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At the University of Brasilia (3:11) Excerpt from film "Brazil in Black and White", September 2007
University leaders and students discuss their differing views on the new racial quota system at the University of Brasilia.

Country: Brazil

South America Brazil map

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Guiding Questions
  1. What is the proportion of white to black students at the University of Brasilia? How does that compare to the overall population of Brazil?

  2. What are the major arguments proposed in favor and against a racial quota system in Brazil's universities?

  3. From what you know of civil rights legislation and affirmative action programs in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, do you think a racial quota system in Brazil is likely to alleviate Brazil's racial problems, or to make them worse?
Background Essay
Conversations about affirmative action in Brazil have generated strong opinions on both sides, much as they have in the United States. The fact that only two percent of the student population at the prestigious University of Brasilia is black - although the black population of Brazil is around fifty percent - has been used as evidence in support of affirmative action. Others, however, put forth strong arguments against the adoption of affirmative action policies.

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.

Tuition-free and funded by the federal government, the University of Brasilia's sprawling campus has long been a training ground for Brazil's future leaders.

Until quotas were implemented, the student body here was up to 98 percent white - though whites are barely half of the overall population.

The denial of racism is one of the ways people fight the quota system.

People say, "Everyone is happy!"

"We have soccer and carnival."

And while this is going on, the blacks pile up in the slums and jails.

And the university that should be for everyone is reserved for an elite white minority.

This policy will not produce equality in higher education.

This policy will produce a society divided into whites and blacks.

Professor Yvonne Maggie was the driving force behind a petition signed by more than 100 artists and academics who argue that Brazil's experiment with U.S. style affirmative action will inevitably lead to U.S. style racism.

Brazil has struggled to be a society that is not defined by race.

But this tradition is being undermined by the new legislation because the new legislation creates two groups with different legal rights.

And when you do this, you pit one group against the other.

To participate in the quota program, applicants must do something most have never been required to do - identify themselves as black.

Look, 21 places under the quota system.

You have to sign up as a black, then go have a photo taken to see if you qualify for the quota.

A lot of kids from private schools do this, while kids here don't know about it.

I'm going to see if I can "pass" as a black.

I think you're going along with something you are really against, just because you think you'll benefit.

No, I'm not against the quotas.

You think it's a good thing then?

A system that divides people into black and white?

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

University of Brasilia

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