right now, if you have two equally qualified candidates for the same job, one white and one black, the white is going to win out. It's a very clear thing, and everyone knows it."

Political parties would also be affected by the measure, thanks to a requirement that would oblige 30 percent of all candidates for public office to be black. At the moment, according to the calculations of advocacy groups, fewer than 5 percent of Brazil's senators, governors, congressional deputies and mayors are black or of mixed race.

Advocates of racial quotas brush aside complaints that they are unfair or will not work here because they are a foreign import. While they acknowledge that the social dynamics of Brazil are quite different from those of the United States, they say justice must prevail.

"When it's something that benefits the elite, they don't think twice about imitating it," said David Raimundo Santos, a Roman Catholic friar who heads Educafro, a group pushing for racial quotas in schools and jobs. "But now that we are talking about importing something that benefits the population of African descent, they say they are against it."

In the midst of the debate, the Ministry of Land Reform issued an edict this month requiring that 30 percent of its jobs henceforth be reserved for blacks and said that 20 percent of the staff of private companies bidding on or receiving contracts from the ministry must henceforth be black.

According to a DNA study by Brazilian scientists, as many as 80 percent of Brazilians have some African ancestry. Even President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has said he has "a foot in the kitchen," a slang term, considered derogatory by some blacks, that is used to describe light-skinned, apparently white people with some black origins.

"My father is black, my mother is white, and I have a grandmother who was Indian, so what does that make me?" asked Josefa Alves Amorim, 23, who aspires to become a pharmacist. "In the past, I've identified myself as Indian, but if it will help me get into college, then maybe I should start saying that I'm black."

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