Brazil's Racial Revolution

One day, some years ago, Brazilian Bishop Dom Jose Maria Pires sat down to lunch and a pile of unread mail. One letter, from black seminarians, caught his eye. It asked Pires to speak about the plight of blacks in the Roman Catholic Church. Racism was still a tender subject, and affirmative action practically unheard of. Pires, Brazil's ranking black clergyman, was delighted. "How nice that our brothers are taking up the question of race," he said out loud. "But Dom Jose," his housekeeper protested, "you aren't black--you're a bishop!" she blurted out.

Pires is retired now, but still enjoys telling the story, which is quintessentially Brazilian. With 46 percent of its 175 million people tracing their ancestry to Africa, Brazil is often labeled the largest black nation after Nigeria. But Brazilians have been loath to see themselves that way. After half a millennium of mingling by Europeans, Africans, Indians and Asians, this New World nation sports a hundred faces and more colors than Crayola. Brazilians use scores of terms to describe their color, from cinnamon to cafe au lait. True, racial prejudice was rife and occasionally violent in the past. But because discrimination never became law--and because fame or fortune (or a bishop's mantle) could lighten the burden of color--Brazilians talked themselves into believing they had achieved "racial democracy." This was no empty slogan--it went to the heart of what makes Brazil Brazil. Now, thanks to the new politics of race, Latin America's most culturally diversified society may be changing in ways few had ever imagined.

After years of stale debate, and legislative nonstarters, affirmative action has finally come of age in Brazil. Though the initiative started before him, the new left-wing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took office promising to pay Brazil's huge "social debt" to the dispossessed. Last month he created a racial-equality committee; earlier he'd ordered three ministries to recruit blacks to fill at least 20 percent of senior posts. So Paulo upped Brasilia's ante, holding 30 percent of city jobs for blacks and pardos, as Brazilians call many lighter-toned nonwhites. Congress is now weighing a racial-equality statute that would boost racial preferences nationwide. There is even a clause that would require TV stations to hire blacks for soap operas and commercials.

Most importantly, perhaps, Brazil is beginning to integrate its public universities. The giant state university of Rio (also known as Uerj) is leading the way. It has blocked off 40 percent of the 2003 freshman class for blacks, and 50 percent for public-school students. But the policy--a clumsy scheme, thrown together on orders from the populist legislature--provoked a backlash. Some 300 white students filed reverse-discrimination suits. Worse, many white applicants claimed to be black. "Everyone supports affirmative action, but this was ridiculous," says Catholic University law professor Manoel Messias Peixinho, who represented dozens of plaintiffs. Uerj has since halved its quotas for blacks --and public schoolers, but educators remain undaunted. "The school has gained diversity," university rector Nilcea Freire told NEWSWEEK. "We are a laboratory for all of Brazil."

To many Brazilians, the experiment is long overdue. While some 80 million Brazilians call themselves negro or pardo (black or brown), precious few find their way to the commanding heights of business, civil service or academia. Blacks and browns abound only in bottom-tier jobs such as construction and garbage collection. Brazil's National Congress, one of the largest in the democratic world, is as white as winter. The private sector is not much better. Negros and pardos earn less than half the wages of their white peers--and the gap is getting worse.

Not everyone is comfortable with Brazil's new racial policies. Hidebound nationalists still dismiss affirmative action as an exotic import, good for the United States, perhaps, but ill-suited to the multihued Brazilian demographic. Even some outright champions of equality balk at quotas, for fear that casting rigid racial categories will only make racism worse. "Look at South Africa and Zimbabwe," says Peter Fry, an anthropologist and longtime scholar of Brazilian race relations. "I don't think that societies that have been formally racialized fare well."

Still, without drastic changes, many activists believe power and privilege will always remain in a few fair hands. One of the most scandalous examples is higher education. Brazil's government-run universities are among the best in Latin America, and are the training ground for the business and governing elite. They are also the bastion of the white and well-heeled: less than one student in five is black. On paper, the public university is a perfect democracy. Anyone may enroll and tuition is free. In fact most don't have a prayer. The college-entrance exam, Brazil's notorious vestibular, is a very tough test. Only those who study in elite prep schools, or who take pricey pre-vestibular tutorials, stand a chance of gaining high scores. What makes the contest especially perverse is that once accepted to a public university, children of the elite then study free of charge. "The government hands over taxpayer money to universities that serve the rich," says David Raimundo dos Santos, a Franciscan friar who heads a black educational support group named Educafro. Santos calls the vestibular the "perfect tool" for preserving Brazil's white-run status quo.

To try to level the playing field, Educafro sponsors pre-vestibular tutorials for poor and black students in Rio and So Paulo. Rio high-school senior Dayane Rangel, who is 18 and black, joined one, hoping to make up for her precarious school curriculum. For lack of teachers, her school canceled classes in history, chemistry and geography. "My English professor is retiring and the math teacher had a stroke," she says. "Without the tutorial, I don't stand a chance."

For students like Rangel, a system of preferences seems only fair. But can Brazil's new racial politics survive? The next move may lie with the Brazilian Supreme Court, which is currently weighing two key cases: one on the constitutionality of racial quotas and another brought by prep schools challenging the university quotas favoring public schools. A cautious body, the high court is expected to hew to a narrow middle course, perhaps giving a moderate endorsement to preferences. But Brazilians may have the final word on racial equality.

Until about a year ago, mere mention of affirmative action could cause a public row or send lawyers into a feeding frenzy. "People shouted and accused each other of racism, and no one had the faintest idea what they were talking about," says Elielma Machado, an expert in affirmative action, who is completing a doctoral thesis in anthropology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Now, she says, tempers have eased and the debate is more focused. "We have all learned to see more clearly," she says. For a society that had a hard time even seeing itself in the mirror, that's already a tremendous advance.