Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – “Brown vs. Board of Education” is without doubt the single best known judicial decision in the history of the world. On May 17, 1954, a unanimous United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) held that segregated schools were inherently unequal, and hence unconstitutional. On April 26th, 2012, the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF) issued a unanimous decision that should have, for Brazil, the same effect as “Brown vs. Board” had for the U.S..
This is ironic, because had the Brazilian case (which we will call “DEM vs. UnB”) been decided by SCOTUS, the result would surely have been the exact opposite. The decision deemed constitutional a policy of the University of Brasília (UnB) that awarded a fixed quota of twenty percent of all places to incoming students, based on race.
Let us first examine the question of “affirmative action”. The phrase was invented by President Kennedy, and implemented by President Johnson in the sixties. Essentially, it consisted of measures designed to right the historical wrong of racial discrimination, which had denied African Americans the benefits of both education and employment.
Public universities in the U.S. began to institute quota systems, reserving a certain number of places for entering students who were African Americans. This generated discontent among white candidates, who claimed that racial quotas were a form of reverse discrimination. These took their claim to SCOTUS—and they won.
In a 1978 case, and again in 2003, a divided SCOTUS held that while race could be one of many allowable considerations in admission to university, an admission system using only numerical points based upon race was unconstitutional.
Clearly, under the criteria of these cases, UnB’s fixed quota of twenty percent for black and brown applicants would be held unconstitutional in the U.S.. Why has it been held constitutional in Brazil? The Curmudgeon submits that there are two overriding reasons—racism and university entrance.
Racism in Brazil is different from racism in the U.S.. Here, racism is almost always tied to class. As a rule, the darker your skin, the lower the class to which you belong. In the U.S., the division was never tied to class—skin color was determinative, no matter how rich or well educated you were.
In Brazil, admission to university is governed by the results of one single test—the “vestibular”. Brazilian universities ignore applicants’ high school grades, their extra-curricular or social activities, their athletic or musical talents, or their geographical diversity. Those who do best on the vestibular are admitted; second-best doesn’t count.
In Brazil, those who do best on the vestibular have always been those who were best prepared, at expensive private schools, affordable only by those belonging to the (white) upper classes. Middle or lower class students, who attended public high schools, simply did not receive the tools needed to succeed in passing the vestibular.
As we mentioned above, the rule of thumb is, the darker your skin, the lower your class. When you combine this with an exclusive entrance exam, the only possible way to get out of the vicious circle is to impose strict numerical quotas, to ensure that candidates whose skin is black or brown will be admitted to the elite public universities.
Unexpectedly, every single STF Justice gave a seal of approval to the “worst case” scenario from a U.S. point of view, without a single dissent. In 1954, when “Brown vs. Board” was being argued, no one expected the decision would be unanimous. But it was, and it changed the course of American life, for the better. The Curmudgeon hopes “DEM vs. UnB” will do the same for Brazil.
Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio forty-plus years ago, moved here thirty-plus years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)