By Lucy Jordan, Senior Contributing Reporter
BRASÍLIA, BRAZIL – The senate in Brazil last week passed a bill that requires prestigious federal universities to reserve fifty percent of their places for public school students, and increases the number of spaces allotted to black, mixed-race and indigenous students. It is expected that President Dilma Rousseff will ratify the law next week.
The eleven percent of students who attend Brazil’s expensive private high schools – who are mostly white – are generally much better prepared for the notoriously competitive federal university entrance exam or ‘vestibular.’
Public universities in Brazil are heavily subsidized and cost little to attend, while private universities are much more expensive and in general less academically respected.
The law states half of the places reserved will be allocated to students with family income equal to or less than 1.5 times minimum wage, and of these students, priority will be given to blacks, mixed-race and indigenous students, depending on the racial make-up of each Brazilian state, a document from the senate explained.
Globo calculated that the law would result in a 128 percent increase in the number of places in Rio de Janeiro’s four federal universities set aside for students of African or indigenous descent.
The U.S.-style affirmative action has been a controversial topic in Brazil, where critics argue that it is inappropriate, as racism was never institutionalized through means of segregation, and the majority of the country is mixed-race and do not necessarily define themselves as black or white.
Senator Aloysio Nunes, who voted against the bill, said that the measure “imposes a straitjacket on universities,” and that entrance should be decided on merit alone, according to a Senate report.
However, there are clear social and class divisions along racial lines in Brazil, where more than 50 percent of Brazil’s 191 million inhabitants declare themselves to be of African origin, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).
The number of blacks in high-status professions remains disproportionately low, and as Larry Rohter, in his book Brazil on the Rise, explains, “Brazilians with black skin are far more likely to be killed by police than their white countrymen, earn less money, have shorter life expectancy, and have less educational opportunities than whites.”
David Santos, a Franciscan friar who heads Educafro, a lobby group fighting for the labor rights of blacks and indigenous people, told The Rio Times that the bill was “the culmination of a struggle of thirteen years, for the rights of blacks and the poor to have access to quality, free public universities.”
Mr. Santos answered critics of affirmative action by citing the success of students who he said had entered university because of existing quota programs, with scores on the vestibular exams that were as much as forty percent lower than those of non-quota applicants.
“Now, having had access to the same teachers, same laboratories, they are achieving grades that are greater than or equal to those of the children of the elites,” he said. “Clearly the vestibular system, as a meritocracy, is unfair.”
Gisele Canavezzi Goren, a Brazilian currently living in Portland, Oregon, said that while in an ideal world quotas would not exist, at present the public education system in Brazil is not adequately equipped to allow low-income students a fair chance to attend federal university.
“The quota system is only a palliative,” she said. “The government should invest in basic education of quality, with the most effective methodologies, career plans, incentives for teachers and fully equipped schools.”
Unfortunately there does exist racial prejudice in Brazil,” she said, adding that she had experienced prejudice firsthand in Brazil. “The image of the black person is associated with poverty, manual labor, ugliness, incompetence and criminality.”