Can We Lean Anything from Brazil about Remediating the Lingering Consequences of Racial Discrimination?
I sometimes show the 2007 documentary Brazil in Black and White in my Law in Film seminar to give my students some exposure to how other racialized countries handle the difficult business of mediating the lingering consequences of slavery and de jure race discrimination. I also have them read Tanya K. Hernandez, 2005 article To Be Brown in Brazil: Education & Segregation Latin American Style. Her recent book, Racial Subordination in Latin America: The Role of the State, Customary Law and the New Civil Rights Response (Cambridge Univ. Press, Oct. 2012), contains an even more nuanced discussion.
Like the United States, affirmative action in Brazil is a controversial issue. I remember having a deja vu like experience when I visited the country in 2007 and heard some of the discussions. Opponents’ arguments sounded very much like the arguments I had heard in the U.S. years earlier. But there are important differences between the two countries. Notions of race are far more complex and confusing in Brazil as the documentary and a recent article in The Economist explain. Further, unlike the United States public universities in Brazil are more prestigious than private schools. In addition, “Brazil’s racial preferences differ from America’s in that they are narrowly aimed at preventing a tiny elite from scooping a grossly disproportionate share of taxpayer-funded university places. Privately-educated (ie, well-off) blacks do not get a leg-up in university admissions.”
The notion of racial quotas never went over well in the United States, and most observers believe that our current weak form of affirmative action, most apparent in university admissions, is on its last leg. As we anxiously waited this term to see what the Supremes will do with the latest case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Court agreed last month to hear another higher education affirmative action case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. The issue in that case is “whether Michigan voters in 2006 had the legal right to bar the state’s public colleges and universities from considering race or ethnicity in admissions.” Briefs in the case can be found on SCOTUSblog. Whatever the outcome in Fisher, it seems clear that the ongoing controversy over affirmative action in higher education will not be resolved this term.
This is all the more reason to consider Brazil’s struggles in this area. We should ask ourselves why Brazil, a mixed-race democracy, with no history of “Jim Crow” or formal segregation laws post emancipation, still evolved into a society where 125 years later white or very light-skinned residents are generally better off than their dark-skinned counterparts. Despite claims that America is now post-racial, as opposed to post-civil rights, our increasingly “intermingled” socio-economic hierarchy looks more like the overwhelmingly non-white Brazil; dark-skinned residents disproportionately concentrated on the bottom and white or very light-skinned residents disproportionately concentrated at the top.
In Brazil it is too early to determine whether affirmative action efforts will help bridge the divide without worsening race relations. In the meantime, we Americans need to rethink how to address the persistent racial divide, looking for new tools to deal with variations on old problems. I hope in 2079, 125 years after Brown, that while America may physically look more like Brazil, its socio-economic breakdown will look more balanced.