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Brazil's Supreme Court upholds affirmative action in universities

KAREN JUANITA CARRILLO Special to the AmNews | 5/16/2012, 6:04 p.m.

Brazil's Supreme Court has confirmed the nation's establishment of university quotas to promote educational opportunities for Afro Brazilians.

The decision came down on April 26 and serves as a victory for Afro Brazilian civil rights groups, which have been challenging the nation's longstanding delusion that because of its tradition of "miscigenaco," or racial mixing, it had established a racial democracy where everyone was equal.

Back in 2004, the Universidade de Brasilia (UnB) created a quota program designed to reserve 20 percent of its admission slots for Afro Brazilians, mixed-race and indigenous students. The school even took photographs of Black applicants and had those photos judged by a secret panel to determine if a UnB applicant was truly, phenotypically of African descent.

However, Sen. Demosthenes Torres and his right-wing Democratas Party, who argue that quotas violate the nation's principle of racial equality, challenged the UnB quota system. Another noted challenge has been brought by a student against the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), who was not able to enter the school, he said, because his admission slot had been taken by a person of color. The UFRGS reserves 30 percent of its admission slots for students who attend public high schools, and one half of that 30 percent is set aside for students of color.

The university quota systems are based on a clause in the Brazilian constitution of 1988 and were first enforced in the state universities of Rio de Janeiro in the year 2000. The federal law, Law 10.558/2002, known as the "Quota Law," was enacted in November of 2002.

Supreme Court Justice Ricardo Lewandowski, who delivered the unanimous 10-member court opinion in the case, noted that the quota program was enabling, rather than discriminatory. "Our legislators had to take this position," the Brazilian newsmagazine CartaCapital recorded him as stating. "The neutral state of affairs that we have had for so many years has been a great failure."

Even if everyone is supposed to be equal before the law in accord with the Brazilian constitution, the fact is that inequality is still in practice, Justice Lewandowski further noted. Afro Brazilians are so rarely in positions of social prominence because of the "historic discrimination" they have suffered; small gestures, like the university quota system, are ways to help compensate for this inequality.

"This is a victory for the Black Movement. We have made it so that affirmative action is no longer up for debate," declared Edson France, president of the Unio de Negros pela Igualdade, after the decision was announced.

Even today, some 124 years after Brazil became one of the last countries in the Americas to abolish African slavery, the life prospects of Afro Brazilians are markedly less than those of their white compatriots. A recent study from the Nucleo de Estudos da Populaco and the Universidade Estadual de Campinas found that Afro Brazilian children die from malnutrition at a rate 90 percent higher than their white counterparts, and as adults, Afro Brazilians die from TB at a rate that is 70 percent higher than white Brazilians. Previously, the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistica reported that more than half of the respondents to their "Survey of the Ethno-Racial Characteristics of the Population" believed that skin color or race influences the trajectory of people's lives in Brazil.