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Affirmative Action and the USA (3:25) Excerpt from film "Brazil in Black and White", September 2007
Two American NAACP lawyers arrive to advise the Brazilian civil rights organizations, leading to a discussion of differences between race relations in the U.S. and Brazil, and questioning why this particular American import is resented when so many other Americanisms are enthusiastically welcomed.

Country: Brazil

South America Brazil map

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Guiding Questions
  1. In what ways is the situation of Brazilian blacks worse than it was for American blacks during the days of Jim Crow?

  2. The NAACP lawyer mentions a "past of racism and discrimination" in Brazil. What do you know about this history? What are the similarities and differences between the Brazilian and American histories in respect to slavery and racism?

  3. Based on the American experience, what changes can be reasonably expected to be seen in Brazil within a decade as a result of affirmative action?
Background Essay
As they started looking into an affirmative action plan for Brazil, civil rights leaders in Brazil requested help from the NAACP and from American activists experienced with affirmative action policies in the United States. In Brazil, racial discrimination is complicated by the high proportion and great variety of people of mixed race. Clear racial definitions had been avoided in Brazil until the adoption of affirmative action quotas, which is the basis of many of the criticisms of the program.

Black Brazilians and African Americans in the United States face many similar challenges. For example, Afro-Brazilians are not equally represented with other Brazilians in higher education, law, medicine, government, and business leadership. To remedy this pattern of injustice, Brazil adopted the use of affirmative action. Affirmative action is the encouragement of increased representation of women and minorities in schools and jobs.

Racial inequality in Brazil is centuries old. Between 1551 and 1830, Brazil imported more slaves than any other South American country (4.5 million) and only abolished slavery in 1888, later than any other country in the Western hemisphere. Slavery defined Brazil in many ways:

  • Slaves maintained African religions, cultures, and languages, forging a unique Afro-Brazilian culture.

  • Most white settlers immigrated alone, leading to substantial, generally tolerated interracial relationships and a high proportion of mixed-race children.

  • After slavery was abolished, racial segregation was not legally imposed. However, emancipated slaves faced stiff competition for jobs from European and Asian immigrants.

  • Brazil became a highly diverse mixture of people of various European, native, African, and Asian origins.

Until recently, Brazil prided itself on being a "racial democracy." However, advocates of affirmative action argue that this "racial democracy" is a myth. Afro-Brazilians have typically attended lower-quality public schools, where they were poorly prepared for the national university admission exam. They generally have poorer health and housing, lower wages, and fewer years of schooling, than white Brazilians.

Affirmative action in Brazil's universities began in 2003 when the prestigious Universidade do Estato do Rio de Janeiro announced it would reserve a specified number of its places for black students; other universities and national legislation soon followed suit. As of 2007, the racial quota system for Brazil's universities specified that 20% of places for incoming freshmen would be reserved for Afro-Brazilians. Overall, the beneficiaries of these policies have outperformed the low expectations of affirmative action opponents.

Since 2003, affirmative action programs have expanded to include quotas for Afro-Brazilians, indigenous people, and women in politics and economic life in Brazil. Despite these developments, affirmative action is still highly controversial.

In Rio, civil rights attorney Humberto Adami heads legal efforts to secure the rights of Afro-Brazilians.

We grew up believing the myth that we were equal to everyone. But the statistics in Brazil show this isn't true. This country is composed of a pyramid and the base is black. The higher up the pyramid you go, the more the country looks like Denmark.

He has made it his mission to attack discrimination in corporate Brazil through class action lawsuits.

I'm bringing litigation against 5 major private banks, who employ only 2% Afro-Brazilians. These numbers are worse than what you could encounter in the United States under Jim Crow or in South Africa under apartheid. The racism here is exactly the same or worse. But everyone denies it or argues that it doesn't exist. So it's an enemy that's very hard to fight.

Adami is calling in reinforcements - veterans of affirmative action law. He's heading to the airport to meet two special consultants arriving from New York.

Affirmative action began 40 years ago in the United States. What were the solutions they found to these same problems that we might be able to use here?

Victor Bolden and Melissa Woods are lawyers with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, one of the most important civil rights groups in the U.S.

We know the NAACP passed by these problems many years ago, so we want to have examples how to solve this.

Sure, we'll talk about it. I don't know if we've solved anything. I think litigation leads to more litigation.

Brazilian society imports McDonald's, hot dogs, television, Fox, and they never complained about those American-isms. So, the only thing that people complain is when you see affirmative actions to benefit black Brazilians.

In the United States, the black population is 12%. Here it's 54%.

The reality is, certainly in the United States and in Brazil, is a past of racial discrimination and racism. And in the United States it wasn't simply directed at poor people, it was directed specifically at black people.

Related Links
Brazil in Black & White on PBS.org

CIA World Factbook: Brazil

Library of Congress Country Study - Brazil

IBASE - Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analyses http://www.ibase.br/modules.php?name=Conteudo&pid=379

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