On April 9th, Duke undergraduates and “Cost of Opportunity” project members Vanessa Aguedelo and Joseph Beck presented data that suggested that Brazilian education remains both extremely difficult to access and more crucial to employment than in its developed counterparts. Joe Beck gave an overview of Brazilian education politics noting “most [university] students were wealthy and white likely due to implicit biases in the application process as well as the lifetime costly preparation that’s involved for the Brazilian version of the SAT.” Aguedelo acknowledged critics who see a tenuous relationship between higher education completion and employment prospects but countered that though Brazil’s graduation rate remains below that of other OECD countries, employment rates for university graduates are higher in Brazil than in OECD countries. On the whole, noted Aguedelo, Brazilians university graduates earn 157 percent more than their high-school graduate counterparts. This contradiction echoes the US educational dilemma, where graduation becomes more costly but also crucial to accessing 9 of 10 US jobs.
Despite these historic difficulties, affirmative action processes implemented at the university and state levels since 2003 and the national level since 2012 have proven effective in increasing the percentage of Black and mixed raced Brazilians in higher education.
Despite these gains, Brazilian affirmative action’s main mechanism-reserving spots for Afro-Brazilian and indigenous students within slots already designated for graduates of Brazil’s public school system-has highlighted racial-ethnic tensions through its quota verification commissions. Joe Beck specifically highlighted the case of Matheus Moros-who as a self-identified mixed race Brazilian university applicant, accused a “a commission of six white people” of annulling his self-identification
While some self-classified pardo applicants base their identity in family ancestry, the commissions use a combination of phenotype and racial consciousness to validate self-reported categories. While the University of Brasilia suspended such commissions amid controversy in 2007, they returned among reports of widespread quota fraud and then-interim president Michel Temer´s Planning Ministry expanded them to federal job quotas in August 2016. Though at the time the policies received criticisms- from the right and left– the college-prep and Black Movement organization EDUCAFRO boasted that such policies have prevented 1500 fraudulent quota enrollments in Brazil´s universities. In a televised 2018 debate on the Federal University of Goias’ UFG-TV, Goias Federal Institute (IFG) professor Janira Sodre Miranda recognized the difficult balance between maintaining the internationally recognized right of self-identification and the necessity to weed out “false information” from those who-wittingly or unwittingly-presented themselves as mixed-race or Black without having suffered “the effects of the Brazilian racial operational system.”
These long-standing controversies continue while Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro has promised to reverse the country’s affirmative action policies and the PT governments’ educational initiatives more broadly. But Black Movements in the last month and a half have also received good news backed by robust results.Black news outlet Alma Preta reported the Brazilian Lower Chamber’s president Rodrigo Maia told Black movement leaders in a March meeting that while he supported exclusively class-based quotas he acknowledged the “positive results” of racial affirmative action policies which boosted Black university participation from 2.2 percent in 2000 to 9.3 percent in 2017 (in 2011 the number peaked around 11 percent). Recent results from Maia’s home state of Rio de Janeiro- reported by center-right traditional media giant O Globo- suggest those coming admitted through quotas-despite facing initial suspicion and cultural barriers- drop out far less than those from the regular admissions processes(24.6 percent to 34.6 percent) and even maintain a slight edge (4.65 to 5.88 percent) in Brazil’s most prestigious programs ( such as engineering, law, medicine degrees).
Maia reiterated “now is not the time to reverse direction” on the policies, which come up for renewal or termination in 2022. While such assurances may merely emerge from the legislative leader’s rocky relationship with Bolsonaro’s administration, the stance falls in line with his socially conciliatory legislative style on hot button cultural issues even as he pushes deregulatory economic and budgetary “reforms.” Quotas look to survive in law, even if truncated and underfunded.
Putting the legislative politics and economics aside, Agueledo and Beck ended by questioning whether we should even rely on employment and graduation rates to evaluate quota values. They asked listeners to also value university accesses’ intangible benefits such as a student’s discovery of their own racial identity during their college years.
Readers can see Aguedelo and Beck’s full five-minute talk below: