Can We Lean Anything from Brazil about Remediating the Lingering Consequences of Racial Discrimination?

This post marks the end of my guest appearance on Concurring Opinions, and as usual, I’ve enjoyed my run.

I sometimes show the 2007 documentary Brazil in Black and White in my Law in Film seminar to give my students some exposure to how other racialized countries handle the difficult business of mediating the lingering consequences of slavery and de jure race discrimination. I also have them read Tanya K. Hernandez, 2005 article To Be Brown in Brazil: Education & Segregation Latin American Style. Her recent book, Racial Subordination in Latin America: The Role of the State, Customary Law and the New Civil Rights Response (Cambridge Univ. Press, Oct. 2012), contains an even more nuanced discussion.

Like the United States, affirmative action in Brazil is a controversial issue. I remember having a deja vu like experience when I visited the country in 2007 and heard some of the discussions. Opponents’ arguments sounded very much like the arguments I had heard in the U.S. years earlier. But there are important differences between the two countries. Notions of race are far more complex and confusing in Brazil as the documentary and a recent article in The Economist explain. Further, unlike the United States public universities in Brazil are more prestigious than private schools. In addition, “Brazil’s racial preferences differ from America’s in that they are narrowly aimed at preventing a tiny elite from scooping a grossly disproportionate share of taxpayer-funded university places. Privately-educated (ie, well-off) blacks do not get a leg-up in university admissions.”

The notion of racial quotas never went over well in the United States, and most observers believe that our current weak form of affirmative action, most apparent in university admissions, is on its last leg. As we anxiously waited this term to see what the Supremes will do with the latest case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Court agreed last month to hear another higher education affirmative action case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. The issue in that case is “whether Michigan voters in 2006 had the legal right to bar the state’s public colleges and universities from considering race or ethnicity in admissions.” Briefs in the case can be found on SCOTUSblog. Whatever the outcome in Fisher, it seems clear that the ongoing controversy over affirmative action in higher education will not be resolved this term.

This is all the more reason to consider Brazil’s struggles in this area. We should ask ourselves why Brazil, a mixed-race democracy, with no history of “Jim Crow” or formal segregation laws post emancipation, still evolved into a society where 125 years later white or very light-skinned residents are generally better off than their dark-skinned counterparts. Despite claims that America is now post-racial, as opposed to post-civil rights, our increasingly “intermingled” socio-economic hierarchy looks more like the overwhelmingly non-white Brazil; dark-skinned residents disproportionately concentrated on the bottom and white or very light-skinned residents disproportionately concentrated at the top.

In Brazil it is too early to determine whether affirmative action efforts will help bridge the divide without worsening race relations. In the meantime, we Americans need to rethink how to address the persistent racial divide, looking for new tools to deal with variations on old problems. I hope in 2079, 125 years after Brown, that while America may physically look more like Brazil, its socio-economic breakdown will look more balanced.


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3 Responses

  1. Justin Hansford says:

    Great post. I lived in Brazil for awhile during my short stint as a musician, and one big difference that jumped out to me and that I think informs this discussion is the pervasive class narrative that dominates conversations on inequality in Brazil (I was there during the Lula years). Brazil spent most of the 20th century discussing class, and is late to the party in discussing race, and coherent approaches on issues like Affirmative Action in Higher Ed are still taking shape. Vice versa here in the US; a large amount of the 20th century was spent facing up to realities on race, and only recently with the occupy movement for example are class realities and economic inequality finding their way into the national conversation. It would be great to see the US class discussion informed by Brazil (Imagine the Bolsa Familia as a poverty reduction problem in the South Side of Chicago); and it also would be great to see the Brazil race discussion informed by Critical Race Theory

  2. AndyK says:

    Justin: Why? You make a conclusory statement about the fact that it would be good to infect Brasil with Critical Race Theory and I wonder why? What good has CRS done in America that Brasil has yet to achieve?

    I should think that race / class consciousness are two different levels of Marxist discussion, and if you have one, you don’t *need* the other. Having two competing theories just creates animosity between upper-class minorities and lower-class non-minorities.

    Why create additional fault lines for societal anger and hatred? The legacy of CRS in the United States, to my lights, has been violence and death, and I worry for Brasil that we would seek to destabilize their country with these ideas.

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    Regarding the Economist article, I confess that the focus on public university admissions made me somewhat confused about what causes what. I live in a self-proclaimed ethnically homogeneous country (aside from some minorities like Ainu, Dowa and non-naturalized Koreans, Chinese etc.). As in Brazil, the top universities here in Japan are public and cheaper — and very tough to get into if you don’t come from a wealthy family. Ethnicity has nothing to do with it. The magazine story mentions that more than two-thirds of polled Brazilians favored color-blind university preferences for the poor. Maybe that’s a better intuition than to focus on race, after all — for this specific problem, at any rate (not necessarily about all forms of social inequality).

    Coincidentally I’m preparing to teach Machiavelli’s Discourses in one of my seminars next week, with a bit of John McCormick’s quite interesting Machiavellian Democracy (CUP 2011). The Discourses are intensely about class conflict, and how it can be a constructive thing if the right institutions are in place. McCormick contrasts it quite favorably with the “Guicciardinian,” aristocratic sort of republicanism bandied about these days by Pettit, Pocock, Skinner, Sandel et al. The Occupy movement brought class back into the conversation, although ultimately in a rather limp way. I think it would be worth looking into whether it’s simply the Cold War that made this topic so taboo in the US, or whether there were other factors as well (myths of social mobility?).